Vietnamese (5): travel!

Panorama_of_HanoiDid you think I had stopped learning Vietnamese? I can’t blame you, for I thought so too. But I’ve managed to rekindle the dying flame with a bold plan: I’m going to visit Vietnam. That’ll teach me! (Hopefully in the literal rather than the idiomatic sense of the phrase.) I haven’t booked the tickets yet, but the idea is to spend three weeks in Hanoi next spring. And that perspective has already given me just the motivation I needed to go back to my books. Or rather, go back to one and start on another.

The one I’ve gone back to is the Assimil course book, which I think is an excellent resource for self-study. For me, it has the right pace, the right emphasis on pronunciation and a good mix of stories, grammar, vocab and drills. (Here’s a video where professional polyglot Alexander Arguelles reviews the Assimil series.) Of course, nothing can beat learning with a teacher or immersing yourself in the language community. But if you’re on your own, Assimil is a great companion.

The book I’ve started on is How To Speak Any Language Fluently by British polyglot Alex Rawlings. It’s subtitled ‘Fun, stimulating and effective methods to help anyone learn languages faster’, and I think it lives up to its promise, because it makes many practical suggestions, based on Rawlings’s own plentiful experience in this type of endeavour. Some came as insightful surprises, like his advice to try and acquire a good, but not perfect accent – hearing you’re foreign makes people more forgiving of errors and faux-pas, both linguistic and social. Most, however, fall in the ‘I could have thought of that myself (but never did)’ category. In other words, Rawlings gives us the benefit of what he himself must have learnt through valiant trial and embarrassing error, condensing many years of effort into barely 200 pages. If you are thinking or dreaming of learning a language, this book is a highly recommendable first step to making it a reality. You’ll still have to do the hard work yourself, but you’ll get further if you do it the Rawlings way.

Following his advice, I have now spelled out my reasons for studying Vietnamese as well as my exact targets. My ambitions for the next few months are modest: I want to be able to introduce myself and greet people in a socially acceptable manner (not all that easy a feat in Vietnamese culture, I should add), order stuff in shops and restaurants, understand prices and ask for directions. Once I’m there, I want to find out how much I can learn through immersion, taking a few hours of daily classes and walking the city.

My real objective remains the same as before: to write a chapter on Vietnamese for my next book, Babel. I’m sure I could do that based on the four months of study I did nearly a year ago. But after writing some 20 chapters of Babel in the confines of my home, I think a trip will make for a welcome change.

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