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.


You can find the other blogposts about my adventures in Vietnamese here.

3 thoughts on “Vietnamese (5): travel!

  1. Cool! I’m glad to know that you are learning Vietnamese and planning to write a chapter on Vietnamese. I would be happy to proofread it for you. I am Vietnamese, though I haven’t lived in the country for many years. I am a language enthusiast and consider myself an “oligoglot”. I am reading your Lingo and enjoying it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I’m happy to hear you’re enjoying Lingo. I will certainly take you up on your offer to proofread that chapter. The planning is to write it in late March, early April.
      (Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out which parts of your full name are the given, middle and family name. Could you help me?)


      • No problem! I look forward to reading it.

        Now your question is a good one. I have been asked that question many times (as you can see, the names on my department’s website and my home page do not match, and I go by Hoàng which people think is my middle name). I always shrug it off by saying that there is no “isomorphism” between Vietnamese and Western names, and being mathematicians we are all happy with that answer. Now that we are talking about linguistic matter, I have to be more precise :).

        The situation is quite similar to, but also different from Chinese names (though I don’t know Chinese, so you have to take what I say with a grain of salt). A typical Chinese name is X Y Z, where X is the family name. Since Chinese names have meanings, Y usually complements Z and the names Y Z stick together (though in very familiar situations the person may be called Z). So when converting the name to Western order, it is very easy for the Chinese person: it’s either YZ X or Y-Z X. Problem solved. There is no middle name for Chinese.

        Similarly, a typical Vietnamese name is X Y Z, where X is the family name and sometimes Y complements Z in meaning. But Chinese to Vietnamese is like Latin to English. We only know the meanings vaguely and all we care about is that the name “sounds good”. So a Vietnamese person usually goes by Z. But some people also go by Y Z, this happens either when the combination Y Z really “makes sense”, or when Z is a really common name and one wants to differentiate Y Z from other names such as U Z and V Z. So for many Vietnamese people, Y is the middle name but for some others, it isn’t.

        Now things get more complicated when converting to the Western order and to put it bluntly, it is simply a matter of taste. Many people will rearrange X Y Z as Z Y X, conforming to English names. But this has the undesirable effect of destroying the combination Y Z if Y and Z really goes together. For example, if Y = autumn, Z = water, then Ms. “autumn water” simply becomes Ms. “water” which is certainly less poetic. Also, following the English convention, the Y will be abbreviated or even thrown away, which makes the person’s name unrecognizable to their countrymen.
        (The names are already unrecognizable without the diacritics though :).)

        Many other people (especially French-educated ones) choose to render their name as Y Z X or Y-Z X (similar to Chinese names). This is in keeping with French names, since the French don’t have middle names and many have composite first names (e.g. Jean-Pierre, Yves-Olivier). I like this way better, but I don’t like the hyphen since it doesn’t exist in Vietnamese names. (The Chinese probably don’t care because these are pinyin, not their “real” names.)

        Oh, coming back to your question, in my name X = Lê, Y = Thái, Z= Hoàng, and you are free to rearrange it anyway you will :).


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