Nearly every conversation with Huyền, my former (and, who knows, future) online Vietnamese teacher, throws up new linguistic surprises.
The other day, I asked her if she would mind translating a business letter into Vietnamese for me. She wouldn’t mind, she answered, but she wasn’t sure she could do it. Writing Vietnamese was not her strong suit.
I was absolutely gobsmacked. Here was a university-educated polyglot, an easy talker who runs her own successful little company – and she felt that writing her mother tongue, which she speaks every day with dozens of other native speakers, was not her strong suit? How on earth could that be?
‘Well, I’m perfectly fine with the spoken language, but written Vietnamese is quite different’, she said. ‘Much more formal.’ I realised I had actually experienced that myself: many times when I had learnt some new word, say sử dụng for ‘to use’, she would comment that, yeah, that’s correct, but it’s very formal. What we actually say is … upon which she’d teach me another word, sometimes similar (in this case dùng), sometimes entirely different. Of course, other languages too, including English, have their formal and informal registers, but it looks as if in Vietnamese, the abyss is particularly wide. (I’ve heard the same thing claimed about Tamil and Welsh.)
Anyway, Huyền was willing to give it a go. But when she sent her translation back a few days later, she suggested that I submit it to my other former Vietnamese teacher, Loan, for revision. She studies literature, and surely she would be better at this sort of language. Loan was happy to help, but as it turned out, she likewise felt that she lacked in skill: before sending her edited version back to me, she asked a university teacher for another revision.
I probably have a more than presentable letter now, which suits me fine. But the whole thing gives me a lot of pause. What’s going on here? Why do well-educated Vietnamese people feel that writing an acceptable letter is beyond their competence? Is it because of a wide difference between the formal and the everyday – with companies insisting perhaps on all business correspondence being in the choicest style? Is it because Vietnamese culture frowns more deeply upon mistakes, linguistic and otherwise, than my egalitarian Dutch culture? Is it due to a wide linguistic gulf between young Vietnamese people – outward looking, speaking and studying in English – and the establishment of the older generations, who grew up during either the war or the austere, repressive socialism that held sway for a good decade thereafter? Or is it because of something else still? I don’t know; my gob hasn’t been unsmacked yet
In today’s Skype conversation between Huyền and myself (or ‘between me and Huyền’, as Vietnamese etiquette would have it), a fresh surprise came up. But that’s for the next blogpost. For now, let me just mention that she and I (I and she) will be giving a talk about her language at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana later this month: me in person, she on screen. The title: Ten Reasons to Learn Vietnamese (and Five to Regret It).