Vietnamese (6): a bit of ngôn ngữ học

ngThe pronunciation of Vietnamese is hard for several reasons. Every syllable carries one of six tones, indicated by five special accents (à, ả, ã, á, ạ) that turn Vietnamese writing into equal parts text and score. The numerous different vowels and diphthongs are no piece of cake either. To give just one example: the language has a shorter and a longer ‘uh’ sound (spelt as â and ơ respectively).

But while these things look intimidating right from the start, something unexpectedly treacherous lurks behind the seemingly innocuous letter combination ng. As in English and other Germanic languages, this pair stands for the sound heard in sing and singer; the phonetic symbol is ŋ. In Vietnamese, however, this sound can also appear at the beginning of a word, as in ngai for ‘throne’. We don’t do that in English, or any other European language that I’m aware of for that matter. As a result, it’s surprisingly difficult for us, or for me at any rate, to distinguish words beginning with ng from those beginning with n. And since ngai and nai (‘deer’) have different meanings, ignoring the difference is not an option. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

Vietnamese (4): Flipping the flashcards, fixing the accents

5185390904_5945498ba3_bIn just under four months of – ideally – daily practice, I’ve mastered some 300 Vietnamese words.

Or have I? When I see them on my flashcards, there’s a fair chance that I recognise them and can tell what they mean. But if you were to show me words that I haven’t studied, likely as not I would believe I recognised and understood many of those also. The trouble with Vietnamese is that so many of its words look so damn similar. The letter a alone has 18 varieties, counting all the possible single and double diacritics. But my European eyes will focus on the a as such and my European brain will remember only the bare and unadorned a. I have to force them to pay heed to the scribbles above it – and sometimes even below it, as in ạ, ặ and ậ. Continue reading

Vietnamese (3): Harder than the language

vietnam-1745819_960_720“How’s your Vietnamese coming along?” people ask me, for it’s the sort of outlandish hobby that gets remembered. The answer is: so-so, could be better. I’m struggling with two problems, and I’m pretty sure that many serial language learners are familiar with them.

One is keeping up the self-discipline. I found that not too hard when I was at school, easy when I was staying in Latin America and very easy, indeed irresistible, when I was in love with a German woman. Using Duolingo, with its computer game based psychological tricks, also used to help. But studying at home from a conventional book and CD, motivated mostly by my wish to write an article in a year’s time, I find the going somewhat hard. Continue reading

Vietnamese (2): very early discoveries

adrOver 30 years ago, I studied some Danish from a book. As a result, I understand a lot of the written language, but my idea of what it sounds like is sketchy at best. That was a mistake I didn’t want to repeat with Vietnamese. So the first thing I’ve been concentrating on these past few days is pronunciation and how it relates to spelling.

The good news is that Vietnamese is much, much more consistent in this respect than is Danish (or English, or French). The not-so-great news is that quite a few of the spelling conventions are counterintuitive. And the really bad news is that many of the Vietnamese phonemes are hard to distinguish for my European ears. Plus there’s tones, of course, but I knew that, so it’s no news, just bad. Continue reading

Vietnamese (1): why, and how to begin

vietnamese-alphabetAttending the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki, late last month, has inspired me to do a bold and daring thing: start learning Vietnamese. While the language may appear small in comparison to its northern neighbour, Chinese, it actually has no fewer than 80 million speakers. Moreover, one of these, a friendly and wonderfully efficient woman named Tuyết, happens to clean our house every fortnight, so I may have an opportunity for practice there – or at the very least, I will be able to surprise her one of these days. (Days? Make that ‘weeks’. Or ‘months’, more likely.) Continue reading