It’s happened again. In spite of good resolutions, and before even making a full recovery from the previous bout, I’ve contracted a new language.
For over two years, I suffered from Vietnamese. That was for – my idea of – a good cause: the writing of a book, Babel. The experience was instructive and fascinating, but not rewarding in any practical sense. In reading, I never got beyond picture books for toddlers. My chats in Vietnamese were few, and it’s probably an overstatement to call them chats – or Vietnamese. Early last year, I beat the virus and began my recovery.
A few months later, the Polish publisher of Babel invited me to Warsaw and Cracow for some interviews. I went, I liked the places, I loved the people I met and I discovered how near they all are: if I walk out my door at 7 in the morning, I can set foot on a railway platform at Warszawa Centralna or Kraków Główny the very same evening, and still have time for a drink. How was I to resist these temptations? Once more, the language learning virus overcame my weak immune system, aka better judgement.
They say that Polish is a hard nut to crack. Or rather: we say so, the speakers of Western European languages. And it’s not a groundless claim either. Polish nouns have three genders (sexes that is, but without the organs or the fun). So does German, but German has only four cases, whereas Polish has almost twice as many: seven. And while it may not have as many verbal forms as French or Spanish, the catch is that no single verb can be said to be entirely regular – they always have something unpredictable about them. Call it a mystique. Or, if you’re more like me, call it fuckedupness obnoxiousness. Continue reading →
Last year, my friend Huyền and I gave a presentation at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana titled ’10 Reasons to Study Vietnamese (And 5 to Regret it)’. Since she couldn’t come to Europe at the time, her contribution was pre-recorded.
The whole talk, including the Q&A, has now been published. The response of the audience can’t be heard, making the thing a bit eerie, like a movie without its soundtrack. Anyway, here it is:
Lindsay Williams ‘learns, teaches, blogs, vlogs, eats, sleeps and breathes everything language’, as she herself puts it. In a word: Lindsay does languages, and that’s the name of her website. Earlier this year, she went to Vietnam. She did interviews with some Vietnamese people (including one of my teachers) about their language, she spoke to me about my learning efforts, then made the following podcast and video.
Other episodes of Lindsay’s series of Language Stories are listed here.
You can read more about my Vietnamese adventures here.
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? Continue reading →
The difference between England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles is one of the great semantic challenges of – what shall I even call it? The English-speaking part of Northwestern Europe, let’s say.
If it’s a semantic challenge in English, the language of the natives, imagine what it’s like in translation, especially in languages spoken far away. In Vietnamese for instance. It has several different names for nearby nations such as the Chinese and Koreans, but no separate word for ‘Britain’. All it has is Anh for ‘England’ (or ‘English’), and the meaning of this one syllable has had to be stretched to near-breaking point in order to express all the political subtleties.
The results are remarkable:
Great Britain: Đảo Anh – ‘English island’.
Well, England occupies over 60 percent of the island. But are the Welsh and Scots going to like it?
Great Britain, alternative translation: Đại Anh – ‘Great England’.
This may cause even worse blood among the two junior partners. ‘Great England’, forsooth! The Vietnamese too consider this second best, but that’s because the same name also refers to Daying County in China.
Strangely, Brittany – Little Britain, basically – does have a Vietnamese name of its own: the French colonisers have taught the Vietnamese to call the French region ‘Bretagne’.
United Kingdom (UK): Vương quốc Liên hiệp Anh và Bắc Ireland – ‘United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland’.
This is tricky. Shouldn’t that be ‘United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’? A bit on the long side though. For now, at any rate. Or perhaps just ‘United Kingdom’, Vương quốc Liên hiệp? I’m not sure why, but a Google search suggests this is never used. Perhaps there are some other ‘united kingdoms’ in East Asian history?
British Isles: Quần Đảo Anh – ‘English Group of Islands’ or ‘English Archipelago’.
Ireland has long disliked being subsumed under the term ‘British Isles’; being considered part of the ‘English Isles’ will go down no better there, I suspect.
Finally, you may wonder about the terminology for American English versus British English. The Vietnamese are well aware of the difference. They label the language (tiếng) of the New World Anh Mỹ, the other… Anh Anh.
Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, central Hanoi
For three wonderful weeks, I’ve explored a few neighbourhoods of Hanoi, tasted local cuisine, enjoyed the balmy weather, met several lovely people – and studied the Vietnamese language. Studied hard, and loved almost every moment of it. Yes, the food was distinctive and delightful, but one can only spend so much time eating. That left me loads of time for other delights: those feeding my linguistic hunger, which borders on the insatiable.
‘So can you chat with the Vietnamese now?’ The answer is simple and disappointing: no, or as close to no as makes no difference. I can definitely read a lot more than before, I may be able to express a few more things than I used to, but when it comes to listening – an essential ingredient of any chat – I remain an embarrassing underachiever. Continue reading →
Victories, however minor, are good for the morale. So I was very pleased this morning when I found I fully understood the short message sent to me by Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher (not in picture). That is to say, I knew ten of the eleven words (plus the emoji) and I could guess the other one. Guessing words from context is a common thing to do, even in your mother tongue sometimes, so I don’t consider that to be a stain.
Of course, I’d read and understood sentences before, but this was the first time someone actually communicated something to me in Vietnamese, and I got it; this was about something approaching real life, a micro conversation if you like.
Her message was in reply to my recommending a book (which I did in English, though the book is in German). She wrote back,
Cảm ơn bác vì quyển sách hay. Cháu sẽ đọc nó 😀
that is, ‘Thank you for the interesting book. I will read it :D’ My sparkling repartee was không sao – ‘don’t mention it’, ‘you’re welcome’. Still, I would say that under a lenient definition, that qualifies as a genuine dialogue in Vietnamese, with the required two participants.
Next stop: understanding simple spoken sentences. Huyền is trying those on me too, but with spectacularly little success so far.
You can find the other blogposts about my adventures in Vietnamese here.
I discovered something amazing during last night’s lesson with Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher. We were discussing my pronunciation of the sound written as ư, which I’m not familiar with from other languages. I have trouble vocalising the ư in a way that’s clearly and consistently different from the common or garden u (/u/, as in boot). Several sources, including Huyền herself, had suggested all kinds of tips and tricks for ‘placing’ the vowel properly in my mouth, such as these: Continue reading →
The 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 →
Did 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 →