When I arrived in Vietnam in 1993, I was a linguist. Or I thought I was. I had stunned my friends by learning fluent Greek in three months, and back when I was a university student, teenage girls in Paris had just loved my French accent. Their fathers, inevitably big policemen, hadn’t.
So, my first morning in Saigon, I strolled among the quiet streets (1993, remember) in confident mood. I had even skimmed through a semi-official Vietnamese phrasebook containing sentences like “I should like to learn the principal agricultural and industrial exports of your country” and “The swineherd is hooting with a horn”, so I was well up on contemporary life in Vietnam.
I spotted a cafe. I sat down at an outdoor table. To me, a waiter.
“Ca phe,” I said. I knew my story and I was going to stick to it.
He gave me a look which I hadn’t seen before on any human face, but one I was to become very familiar with. He peered at me as if he couldn’t believe his eyes, and then allowed a frown of growing irritation and disgust to build on his forehead until he was glaring at me. It made me wonder if I had accidentally insulted his ancestors.
“Ha?” he said with extreme abruptness.
“Ca phe,” I said in a much smaller voice. When speaking foreign languages, I like to see happy faces around me, lit up with the joy of comprehension, not the sort of scrutiny given to serial killers.
But I rarely found it in Vietnam. Even my teacher, whom I hired shortly after my drubbing by the rude waiter, could scarcely contain his rage when I failed to master the (quite unnecessary) formality of the phrase to greet someone who has knocked on your front door. Every lesson was a shitfight, which I came to dread.
And so was every interaction on the street. If my Vietnamese was far better than my interlocutor’s English, then it was obvious we should confer in Vietnamese. Obvious to me, and maybe obvious to you. Not to them. I was eventually forced to develop my own version of the Rude Waiter Ha and used it to considerable effect. Very gradually, some places and some people got used to me speaking Vietnamese, and let me get on with it. Having done everything to obstruct me getting confident with the language, they now showed me off to other Westerners as a top Vietnamese speaker. They even gave me a Vietnamese name, with which they would address me.
So You’re Fluent, Right?
The truth is, I never got really good at Vietnamese, though naturally other Westerners thought I was fluent. This misunderstanding led to some odd situations, such as the time an acquaintance approached me in a busy and noisy bar/restaurant with a plan to spy on his mother-in-law.
“My wife’s bringing her mother and aunt up from the Mekong Delta, and we’re having dinner here tonight. Can you keep an ear open for what they say about me? I think they’re plotting against me.”
It would have been hard enough in English, out of the question in Vietnamese, and quite impossible in what passes as a dialect from the Mekong Delta. Besides, if I was caught earwigging their conversation, the old lady would probably get up and batter me over the head with the steamboat.
Later, after leaving Vietnam in circumstances which will be familiar to all middle-aged Western males, I pondered the question. Was I a linguist, or not? I was like a boxer who had achieved two easy knockouts and then been floored in the first round of my third bout, recovering just enough to battle to a bloody draw.
So I was a little wary when circumstances led me, a year or so later, to Thailand. Another tonal language, another place where I would forever be an obvious outsider, and a written language that looks like a spider doing yoga. I prepared well for the bout, learning the alphabet diligently and noting the language’s similarities with Vietnamese. This shouldn’t be too hard, I thought.
Wanting us to Learn
And it wasn’t. Toughened by my Vietnamese experience, I worked hard on my Thai, but most crucially was aided by the best gift any language learner can receive — the locals want you to speak their language.
In Thailand, this is taken to extremes. Thais will do anything to avoid the embarrassment of a Farang Interaction, and therefore automatically greet you in Thai in the hope that you can respond in similar fashion. To be treated as a non-Thai speaker in a shop, you would need to enter wearing a ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots, twirling two six-shooters and yelling “This is a stick-up. Grab some sky!”
The two languages are broadly similar, and the learning experiences utterly different. Vietnamese are keen to display their English-language skills, determined to control the conversation by keeping it in English, and are resolutely unhelpful to your efforts to speak Vietnamese.
Thais are keen to hide the fact that they have no English-language skills, they are not the sort of people who get around to controlling anything, and are enormously pleased when your ability to speak Thai means that their morning will likely proceed on its usual somnolent way.
So, if you’re having trouble learning Vietnamese, and are writing yourself off as someone who “can’t learn languages”, don’t feel bad about it.
We’ve all been through it.