[Warning: Bear in mind in this post that I have been learning Vietnamese for a mere two months. And am a great believer in idleness as a philosophy of life (which translates to only doing my homework half an hour before class, if at all). So this post is inevitably going to be riddled with inaccuracies and ought to be taken with a few pinches of MSG.]
The title of this post is rather misleading – Vietnamese is not actually a difficult language as languages go. I had to laugh when a fellow student ̣̣̣(French no less) asserted that Vietnamese was known as one of the five most difficult languages in the world. Ummmn – how about Arabic? This is a language that, according to a Lebanese joke, is the language God decreed to be spoken in heaven precisely because it takes an eternity to learn. Or Russian, with its fiendish grammar – I mean, why does it take three genders, five tenses and six cases to complain about the weather with your fellow beings? Regarding Russian literature, I suspect having to learn as a child how to conjugate verbs, adjectives and nouns would inculcate in anyone a bone-deep philosophy on the futility of life.
In comparison, Vietnamese seems remarkably efficient and logical. Why would you need 10 words to say what 5 words could convey just as effectively? Why would you need to conjugate verbs or even use tenses? If you stick in words like “last week”, it’s understood that you’re talking about the past so a tense marker is actually rather redundant to be honest. And why would you need the verb “to be” when describing people/things, or distinguish between “she” and “her” when each describe a female in the third person? I find it remarkable during class that every time I translate a phrase that I’ve been taught, I find myself constantly using a lot more words and complicated syntax in English as opposed to the Vietnamese phrase. I keep thinking about how nonsensical and illogical English probably seems to be to all those poor Vietnamese students struggling to get a grip on it. And let’s not start on French – any language that requires a ten word sentence simply to say “Yours sincerely” is obviously operating on pure perversity.
However, when people say that Vietnamese is difficult, they’re really talking about tones – about how one word can mean up to six different things depending on how you pronounce it. And yep, for Westerners, it IS bloody difficult to both pronounce it and hear it. So even saying a comparatively basic sentence can be an exercise in frustration on both your side and your listeners/speakers. The result being that you can be comparatively advanced without being able to get a taxi driver to drive you home or order coffee in a restaurant. Which can be a mite frustrating. I’ve had what I can laughingly call “conversations” where I could literally see my poor listeners running through all the tones of what I just said to find something that makes sense in context. But then when you actually say something that the other person understands without needing to repeat – wow, that’s a great feeling. Even if it’s as simple as telling a taxi driver “I want to go to the train station”.
But what is interesting about tones is that we DO speak in tones all the time but we use it primarily to express emotion/word stress/questions rather than meaning per se. That’s why when Vietnamese people try to speak English – they often sound quite robotic because they are not used to using tones for that purpose and have difficulty forming/understanding questions. Instead, they express emotion with “emotional words” (words whose only function is akin to smileys but in spoken language rather than drunken text messages), or facial expressions or even (unfortunately) volume. In some ways, that difference in the use of tones says a huge amount about what language is used for – especially creatively. It’s fascinating to speculate about the process that goes into songwriting for example – given that the choice of words you use influences the tune to a large extent and therefore it makes writing lyrics intrinsic to the composition of the music. And linked to that is the hugely rich field for poetry given the allusions and multiple meanings of words. I suspect, however, that that speculation on this is as far as I’m getting for the time being – I’ll get to it once I master the art of asking (and understanding) directions.
But then there are other fascinating little titbits about the culture that the language gives you an insight into. The most obvious is the very idea of self. Unlike in European languages, there isn’t really an objective “I” or “you” – who “you” or “I” are is determined by whom we are speaking to and the sort of relationship we have with that person. So if I talk to someone who is slightly older than me, I could call that person “older sister” (or “chi”) and also call myself “younger sister” (or “em”) – and I would use those terms in both the first and second person. So a simple request for a slightly older female friend to come to the cinema with you would sound something like: “younger sister wants older sister to see a film with younger sister”.
A related point is that most of the words used for you/I are familial ie older/younger brother/sister/uncle/aunt/grandmother/grandfather. How and when you use them can be pretty complex, and I don’t pretend to fully understand it, but the main point is that they point to the notion of all Vietnamese/people belonging to a family, even if you are complete strangers. I’ve had “Chi Oi!” or “Em Oi!” yelled out at me a ridiculous number of times by parking attendants/shopkeepers due to my lamentable habit of parking my motorbike somewhere I shouldn’t have, and they weren’t behaving like older/younger brothers, I can tell you that. And respect for those older than you is not just an abstract concept but something that is reinforced every time you open your mouth.
So to all those younger than me who are reading this – mind how you address me in future as you owe me bloody respect, bitches.