Mother Tongue Tuesday: Vietnamese

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Not too long after I started working with the Ukrainian welders, I began a class with Vietnamese studying Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC). This class was much smaller – about 5 instead of 25 -and much quieter. Many of them had come to the U.S. when the war ended in 1975 and wanted me to learn Vietnamese almost as much as they wanted to learn English.

They had great confidence in me and my language abilities, but I’m afraid their mother tongue flew beyond my abilities. When people ask, I say I speak English, a good deal of German, some Russian and a little of a lot of other languages. Of all my little of a lot of langues, Vietnamese is my most challenging because of its tones and because of the need for formality in its pronouns. It’s called a tonal language because each syllable has the potential for seven tones. The UCLA Language Project says these tones are: ” mid-level, low falling, high rising, low, rising after an initial dip, high broken and low broken.” 

If you’ve never tried a language with tones, it’s a little like singing to get the pronunciation correct. If you don’t sing a syllable right, the word may turn into another word or simply not be understood unless you have a gifted listener.

Vietnamese also blows me away in complexity because it requires a different pronoun depending on my age and status in relation to the person I’m addressing. I once heard a guest lecturer talk for over half an hour about the different pronouns for ‘you.’

One thing is much easier in Vietnam than for a person learning English, though –it only has one verb form so there is none of the English monkey business with past, present, future or (gasp!) future perfect continuous is necessary.

Vietnamese Tidbits

  • It’s classified as belonging to the Austro-Asiatic family along with many languages in southeast Asia.
  • For many years, it was written in a script based on Chinese characters and within a few hundred years adopted a Roman script originally created by Catholic missionaries.
  • Jonathon Ke Quan, the famous actor in the movie The Goonies, was originally born in Saigon.

I stumbled on this YouTube video to give you a taste of a Vietnamese poem translated after each stanza. “Jealousy”, a poem about a ridiculously possessive boyfriend, has everyone in the audience laughing, even the reader. I picked it for the sounds of Vietnamese but I can’t help but also wonder at what is under that nervous laughter in a high school setting. For me, it wasn’t all that funny.