The secret to learning Vietnamese

Just what does it take to learn Vietnamese?

The young teacher at the head of the classroom wears an ao dai to bring a touch of grace to the lesson; she grins cheekily as she hands out copies of the textbook to her new students, all of us enrolled for the VLS 10-week course in Basic Vietnamese Fluency (www.vlstudies.com).

We’re a diverse lot, with a whole range of reasons for being here – a bored housewife looking for something to do; an elderly salesman keen on making friends with the locals; a Japanese translation professional hoping to pick up an extra language while being posted in Saigon. There’s a young Spanish rogue with wavy blond hair who swears he’s not simply seeking an edge in impressing local women, although no one really believes him.

My reason for being here is guilt, or perhaps shame. It’s gotten to the point where the people I meet here automatically switch to Vietnamese in conversation with me when they find out how long I’ve been in the country, only to chuckle in surprise when they find out that I haven’t managed to pick up anything of the local lingo other than a few scattered sentences and a number of different ways to order coffee. That’s always my cue to offer up my favorite excuse of the week: “There’s just no time in my busy schedule” or “Everyone I know already speaks English.” Sometimes, I’ll blame the language itself: “The tones are just impossible for a foreigner”, “There are too many vowels” and even “The local accent is just too harsh. I’m told it would be easier in Hanoi.”

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* Images provided by VLS

The problem is that these excuses are easily disproved, with the ultimate and most obvious shoot-down to all of the above being that there are plenty of foreigners around this town in all kinds of circumstances who have utterly mastered the language. Take those excuses out of the  equation, however, and I’m left admitting that the real reason I haven’t made any progress with Vietnamese is that I’m just too embarrassed. I’ve seen other foreigners cheerfully murdering basic sentences in broad daylight and the patronizing smiles they get from nodding locals who haven’t really understood what they’ve just been told and I’m essentially too shy to become one of them.

Language Idol

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I must confess, however, to holding a certain reverence for people who have become fluent in a second tongue by
sheer force of will. I deeply admire those who’ve made the journey through all the hard hours of grammar practice and vocab memorization – those who’ve passed that linguistic singularity where it all seems to fall into place, all progress thereafter becoming effortless and enjoyable. Fluency – that gift to be able to speak without thinking

or first composing what you want to say – is something I seem to have enough trouble with in my first language, let alone attempting in Vietnamese. But the evidence says otherwise – take a leap of faith, do the homework, and suddenly there you are on a pedestal with all those other language gods among us, who reel off line after line of flawless tieng Viet to the oohs and aahs of all around them.

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I know such a language god – a very cheerful Australian fellow who speaks beautiful Vietnamese – and it was he who convinced me to sign up at VLS. “It’s not so much the class itself that does it, it’s not magic,” he says. “But it represents something. It’s a vehicle to push you on your way. It gives you a reason to start moving forward. If you’re not in a good class, you don’t have any reason to prevent yourself from getting distracted or for not doing any practice on any given day.”

I asked him how he’d managed to get there himself. “It’s actually deceptively simple,” he said. “Of all people who study a second language, only five percent ever achieve fluency. The trick is to make a decision to be among those five percent. The VLS classes are a way to prove to yourself that you’ve made that decision. See things that way, and the road ahead is much, much smoother than you’d imagine.”

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The thing about a decision is that once it’s made, everything else follows without too much fuss. The school wasn’t particularly difficult to find, the fees weren’t outlandish and it was straightforward enough to select classes that fit around my working hours – I was signed up by the end of the day for two and a half months of twice-weekly evening classes towards my first milestone. Other students were going for more intensive courses and in one room I noticed a particularly serious learner doing a one- on-one. I figured that could be me once I’d mastered the early stages.

Before long, I was sitting in class, thumbing through my new textbook. It was practical stuff, designed for international learners and based on step- by-step conversation builders to encourage students to communicate real information in Vietnamese as early as possible. Self- introductions. Countries and nationalities. Simple questions and answers. No tedious drills or abstruse grammar points. Sure, there were too many vowels and tones to deal with, and I knew I was going to sound silly when I practiced. But my decision was made.

My ao dai-clad teacher lifted her whiteboard marker, and my journey began.

Vietnam Language Studies (VLS) has two campuses: 4th floor, CMARD2 Building,
45 Dinh Tien Hoang, D1 and 90 Le Van Thiem, Phu My Hung, D7

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