Friday, November 02, 2007

Vietnamese Language

In a bout of ambition (and possibly a little too much wishful thinking), I decided that I was going to use my 4.5 day break between tours to be as productive as feasibly possible. This mainly entailed seeking out a Vietnamese tutor to meet with during the week, so that I can do more than, say, order a chocolate ice cream and iced coffee in Vietnamese (the first two things I learned to say. No, seriously).

I figured that, since my time is limited and I won't be back in Hanoi again for about 5 weeks, I'd get in some basic phonetics and survival phrases from which I can build upon and teach myself a bit. I had been optimistic that, being able to speak Chinese (which also has tones and from which many Vietnamese words are derived), it would come pretty easily. This was far from the case. For starters, they have two sounds that are 1)nearly impossible to pronounce and 2)pretty much sound identical to me. The first one is "nh," which is probably closest to the gn- at the beginning of "gnocchi." The second one is "ng" which sounds like....well, pretty much exactly the same as far as I'm concerned. A more formal, linguistic explanation is: when you pronounce the "nh" sound, the top of the front part of your tongue touches the the roof of your mouth in the front. For the "ng" sound, the front of your tongue doesn't touch the roof of your mouth at all, but rather the back of your tongue touches the roof of your mouth in the back. Basically, just stick your finger down your throat and start gagging--now you can speak Vietnamese! In all seriousness, though, it sounds a bit like you're choking, especially when it comes at the beginning of the word, as it so often does.

The other thing I learned (also, unlike Chinese) is that Vietnamese doesn't have just one or two pronouns for the 1st, 2nd, & 3rd person pronouns. In English we have "I," "you," and "he"/"she"/"it." In Vietnamese, however, the pronoun changes according to your age, gender, the age/gender of the person you are talking to or referring to, or whether you are talking to family, friends, or a stranger. A couple quick examples:
This is how you would refer to yourself/say "I" if you were talking to the following people:
--Grandparents, aunts, uncles: "Chau"
--Parents: "Con"
--Brothers, sisters, & friends who are older than you: "Em"
--Brothers, sisters, & friends who are younger than you: "Chi" (if you are female) / "Anh" (if you are male)
--Anyone in a formal setting: "Toi"

Ummm, yeah. Not confusing at all.

"You" and "he"/"she"/"it" get even trickier, because you would refer to people differently depending on whether they were younger than you, slightly older than you, approximately the same age as your parents, or approximately the same age as your grandparents.

To top it all off, there are 6 different tones, so any given word means at least 6 different things accoring to the pitch of your voice when you say the word.

I'm wondering if I really need to know how to say anything other than "chocolate ice cream," "iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk," and "noodles"... Sounds like a pretty balanced diet to me.

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