Language is a tool in constant usage. I agree with what Mr. Marshall says; we do not spend many thoughts on it. I have very few memories of learning either Vietnamese or English. Distant memories seem to fade away rather fast these days. Transience must be the culprit. I can only remember a few accounts my mom told me. She told me I often mispronounce (in a funny way) when I was very young. Before attending first grade, my grandfather taught me the alphabet and a few simple words. Ideally, that should not have happened because first grade is when students begin learning how to read and write. However, so-called “educational reforms” issued by the government meant that knowledge is introduced at a rate much more than the rate students can absorbed.

I excelled in spelling, both in Vietnamese and English. Till this day, I am fond of big words (in terms of spelling) in both languages. Nevertheless, in Vietnamese, the longest word ever has only 7 letters. In addition, every single word in Vietnamese, except some special ones that are not really Vietnamese but ethnic languages, contains only a single syllable. For example, Vietnam in Vietnamese is actually two words rather than one, Việt Nam. In English, however, words can be very long and multisyllabic, e.g totalitarianism. Both languages share something interesting in common: irregularities. For example, there is not a single way in both languages to convert a verb or an adjective into a noun. (If you wish for a specific example, here it is. In Vietnamese, the word buồn, meaning sad, becomes the noun nỗi buồn while the word vui, meaning happy, becomes the noun niềm vui instead of nỗi vui.) Some praise that such irregularities demonstrate how diverse English and Vietnamese are whereas others complain that they serve only to complicate the two languages and frustrate language learners. One plus for anyone learning both of these languages is that the spelling uses the Latin alphabet. I thus think that Vietnamese, though a tonal language, is much easier to learn than Mandarin Chinese.

I believe that Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis has some validity, albeit to a  limited domain only. That is why it makes sense to learn both the language and culture of a country at the same time. Otherwise, it would be stiff translation from one language to another. I shall use English editions of Hanoi-controlled newspapers as an example. To me, they seem to be translation from Vietnamese into English: Their English is very dry, not fluid and, in my opinion, not enjoyable, like foreign news agencies such as the BBC or AP. Furthermore, interesting enough, Vietnamese services of foreign news agencies – e.g. VOA or BBC -, in my opinion, are more capable Vietnamese users and their Hanoi-controlled counterparts. This is probably due to the prevalent belief in freedoms of speech and press. In contrast, government-owned Vietnamese news articles tend to be monotonous and woody; their chief purpose is to be Hanoi’s mouthpiece. I thus recommend that anyone who wish to read in Vietnamese visit the Vietnamese services of those websites. Another aspect in which the linguistic relativity hypothesis may be valid is noticeable in everyday social interaction. According to my personal observation, it is more common for many Vietnamese these days to say “thank you” when they speak English. In Vietnamese, however, it is not as likely. This is some advice to anyone wishing to learn Vietnamese: learn it from elder Southern people, i.e those who have lived in South Vietnam since before 1975. I have witnessed on multiple occasions that many of these people use Vietnamese with delightful smoothness and courtesy. Their accents are not as slanted as those of people living in remote areas of North Vietnam or in the Mekong Delta.

This is an interesting topic. I shall add more later.

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One response »

  1. Mr. M. says:

    Great post! I really enjoyed it. My take on Vietnamese is that the addition of those two extra tones (Chinese only has four) makes Vietnamese exponentially more difficult to speak and understand auditorily. Even in writing the diacrtic (sp?) make it more difficult. It is true that reading and writing Chinese characters is very difficult, though.

    I enjoyed your examples. They are personal and instructive. I really enjoy learning about a language, even if I cannot learn to speak it (I am essentially tone deaf). I really was very interested in your views of what makes “beautiful” Vietnamese.

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