Learning a foreign language is one of my favorite things to do. It is exhilarating to learn something that once seemed impossibly difficult and then wield new abilities fluidly.. The hardest languages to learn are made easier when you are surrounded by supportive people who speak the language natively. It is also easier when you use a multi-sided approach. Following are my tried and true methods for learning a foreign language.
1. Start with people’s names.
Getting to know the people at work is more important that learning Vietnamese. I will need help setting up my bank account, taking that initial trip to the supermarket, exchanging money, etc. These are my co-teachers, bosses and students. How awkward would it be if I could only refer to them generally. Also, one of the key ways of dealing with students and stopping them from being disruptive in class is by simply calling his or her name aloud. If there is a larger issue, I can talk with a teacher after class and refer to that student by name. This means matching every face in the classroom with a name. It seems challenging at first, especially when I have over 15 different classes a week, but it gets easier after a couple of weeks. English names don't work because it is likely that their parents and even some teachers don't know the students by their English names.
What will quickly become apparent is that there are many common names in Vietnamese. I have many students named Nhi, Phuong, Anh, Kiet, Long, Nam, Thu, Thao, and Ngoc. A problem arrises when more than one student in the class share a name. I have learned that Vietnamese people all have middle names. So the problem of two students being named Nhi is no longer a problem when I find out that one is actually named Phuong Nhi while the other is Thao Nhi.
In this case I have not only learned their names. And I have not only learned how naming in Vietnamese works. I have also learned many common sounds in Vietnamese phonetics. A name like Ngoc is particularly difficult for English speakers. I have practiced and then and struggled and now I have finally got it right. This struggle and accomplishment will continue as I continue to study.
2. Learn through the Stomach
Knowledge has to be taken in. Ideas have to be digested. You have to process what you have studied. You have to regurgitate. Ok, maybe not regurgitate too much or often. But I have been amazed at how much can be learned when I am hungry. Not hungry for knowledge, just hungry. Names of favorite foods and simple expressions like, "I want," are important things to learn that have strong and immediate gratification when I am excited about Vietnamese food.
Talking over the dinner table is a great time to ask questions and quietly repeat the names of the foods in my head as I am chewing that food in my mouth.
3. Everyone is Your Language Teacher
I had studied French for 5 years before I really believed I had the ability to use a foreign language. The problem was that I was speaking Chinese. I may have have the ability to use the subjunctive tense in short essays but I could not hold a 2 minute conversation in French because I had no exposure to real life French speaking people. After two weeks of learning Chinese in Beijing, I knew every possible sound combination and had other tools that gave me the courage to see what would happen if I just tried something out with the people I was standing besides on the bus or at a park or a small shop. I actually remember where I learned the word for plate in Chinese. I was in one of the many museums inside the Forbidden City. I asked a fellow tourist, 这是什么？(What is this?) in Mandarin as we both looked at a glass encased golden-rimmed porcelain antique plate. He replied, "盘子“。Perhaps not a textbook example, but a plate nonetheless.
Never once did anyone flee from me or make me feel bad. The worst thing that ever happened was often they would start talking to me well above my abilities and I would have to rummage in my mental toolbox to let them know that I didn't know how to speak their language. I quickly became very good at saying that one rather quickly. 对不求。我不会讲说汉语 (Sorry, I don't speak Chinese)。
4. Keep an Actual Toolbox with You at All Times
(insert pic of my notebook)
These days google has the ability to translate photos of words as you encounter then on the street. As long as you have a wifi connection and an app, no sign is a mystery. Nor are restaurant menus. And I thought I was clever for taking photos of dishes, not to post on Instagram, but so that I could later show a waiter. Free e-dictionaries and other smartphone accessories put so many tools in your device without getting dog-eared or requiring a stable object to lean on as you jot it down. You can even dictate into your phone.
So maybe it is only a habit of style that I recommend having a physical notebook in your pocket so to jot down notes and to quickly refer to when needed. Notebooks don't have a battery life. Their information is not dependent on an Internet connection. Minimal navigation required.
As you start collecting words, it is a good idea to make an index list of all that you have learned. This is especially motivational when you are just starting. See how long it takes you to learn 100 words. Can you read them, spell them, and say them perfectly? Do the same for phrases and then one for questions. Having the actual list in front of you is much more rewarding for measuring your progress then scrolling on a hand held device.
5. Look for Loanwords
(insert handwritten pic of my list of loanwords)
One reason that I stayed in China for so long is that I felt that having had learned Chinese, I really wanted to be somewhere where I could use it. Chinese is a really fun language and being able to interact with people on an intermediate level made my life rewarding in ways that simply could not be possible if I hadn't learned the language.
As I approach Vietnamese, I am coming to learn that a background in both Chinese and French gives me a great advantage. With 1,000 years of shared history, Vietnamese had many loanwords from Chinese. Many Vietnamese words from medicine, science, and commerce come from Chinese. Even the word for 'hello.' Xin Chao is easily recognizable as I have been saying Ni Hao in China over the past 10 years. Although I am encouraged by the fact that Vietnamese has so many Chinese loanwords, much of the adopted Chinese comes from Cantonese rather than Mandarin.
I will most certainly be exploring this topic and examples in the future.
6. Read a Book, or Ten
There may be a Universal Grammar Theory but I am yet to learn about a Universal Culture Theory. Vietnam's unique qualities are what make for a reason to live here. Some of those differences are obvious. Others are assumptions that I make. Others will always be hidden from me until my study into the language dives deeper.
Every culture has quirks that the people think is completely normal. Everything from hand gestures to etiquette are the assumed behaviors that are too mundane to mention. Although they would never think to mention it, these things are the very things that outsiders need to quickly pick up on.
Below the surface are ideas of cultural identity, beliefs, and history. I do not want to adopt these thoughts as my own but I do want to understand where I am and who I am with. Learning a language is about wearing another skin. Once I have the ability to express myself in Vietnamese, my colleagues and friends and students will see me differently. I may be saying the equivalent words in Vietnamese as I know in English but I will be expressing them under a whole different set of rules and cultural cultural context. Best to have a strong sense of this rich culture.
I am sure that most of the time there will be no misunderstanding as the basic Vietnamese carry the same interpretation in English. But I am keenly aware that no matter how smart I think I am for learning a new language, I have noticed that mastering a foreign language and intelligence are not the same thing.