Flat-lining on Vietnamese tones
  • | dtinews.vn | October 27, 2011 03:11 PM

The word that most crops up when you ask expats in Vietnam about their level of Vietnamese is “plateaued”. What this means is that they learned how to say “That’s too expensive!” and “I am learning Vietnamese!” and then they gave up.

I fall squarely into this category, having given up three times now. Each time I start up again, I have somehow regressed even further, meaning I now speak worse Vietnamese than before I even arrived in the country.

There are several stock-in-trade excuses that expats like me use to justify why they keep giving up. The first is that Vietnamese is very difficult for English speakers to master. This is true.

I studied French for ten years, university-level Latin, and have a Linguistics degree. And yet I have been completely defeated by those six simple Vietnamese tones. I know how to pronounce them, I recognise them when I hear them, and yet I just can’t seem to remember which tone goes with which word.

This results in conversations like the following, when I get into a taxi and ask for the train station, and all I can remember is that the word for “station” is some tonal permutation of “ga”:

Me: Gà!

Driver: [Responds as best as can be expected when someone gets in his cab and says “chicken”.]

Me: Not that one. How about gá?

Driver: [Well, now she’s using the verb “to harbour gamblers”.]

Me: Okay, I’ll try gã?

Driver: [Now she’s saying “young chap”… A chicken is harbouring young gambling chaps…?]

Me: Maybe it’s gả?

Driver: [She wants to give away his daughter in marriage? To me? To a chicken?]

Me: Umm, what else? Is it gạ?

Driver: [And now she’s seducing a young girl. That’s just not right.]


Driver: Station! Yes, OK!

This conservation also illustrates the second excuse that expats use for not speaking Vietnamese: it’s actually less painful for everyone involved to just use basic English, or mime, or interpretative dance, or in fact any form of communication other than mangled Vietnamese.

Since living in Vietnam, my drawing skills have improved no end thanks to my repeated sketching of items I’ve been looking to buy but have been unable to pronounce. My artistic repertoire is quite expansive, ranging from potato peelers to skipping ropes to de-worming tablets.

The third excuse is that Vietnamese people simply laugh - loudly, sometimes bent double and slapping their thighs - when expats attempt to talk to them in Vietnamese. They point, and guffaw, and sometimes even call their friends over to have a listen, but it’s not because they’re mean and uncharitable, it’s because what we’re saying is absolutely hilarious.

I would laugh too if someone used the word “penis” when trying to buy a “pomelo”, which I did so often that I now just gingerly point at the fruit in question, my lips firmly sealed.

It does seem that for every word in the Vietnamese language, only one slight tweak is required to change its meaning to something absolutely obscene. Any expat living in northern Vietnam who has ever tried to order pork will know what I’m talking about.

The final excuse is that ignorance is bliss. Sometimes you just don’t want to know what’s going on around you, or more particularly, what’s being said about you. My enthusiasm to learn more adjectives stopped pretty suddenly after I learned the word for “fat” (and yet, strangely, my enthusiasm for Choco-Pies didn’t).

Annoyingly, there’s quite a number of expats who do speak Vietnamese, and very well. Their very existence reveals that all these excuses are just that, and my Vietnamese friends will all too readily proffer them as evidence that it’s not as impossible as people like me try to claim.

And it’s true. The excuse that Vietnamese is difficult doesn’t hold much ground when you’re arguing with someone who has themself learnt excellent English, not exactly the easiest language to master. And sure it’s embarrassing being laughed at when all you want is a pomelo, but you know what else is embarrassing? Living in a country for over a year and not being able to pronounce your own street name properly.

So it’s back to the textbooks. Maybe this time I’ll spend more time on studying, and less on excuses.

Tabitha Carvan writes the blog The City That Never Sleeps In about expat life in Hanoi.

Leave your comment on this story