From the archives: Reflecting on learning Vietnamese

When I moved to Southeast Asia in late 2012 to teach overseas, one of the requirements of my training program, LanguageCorps, was to learn the local language. I decided to base myself out of Vietnam so I spent two weeks learning Vietnamese to build empathy for the students I would be teaching. During this process, my teacher encouraged me to take notes and reflect on what I feel, what I learned, and surprising insights.

Disclaimer: This reflection was originally written in late 2012 and meant to be kept personally. I edited parts of it for clarity but wanted to keep as much of the original content to not take away the genuine thoughts that were going through my mind during this process. My writing skills were in a different place during that time of my life and not as sharp. I pulled this out from the archives of things I wrote for myself and haven’t publicly published until now.

[October 29, 2012] Before starting Vietnamese language classes…

I make it very obvious that my most memorable language learning experience so far was when I picked up Spanish in college. One of the requirements for graduation was to learn a language and spend a semester studying abroad where it is spoken. I’d love to say that I picked up the language flawlessly but it wasn’t that easy. In fact, as much as I loved classes, I almost failed a class that potentially postponed my study abroad.

In addition to studying the language every single day for at least an hour, I started listening to Spanish music so I can train my brain to think in a new language. I sought out friends who spoke the language so I can practice pronunciation and make the experience more enjoyable. Slowly but surely, I began picking up the language. My teachers used a variety of methods to incorporate the language in the lesson. I listened to conversations in Spanish, created dialogues with my peers and had many writing assignments. But any preparation that I did was definitely not enough to immerse myself in a Spanish speaking culture. It really is one thing to learn a language in a place when you are not immersed in it compared to being surrounded by it.

I picked Ecuador to study because I dreamt of going to the Amazon jungle. I’ve read a lot about it and have written many academic papers but I wanted to see what this beautiful place looked like with my own eyes. My university’s study abroad program was designed to have the students immersed in the language as much as possible. All our city tours were done in Spanish and we were each assigned to host families. Ecuadorians are generally friendly so it was very easy to strike up conversation with locals.

The best part of my experience with learning Spanish was how much it connected me to great people. I made friends at my university who were genuinely interested in talking to me to about my background as a Japanese-American and Buddhist. I was equally as interested in their culture and it was a great exchange of teaching each other new things. My local friends knew the best places to hang out and the cheapest places to buy food. Even three years after my experience there, I still keep in contact with them. When I think about this outcome, it makes me really happy to have learned a new language.

I think one of the best part about learning a new language is picking up the random phrases that are very casual, conversational and probably not the most proper. For example, one thing that I picked up was “oh my gato” which is a play on “oh my gosh” from English but incorporating a Spanish word that sounds the most similar to it. It was also fun to take phrases that are common in English and literal-translate them into Spanish. We’d do the same with phrases in Spanish to English. One common thing they said to us is “El mundo es tu odorno” so we translated that to “The world is your bathroom.” I realized that the moment you can make puns and other jokes with the language is when you are comfortable enough with using it.

Speaking Spanish grew on me and eventually became a language that slips out comfortably from my mouth. It doesn’t even matter anymore if there are no Spanish speakers around me. I still use it. And I’ll continue to use it. Since I’m no longer in Ecuador, I’m losing the ability to comfortably speak it but I know I will go back and pick it up again one of these days.

Since I personally experienced the frustrations and joys of learning a new language, I know I will go into teaching with a broader awareness of what I need to focus on with students. I was definitely more motivated when my teachers had patience with me and continued to praise me when I did something right. I also really enjoyed any creative assignments so I will definitely be incorporating those activities into my lessons.

[October 29, 2012] First day of Vietnamese lessons

The entire lesson was spent on practicing the Vietnamese alphabet and learning to pronounce the different tones. Unlike English, Vietnamese is a very tonal language so the slightest differences change the meaning of the word. In English, changes in tone do not necessarily change the meaning of the word but it changes the implications in context. I realize that this will be one of the most difficult things to teach to Vietnamese students who are already used to hearing certain tones.

When I crossed over into Vietnam from Cambodia, I immediately noticed that there are what seemed to be ten different types of accent marks. I thought to myself, “will I really learn these?!” I’m glad the focus today was to orient me to the alphabet because it’s the fundamental make up of language. Today we practiced pronunciation and how words sound when we put together the letters. Unlike Japanese and other Asian languages, the alphabet and sound do not have a 1-1 correlation. Therefore, I have to learn what words sound like when they are paired and combined with other letters.

Today’s lessons got me to reflect on all my past language learning experiences. Each and every one has been very different. Japanese and English were both languages that I didn’t learn with much awareness. They’re both languages that I picked up instinctually. I started learning French when I was in middle school and it was definitely a language that I did not have any chemistry with. Learning French was very irrelevant in my life then. I didn’t have friends that spoke the language and I was not interested in going to Europe at all. It was very uncomfortable to learn a language that I didn’t need to know. On the other hand, learning Spanish in college and anticipating a semester abroad was very exciting. Even if I didn’t have to go abroad, I had many friends at school who spoke Spanish so learning how to speak the language with them was a lot of fun.

Now that I am in Vietnam, I am having a lot of fun trying to learn phrases that will be useful. I think the cool thing about starting to learn Vietnamese here is that I am immersed in the culture from day one. Normally, I took foreign language classes in the US. After class, it was back to speaking English. But since I am in Vietnam, I am practically surrounded by the language. Leaving class doesn’t mean I can go back to speaking English. I am forced to use the phrases the moment I learn them. It’s a challenge but I think that’s a great part of the experience.

[November 2, 2012] Wrapping up week 1

I found that one of the hardest things about picking up a new language is to overcome grammatical and “rules” of other languages that don’t apply to the one I am currently learning. For example, the “H” in Spanish is always silent. For a while, I’d skip pronouncing that letter when I was pronouncing words in Vietnamese. Another thing is that the “D” in Vietnamese is a “Y” sound. I am still training myself to read that with the correct pronunciation but I keep reading it wrong. I know I will get it soon, though.

I’m very pleased with the way the lessons have progressed. We started out by learning the alphabet and then going into combining the letter to create sounds. The sounds then became words and then I was piecing together words to create sentences. As a writer, I know that being able to create good sentences is a very satisfying experience. I’m stunned with how simple the Vietnamese grammar is. But then again, the pronunciation is difficult enough so I’m very happy that grammar isn’t equally as difficult.

Even though I have many experiences with language acquisition, I’m still struggling to pronounce things correctly. The tone and emphasis makes a big difference on the meaning of the word. I started learning a song, “Café Sua da” to help improve my pronunciation. Now my English students are expecting me to sing this song for them. Hopefully I can learn the lyrics and play the song correctly. I think that learning a song is helpful when learning a language because it places the language in a rhythmic context. I remember learning to sing my first song in Spanish. It was a cheesy love song but the song helped me learn Spanish expressions and work on pronunciation.

[November 9, 2012] Closing out week 2

I made it to the end! Well it’s not really the “end” because I’m going to be living here for a while and I need to continue studying the language. While I am quite enthusiastic about learning a new language, I am also someone that gravitates towards comfort. I prefer to hear and speak a language I am much more comfortable with. However I know that learning a new language will help me expand my ability to communicate.

Over the course of two weeks, I learned a lot. I’m actually a slow learner when it comes to language because I have to say a phrase one million and one time for it to stick in my head. I could be told something and say it a couple times but it’s actually difficult for those things to stick. I’m really happy with the progress I made and the way the language was broken down. Starting with the alphabet was obvious but I’m glad to have learned the most important things in these two weeks. They include food, getting around, counting numbers, talking about yourself and telling time. I’d say the thing I struggled the most with was the vocabulary and getting down the pronunciation. There are tones I’m not familiar with so I couldn’t nail down the pronunciation right away. My ear is also trained to hear words a certain way so it was a challenge to set aside the sounds I know and incorporate new sounds.

[November 9, 2012] Final reflections

Coming out of the past two weeks, I don’t have any regrets. I missed learning a new language and I have to honestly say that this is the hardest language I learned. I’m glad that their alphabet is relatively similar to the English alphabet. But in contrast, the numerous accent marks and pronunciation made it very difficult to remember. I’m really happy to be living here and surrounded by the language. Vietnamese is spoken pretty rapidly (or at least that is what it sounds like) so I’m still getting use to picking up words I understand but I’m definitely improving.

I’ve been through so many different types of language acquisition class so I’m definitely excited to be taking my experiences, including this one, when I teach English. I think that my experiences will help me put myself in the student’s shoes and allow me to be a teacher that can really give them what they all need.

One of my favorite professors in college said to me “as a teacher, you are in trouble when you have more than one student.” At that point in my life, I didn’t have any aspirations to be a teacher or get into education. Over the years, though, I’ve come to realize how profound that statement is and all the things he implied through it. He is the kind of professor who really values each and every student in the learning process and realized that everyone has a different need. Teaching a class can be gratifying when it comes to the diversity of your students’ opinions and perspectives but also troublesome when you need to meet certain goals and each student has a different way of learning. Since I was the only teacher from my LanguageCorps group, I tackled a class of over 20 adults everyday and it was definitely a challenge to make sure that all the students got as much out of it as I hoped they would.

In the end, I think that this entire experience as a language learner and a language teacher made me reflect a lot about where I come from. When I first landed in Cambodia, it felt a little weird in the sense that I felt like I’ve been in Southeast Asia for a while and that nothing else really happened in my life. I guess the easiest way to phrase it is that I sort of put my “past” in a box and forgot about it. But coming to Vietnam and teaching students has reminded me so much of what I’ve done in the past. I started thinking a lot about what I want to apply to the classroom when I teach as well as the kind of mindset I need to carry when I am learning a new language in a new culture.

The best part of everything is that I don’t regret doing anything. It took a lot for me to actually come out since I knew I would miss home and I was very comfortable with what I was doing. And not to mention, I really don’t like long flights. But coming here has only been great things. I’m excited to reread this a few years down to road and see how much more I grow from being here.

Cheers,

Riri

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