Why I like learning Vietnamese

A Việt Kiều reflects upon how he lost and then found his mother tongue

Despite being born in Saigon and having two Vietnamese parents, for most of my life I have known very little Vietnamese. There are several reasons for this. My family left Vietnam when I was only two. After a spending much of 1979 in a Malaysian refugee camp we resettled in Canberra (the capital of Australia) just before Christmas that year. Unlike in Sydney and Brisbane the Vietnamese community in Canberra is small and back then was close to non-existent. Despite this fact and many other challenges that we had to overcome during those early years, my family was content to be in Canberra and grateful for the second chance that Australia had provided us. My parents had not and could never forget their homeland but back then – more than 30 years ago – the prospect of returning to Vietnam was tantamount to setting foot on the moon. Ours was a one-way ticket. For this reason they devoted all of their energies to building a new life in their new country, especially for the sake of their two sons.

According to both my parents and the Australian government at the time, learning English was critical to our happy and successful resettlement. After studying in the evenings at a vocational college, my father was promoted from store man to senior designer at the Electricity Authority which was the same sort of position that he had had in Vietnam before 1975. My mother studied English during the day and as her proficiency improved she was able to converse with our neighbours and others in the community and tell them how we came to be in Australia. My older brother and I made friends at school and comfortably studied just about any subject (although maths was our strength). With English my parents hoped that our future would not be prejudiced by our past.

And so they strove to speak English at home instead of Vietnamese. This decision was vindicated by a great many advantages and opportunities, but there were also significant drawbacks. In particular, after just two or three years it was almost as if I had never known my mother tongue. As a child when we had the occasional Vietnamese visitor I would often run and hide. I could not bear the thought of greeting them and felt embarrassed and ashamed every time I opened my mouth. Back then, Vietnamese was a most frightening language.

By the time I was twelve I could understand a smidgen of Vietnamese when spoken by my parents but struggled to say more than a few words. As my uncle once observed, I could not even competently say my family name. By that stage it was difficult to turn things around. My parents were working day and night after having opened a bakery, and when I was not studying I also worked so that they could have a little rest. Although we were living under the same roof, there was very little opportunity for us to converse in any language whatsoever. I was thus in a curious place: I could communicate with so many Australians who did not look much like me and with whom I shared a limited history; but when it came to Vietnamese people there was only silence.

In 2000 I decided to learn Vietnamese. My parents had by that time retired and I was still living with them while undertaking my postgraduate studies. Every morning I would wake early to go walking with Mum, my Vietnamese exercise books in hand. Even in the winter when the temperature dropped to five degrees below freezing the both of us could be seen striding along while enunciating, ‘à-nh-nhà’, ‘ánh-b-bánh’, ‘ùa-r-rùa’…. No doubt it was a peculiar site and sound for other early morning exercisers.

Even more peculiar was my time at Vietnamese school. On Saturday mornings the Canberra Việt kiều (overseas Vietnamese) community organised Vietnamese classes at the Alliance Française. I was deeply nervous on my first day, but unlike the other students did not have my parents there to reassure me. The teachers knew that my Vietnamese was rudimentary but did not want to put me in kindergarten. Instead, it was decided that I should join first year so as to lessen the embarrassment and discomfort for everyone. There were about 20 students in the class between eight and ten years old. At 23 years of age I was not only older than all of the kids in the school but also older than the brothers and sisters who came to pick up their siblings in the afternoon. In many cases I wasn’t much younger than my classmates’ parents. During one of our first lessons we studied the lunar calendar and I felt isolated as the only person to be born in the year of the snake. There wasn’t even anyone born in my twelve year cycle.

Two classmates stick in my mind from that time. Huy (he preferred ‘Hugh’) was the smartest in the class, but also the loudest and most unruly. As a consequence he was very popular. Huy brazenly teased our teacher in English (usually picking on his baldness) and did so without retribution because Huy’s English was far superior. There were times when I wanted to tell our teacher what was going on, but decided not to fearing reprisal from Huy and the rest of the class. I often suspected that Huy was mocking me in Vietnamese, but at that stage I could neither understand nor respond to his taunts. He was, because of his language proficiency, a terrible bully. And although ten years have passed, if I crossed paths with Huy today I could not help but shiver with fright.

The diminutive Long was my best and only friend. He was often late to school because he could not wake up in time. The collar from Long’s pyjama top often poked out from under his jacket and he had a cow lick that refused to lie down. During recess Long usually sat beside me playing computer games and eating fruit that his mother had cut for him while I read the paper and drank coffee. He was forever quietly tweeting like a bird and had an extensive repertoire of both Vietnamese and English songs. One day Long asked me a question to which I had no answer, ‘Why do you speak Vietnamese so funny?’

At the end of the term each class had to organise a performance for the Mid-Autumn festival. I rehearsed with my classmates but was mortified by the thought of standing on a stage in front of the Canberra Vietnamese community holding a little paper lantern or colourful balloon and singing children’s songs. And so two weeks before the festival, I decided to quit school. In the time that I was there my Vietnamese had improved markedly. I was never able to top the class in a test, but a few times managed third or fourth place. This was good enough, I thought, to start studying Vietnamese at university.

After completing a year of undergraduate Vietnamese and my PhD in politics I had to put my language studies aside and focus on establishing a career. This year, however, I have returned to Vietnam with two goals: i) to write a book about contemporary Vietnam (in English) and ii) to get my Vietnamese to a level such that I can be confident I will never lose it.

At this stage it looks like the second goal will be more difficult than the first. Because I’m living in Hanoi I have to become familiar with the northern accent which is sharper and seems to be enunciated much faster than the Southern yawl. Moreover, there are basic elements of the vocabulary that remain divided long after national reunification: blanket, air conditioner, fruit, spoon and splendid. Like many others I still find tones and diacritics incessantly thorny. Fortunately I no longer fall into the pronunciation pitfalls that for the uninitiated and unalert can result in ‘old’ (cũ) coming out as ‘doodle’(cu), ‘pomelo’ (bưởi) turning into ‘prick’ (buồi) and even ‘enough’ (đủ) descending into ‘f*ck’ (đ*). But I still encounter situations in which less than forgiving Vietnamese are offended by my referring to ‘Phản Đinh Phụng’ instead of ‘Phan Đình Phùng’ or ‘Điền Biên Phú’ instead of ‘Điện Biên Phủ’. I suppose it is as if I had referred to the first President of America as Porge Poshington or the cultural and sporting capital of Australia as ‘Smellbourne’.

Yet despite all of these difficulties, I like learning Vietnamese. Learning Vietnamese, like learning any language, has certain benefits. My favourite author, Primo Levi, was very adept at languages. This helped him survive the Auschwitz concentration camps because, more than others, he understood the demands of his captors and the needs of his fellow inmates. After World War II Levi recognised and reflected upon the ongoing benefits of studying languages and other people. For him, having another language is like having a spare tyre or extra gear with which we can explore the deepest valleys and highest peaks of foreign cultures. In so doing we can more accurately gauge our own society and place within it. Moreover the process of learning a new language invariably makes us more humble and attentive to others. Newcomers to a language cannot afford to be haughty or imperious, but rather must listen carefully and slowly think things through before opening their mouths. If only we could bring these qualities to all of our exchanges.

Learning Vietnamese also has specific advantages. Although identifying the tones is tricky, once you can do it there are gains relating not only to language but also to music. Researchers have found that people who speak melodic and tonal languages like Vietnamese and Chinese are nine times more likely to have perfect pitch than those who do not. Similarly I suspect that Vietnamese are 99 times more likely than Westerners to be capable karaoke singers. My wife (who’s Australian born and bred) is learning Vietnamese very quickly in part because she enjoys listening to the songs of Trịnh Công Sơn (as sung by Khánh Ly of course).

In addition, I hope that studying Vietnamese serves to enhance my English. My sense is that Vietnamese is a very poetic and succinct language. Many visitors to Vietnam are amazed by the sight of a single motorbike transporting five people at once or perhaps the produce from an entire factory or farm. I am even more astonished by the immensity of meaning, emotion and imagery that many Vietnamese can cram into a single sentence or clause. For example I recently asked the skinny teenager who delivers the 20L bottles of drinking water to our apartment, ‘How many bottles do you deliver each day’. He informed me that last summer he carted around Hanoi a record 187 bottles in one day followed by 180 the next. When I exclaimed that, ‘187 is a frightful number!’ he concisely replied, ‘such is my fate, those are my numbers’.

All Vietnamese have on demand an extensive range of poems, proverbs and sayings. I particularly admire their propensity to ‘play with words’. For instance a tennis buddy recently asked me, ‘Does your wife play tennis?’. I said, ‘No, she’s not really into sports’. Straight away he came back with, ‘What you mean is that she’s not into “sports” but loves to get some “exercise”!’ At the same time he gyrated his hips and cackled over the fact that in Vietnamese ‘sport’ (thể thao), ‘exercise’ (thể dục) and ‘sexual desire’ (tình dục) share “root” words. I have a long way to go before I can play with words and do not know many proverbs, but here’s hoping that ‘the straw set next to the flame invariably catches alight.’

The obvious and perhaps most important point to make is that knowing Vietnamese helps one to know the Vietnamese better. Even understanding the meaning of a few names can open a window into the history and hopes of the people. I had an uncle, for instance, who was born in the countryside and was given the humble name of ‘Biết’ (to know). However when he grew up and moved to the city where he gained a little education he decided to change his name to ‘Nho’ (Confucian scholar). I also have a friend in Hanoi who was born in 1975 and so was named ‘Thắng’ (victory) and twin cousins ‘Phú’ and ‘Quý’ (wealth and high status) who greeted the world during the Vietnamese economic renovation. Often I find myself wondering—and this probably loses something in translation—how faithful is Faith? How honest is Earnest? How devout is Pious? And I always feel a little sorry for the star-crossed Kiều.

In this voyage to rediscover and improve my Vietnamese I am starting to know more about where I come from, my family and myself. Yet language is not everything or all-defining. I do not agree with those who think that anyone who is not fluent in Vietnamese is not really Vietnamese. Nonetheless, whether you are a foreigner or a Vietnamese expatriate, learning a little bit of the language helps, and it is certainly not something to be afraid of.

About the author: Kim Huỳnh is a lecturer in international relations at the Australian National University. Kim has written a biography of his parents, Where the Sea Takes Us: A Vietnamese-Australian Story (HarperCollins 2008) and is the co-editor of The Culture Wars: Australian and American Politics in the 21st Century (Palgrave MacMillan 2009).

Kim toiled for several days to write this article in Vietnamese (before translating it to English) and is grateful to his teacher Dr Hà Thị Thu Hương from Integrated Culture and Language Studies for her assistance. He will be speaking about ‘Truth, Lies and Television’ in Vietnam and the West at Gandida Bistro in Danang on 14 August 2011. Please contact the venue for reservations.

The original Vietnamese version of this essay is available from BBC Vietnamese http://www.bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/culture_social/2011/07/110729_kimhuynh_essay.shtml