Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Getting to know ya

Lesson 3:

Xin lỗi ông. Ông tên gì?
Tôi tên là Hải. Còn ông, ông tên gì?
Tôi tên là John Smith.

Ông là người Anh, phải không?
Không phải. Tôi là người Mỹ.

Ông dến Việt-Nam hồi nào?
Tôi mới dến hôm qua.

Ông nói tiếng Việt giỏi lắm. Ông học ở đău vặy?
Dạ tôi học ở Mỹ.


Sorry you. You named what?
I named Hai. And you, you named what?
I named John Smith.

You person English, true not?
Not true. I person American. (Not sure of the literal meaning of là yet).

You come Vietnam when?
I just come yesterday.

You speak language Vietnam good very. You study where then?
(Answer word) I study in United States.


Excuse me, what's your name?
I'm Hai. And you, what's your name?
I'm John Smith.

You're English right?
No, I'm American.

When did you arrive in Vietnam?
I just came yesterday.

You speak Vietnamese well. Where did you study?
I studied in the United States.

This literal translation is pretty easy to decipher in normal spoken English.

My favourite sentence by far is "Dạ tôi học ở Mỹ" - "I studied in the United States" - because when you hear it in Vietnamese spoken at a normal speed it's just so much quicker than saying it in English. This is probably because the Vietnamese have ingeniously shortened 'the United States' down to a fantastical 'Mỹ'. But their language also just seems so much more, I guess, 'efficient' than English.

Another point here is that you always put người in front of the place you're from to indicate your nationality, and tiếng to indicate language. E.g. người Việt, tiếng Việt = Vietnam, Vietnamese

The other place names and nationalities the Foreign Services Institute course provides are as follows:

Pháp - France
Tàu - China
Bắc - North Vietnam
Trung - Central Vietnam
Nam - South Vietnam
Hoa-Thịnh-Đốn - Washington
Nữu-Ước - New York
Cựu-Kim-Sơn - San Francisco

I must admit the last one is a bit of a mystery.

Of course being a New Zealander I had to find out what the Vietnamese call us. But guess what? I can't seem to find the translation anywhere, so I'll keep looking.

Does this mean no one from Vietnam has ever had to say the name of this small south Pacific country before? I can see why it probably wouldn't crop up in conversation much in the streets of Vietnamese towns and cities such as Hà-Nội, Sài-Gòn, Huế, Đà-Nẵng, Đà-Lạt, Nha Trang or Biên-Hòa ̣(see what I did there?)

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

I've been bad

I've encountered one of the most common hurdles in language learning - lack of discipline. Slack bastard. A week and a half off and why?
(Edit: just had a look - more like 2 weeks. Crap.)

Actually I've got a fairly good reason. I was trying to do my Vietnamese at night after work, after dinner, after chores and after the kid had gone to bed. I work long days so by the time I actually got to sit down the melatonin had kicked in big time and I would really struggle with the super-intensive Foreign Services Institute course.

I'd just end up getting grumpy and it would become a chore. 

It wasn't sustainable. It has got to be enjoyable!

So this morning I've switched the whole thing around. I'm getting up at 6am and the benefits for language learning are immediately apparent. Cup of tea and my mind is running at full speed. Now it all counts on me getting up at 6am.

Last time I was struggling with Lesson 2, which deals with directions mainly. Well, the drills are numbered A, B, C and so on - in this lesson, the drills go up to S. 

I was struggling with mặt v trái, right v left - that's because in Vietnamese, when you say something is on the right of something, you say it's on the left instead. Confused?

So my inspired trick to deal with this is just to pretend that mặt is actually left and trái is right. I know, it's pretty ridiculous, but it has surprisingly helped a lot.

Once you've mastered that you've just got to get your head around ở dằng sau and ơ trứơc mặt which mean 'behind' and 'in front of' as well as 'facing'. No left/right tricks here - these words are, for some reason, like their English equivalents.


Nhà ga ở dằng sau nhà băng. - The station's behind the bank.
Nhà băng ở trứơc mặt nhà ga. - The bank's in front of/faces the station.

A few other cool little adjectives which seem easy to remember. We've already had xa ̣- far - and gần - near. Well try these out for size:

mắc - expensive
rẻ - cheap
mới - new
cũ - old
lớn - big
nhỏ - small

One point I forgot to mention so far is that in Vietnamese, when replying with an adjective, locals seem to like to use the word lắm at the end which actually means 'very'. But in context it's actually just a way of answering a question. So if you were to translate Vietnamese dialogue everything would be 'very' this and 'very' that - on the surface, it would seem like Vietnamese people are just grossly exaggerating everything. But it's just a figure of speech.

Khạch-sán có lớn không? Dạ không, nhỏ lắm.

Is the hotel big? No, it's small.

Piece o' piss mate.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Mặt v. Trái

Oh wow. I wasn't prepared for this.

mặt = right and trái = left.

Ok. That's the easy bit done.

Now get this.

In Vietnamese, when you are trying to explain where something is, you explain it from the perspective of the object you are explaining.

I don't... I don't even....


Nhà ga ở bên tay mặt khách-sạn.


Railway station is located side hand right hotel.

Sweet, you think. The station is to the right of the hotel.

You couldn't be more wrong.

The answer is - the station is to the left of the hotel.

How could this be, I hear you ask?

Well, when describing positions in Vietnamese, you explain where things are positioned from the viewpoint of the object you are using as a reference point. So, in this example, the railway station is on the hotel's right-hand side, so therefore your left-hand side because you are looking at the hotel.

It's like looking in a mirror.

How incredibly abstract is that concept? Does this make the Vietnamese super existential beings if they're always thinking like this?

Another couple of things I've picked up. Ông, bà and cô which are used depending on who you are talking to are also used for Mr, Mrs and Miss. That makes things easier. So Ông Phương is Mr Phương, Bà Phương is Mrs Phương and Cô Phương is Miss Phương. That makes things a bit easier.

I'm finding that the language itself is becoming easier to speak, and slightly ever more natural. Only slightly mind you. It's not the grammar that's a worry, apart from very strange directional concepts like that above (to our Western eyes at least). Even the writing is reading is becoming ok only after a couple of weeks.

It's the comprehension.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Đó là khách-sạn Majestic, phải không?

Up to Lesson 2 now (out of 5 in the elementary volume) in the Foreign Services Institute Vietnamese course.

This is the dialogue thrown at me right at the beginning of the lesson:

Xin lỗi ông, đó là khách-sạn Majestic, phải không?
Không phải. Dạ đó là khách-sạn Caravelle.
Vậy, khách-sạn Majestic ở dâu?
Ở cuối dừơng nầy, bên tay mặt.

Có xa không ông?
Dạ không, gần lắm.
Cám ơn ông.
Dạ không có gì.

Xin lỗi bà. Đó là khách-sạn Majestic, phải không?
Dạ phải.
Cám ơn bà.


Excuse me you man, that is hotel Majestic, true not?
Not true. (Answer word) it is hotel Caravelle.
Then, hotel Majestic located where?
Located end street this, side hand right.

(Emphasis on following word word) far not you?
(Answer word) not, near somewhat.
Thank you man.
(Answer word) not anything.

Excuse me you married woman. that is hotel Majestic, true not?
(Answer word) true.
Thank you married woman.

Plain English:

Excuse me, is that the hotel Majestic?
No, it's the hotel Caravelle.
Then where is the hotel Majestic?
At the end of the street on the right hand side.

Is it far?
No, it's close.
It's nothing.

Excuse me, is that the hotel Majestic?
Thank you.

I guess the key things to pick up from this part of the course are the use of extra words we don't have in English. 

Dạ seems to feature commonly as an answer word to a question - it's sort of just like saying 'it is' but only when answering a question. 

Có seems to be used when asking a simple question, followed by không which is sort of like 'not'. It's like when the French ask a question and follow it by 'non?'

The only other main grammar point seems to be the use of là, which is more than just 'is' but 'is equal to'. Tôi là Smith - I am Smith - is an example. Ở would translate to 'is' in plain English, but its exact meaning is 'located at.'

Other than than, Vietnamese seems to eliminate some of the seemingly unnecessary little words we use in English. Once again, the main problem here is memorising the dialogue and mastering it - especially playing the part of one person in the dialogue and answering at the speed of a normal Vietnamese speaker.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Tôi đi lại nhà giăy thép

Tôi đi lại nhà giăy thép - I'm going to the post office. Who thought I'd be able to say that after less than two weeks?

So the Foreign Services Institute runs you through the basic dialogue, like the one I did yesterday, then really expands on it - really drills it into your head. You have to participate in the conversation like you're the other person so you have to think quickly on your feet.

The basic conversation yesterday was just a couple of lines:

Chào ông, ông mạnh giọi không?
Dạ mạnh, cám ơn ông. Còn ông?
Dạ tôi cũng mạnh. Ông đi dâu dó?
Tôi đi lại nhà ga.
Vậy thì hay lắm, Tôi cũng đi lại nhá ga.

I've got to the point now where I can transliterate all this, so, literally, word for word, this is the above conversation:

Greetings you, you healthy good? (Don't know what không is literally yet)
Indication of politeness and respect good, thank you. And you?
Indication of politeness and respect I also good. You go where there?
I go reach train station.
If it is like that it is very good. I also go reach train station.

Now properly translated:

Hello, how are you?
Good thanks. And you?
Also good. Where you are going?
Train station.
Nice. So am I.

No wonder language is such a barrier, and why it seems impossible that Google translate will ever work.

But now the course picks up the tempo a bit. All the 'ông's up there? That's just when you're talking to a man. You use bà for an older/married chick and cô for girls and young/unmarried women. So in the following exercises you replace all the ông with bà and cô.

Keep in mind, however, this course was written in 1968 and this could have very well changed.

The other thing they throw in are a few place names, not just the ol' nhà ga but:

nhà băng - bank
nhà giây thép - post office
nhà thương - hospital
tiệm ăn - restaurant
khách-sạn - hotel
bén xe dò - bus station
trừơng - school

So mix these in with the existing conversation template and you got yourself some basic Vietnamese.

Solid word count of at least 30 words now. Now just to remember all this stuff when I start jabbering to the next Vietnamese person I see.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Chảo Ông

There's a fair amount of reading before you start the first lesson on the Foreign Services Institute Vietnamese course. Above all, the writer of the course stresses you must completely master one lesson before moving on to the next.

The first dialogue is as follows:

Chào ông. Ông mạnh giỏi không? Hello. Are you well?

Dạ mạnh, cám ơn ông. Còn ông? Fine, thank you. And you?

Dạ tôi cũng mạnh. I'm fine too.

Ông đi đău đó? Where are you going?

Tôi đi lại nhà ga. To the railroad station.

Vặi thì hay lắm. Tôi cũng đi lại nhà ga. Oh, that's great. I'm going to the railroad station too.

Pretty simple stuff right? Well, I'm going to do what the man says and learn it off by heart and be able to respond at normal talking speed to the man in the recording.

While I do this, on a side note I found a link for how long the Foreign Services Institute thinks it should take an average English speaker to master a language here.

Vietnamese? 1100 hours apparently - a Category II language. Not quite a Category III - Arabic and Mandarin - 2200 hours. But not a Category I either - French and Spanish, etc - ̉600 hours.

Still, to think that Vietnamese could be on a par with Polish? And that it's not considered the most difficult language for English speakers to master, not by a long shot? Very reassuring.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Vietnamese sentences

Well it has taken over a week just to get through the Vietnamese pronunciation part of the Foreign Services Institute course but I've done it.

Eight tapes - I reckon about 3 1/2 hours - just learning how to use the Vietnamese alphabet.

Of course the time to get through them takes at least twice that amount as you stop and start, rewind, and listen again because of how foreign this language really is to the ears of an English speaker.

I've spent at least an hour a day on this over 9 or 10 days.

The last part of the the pronunciation guide was just a ton of Vietnamese sentences to repeat after the man on the tape says them. It starts off with two syllable sentences and works up to six syllable sentences. At the beginning I was wondering why we needed to go over these again, but by the end I was grateful.

Try saying ̣'Đó không phạ̉i là trường học' at the speed of normal spoken Vietnamese (let alone type the bloody thing).

So I appreciate what this course has been trying to do. It has devoted 60 odd pages to pronunciation alone from what seems to be a 300 page volume - 20% of the course. Think about other language books - the pronunciation guide is usually only couple of pages.

It's very repetitive but frankly I can't even imagine starting this course without having gone through all of that. Any other language, possibly - but not Vietnamese.

And despite not knowing any actual words in Vietnamese after a week of study, which seems like a very strange predicament, I feel very well prepared and inducted to begin the course. I honestly believe pronunciation is probably the most difficult part of this language so it's good to get that out of the way first.

Plus you feel like a real pro once you're able to say 'Đó không phại là trường học' at speed - even if you have no idea what it actually means.