HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Language Barrier


One of the most common questions directed towards someone that has just returned from a country where English isn't the primary language is: "How was the language barrier?" Unsurprisingly, I've gotten this question about Saigon a lot, especially when I was in the U.S. a month ago. The honest answer is - not that bad. Many young people learn English at various centers and schools, so a lot of waiters and staffs at small businesses speak at least some English. In a crowd, it's almost a guarantee that someone will know how to speak English. Every now and then someone startles me with their fluency. There's an old woman, in particular, that lives in our alley. She rarely says anything, but a couple of times she has shocked me with near-perfect English. Things are a bit different in the countryside, but you can glide by in Saigon while barely knowing a word of the local tongue.

This is all well and good, but there is actually a fairly significant language barrier, only in the opposite direction of what you would think of: the ability of Vietnamese people to understand foreigners speaking Vietnamese. 

Allow me to be honest: I suck at acquiring new languages. I've tried Spanish, German, and Farsi, and failed at all three. Before coming to Vietnam, I proudly proclaimed "Well, they always say the best way to learn a language is to live where they speak it." I dreamed of being able to hold court on various topics, talk my way out of trouble, and wow women with my fluency. About two days in the country violently threw all of those fantasies out the window.

Don't let them trick you - Vietnamese is hard. Yes, the grammar is orders of magnitude simpler than English. There are no genders, and tenses are far different. When it comes to pronunciation, however, the language is an absolute nightmare; unlike anything Westerners are accustomed to. If I suck at learning languages, my ability to create distinct tones and voice fluctuations is downright laughable. So, imagine the difficulty I have in producing the six different tones within Vietnamese. I can't count the number of times I've had a conversation like this:
Me - "How do you say Xuan (insert any of a hundred other words)?"
Vietnamese person - "It's Xuan. Like Soon."
Me - "Soon."
VP - "No, Soon."
Me- "I said soon."
VP - "No, soon."

I'm simply incapable of detecting the tonal differences, which is a problem when every Vietnamese person is a Nazi about them being exactly right. A common venue for this miscommunication is one of the city's many taxis. If you don't say a street name exactly right, they look at you like a U.S. cabbie would if you got in and said "aaaaaaaaaaghhhhhgaingpgnpgnapga." There are some streets here with similar names, so I can understand why they may not be able to distinguish between the two. There are, however, some streets which sound ABSOLUTELY NOTHING like any other in the city - Pham Ngu Lao, Pasteur (As in Louis), and Tran Hung Dao, for example. Yet many drivers fail to register any comprehension after pronouncing these multiple different ways.

This inverse language barrier also frequently pops up at restaurants. Despite my lingual deficiencies, I do know the names of many food items, so I am actually somewhat useful with a menu in my hands. But not if you ask a waiter. Recently I was eating at a restaurant that specializes in a dish called bun cha hanoi. I ordered it. The waiter stared at me like I had a second head. I repeated. Still nothing. The Vietnamese-American girl sitting across from me then said it, and a look of comprehension immediately spread across his face. Once again, I heard no difference in our pronunciations. I protested, and my friend said, "I don't think he expected to hear Vietnamese from you." First of all - the name of the dish is in Vietnamese! And it's the first thing on the menu! It's in the name of the freakin' restaurant! It's not like I'm asking for a liver transplant. Put two and two together man! It is supremely frustrating when a waiter just laughs when you try to order in Vietnamese. Laughter doesn't encourage me to improve my pronunciation, it deters me from even trying.

Classrooms are another confidence-killer. Innumerable times I've called out a student's name while taking attendance, only to have no reaction. "Thuy." Silence. "Thuy." Continued silence. I'll then show the name to a student. They say it. "Oh, I'm here." Great, I really suck at this. The annoying part comes when you've had a class for a few weeks. Everyone knows each other names by this point. In spite of that fact, I still don't get reactions when I call out names. People, you know who's in the class. No other names sound anything like Thuy, so what could I possibly be saying! Gah!

This inflexibility with the language is, as you can tell, a bit of a personal pet peeve. You can butcher English and still be understood. I once joked that a taxi driver not understanding Pham Ngu Lao, even mispronounced, would be like a New York cabbie failing to understand "Fifth" said with a lisp. He won't think you're asking to be taken to Michigan...

So, a lesson to all Vietnamese* - us Westerners are not used to tones. We don't spell avocado and beef the same way, just with a different diacritical mark above each one. We spell them avocado and beef. The pronunciation takes a lot of getting used to, so cut us some slack when we don't say 'Tuyet' or 'Dinh Tien Hoang' flawlessly.

*This doesn't include the many very helpful people that will assist you in your pronunciation. Not everyone laughs and then does nothing to help, though it should be noted that this includes 0% of all taxi drivers. There's hard data to back that up.

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