Language remains a barrier for Vietnam's expat community
14:17 - 15/03/2015
I have been settled in Ha Noi for two months now and my adaptation is progressing well. Every day though I live a new adventure filled with a lack of linguistic understanding that almost matches my cultural inability to understand.
Vietnam, language, tourists, linguistic understanding
A Dao ethnic vendor speaks in sign language with tourists in the town of Sa Pa in the northern province of Lao Cai. If foreigners speak to local people in Vietnamese, the Vietnamese will connect with them and make them feel even more welcome.

Let me give you a few examples.

It is Saturday and I decide to take a taxi to go to the city centre. The driver doesn't speak a word of English and as we progress to the address in question, I become a little apprehensive.

Does he know the way? Is he going to the place directly, or thinking about deliberately taking a long way round to inflate the bill? As we approach Hoan Kiem Lake, I spot the left turning we should be taking. He drives straight past and begins to circle the lake until he reaches the other end of the street. I have lost VND20,000 (US$1) and he looks quite pleased with himself.

This misfortune was necessary for me though as I was forced to learn a few essential words and jot them down in my magic notebook. ‘Turn right' (re phai, pronounced zee pha), ‘turn left' (re trai, pronounce zee tcha) and ‘go straight' (di thang). At least next time I will be prepared – and so will you.

Now, my second scenario.

Every morning, I take the same motorbike-taxi to go to the office. But one day he is not there.

The next day, he gives me a little message in Vietnamese on a piece of paper, with a phone number. Later a friend translates for me and the message turns out to be an apology. He was with friends and here is his phone number if I need to contact him in the future. This is all well and good but what am I supposed to say to him with my non-existent language skills when I call him?!

Every day I churn out the same hello and the same thanks but nothing else, like an old robot. It's the same with my landlord; I can speak to him only with gestures and onoma-topoeias. This is not really practical on a day-to-day basis.

My third adventure takes place at a restaurant.

I'm asking for a vodka orange, or trying to anyway. In France, it's a really common drink. But here it seems you can only get the two separately. As a combination, it is unheard of. And even if it did exist, women wouldn't drink it.

Anyway, I do my best to make my preference clear. Little dictionary in hand I clearly request "vodka va nuoc" "span" "cam". The waiter asks me if I want ice cubes (da), I reply no. Shortly after he presents me with a warm glass of orange juice, but there is no vodka in sight. My request was clear and he nodded in agreement, so either he was pretending to understand (a local specialty), or he was deciding that as a woman I shouldn't be drinking alcohol (sadly another local specialty in my experience). I didn't pursue the point and tried to enjoy my orange, which must have been left in the sun all day (now, in my opinion, even if there are no ice cubes in a drink it should still be fresh!). As well as drinks, I have lost count of the times there have been misunderstanding with my food orders.

Through these experiences I have realised that even for the little things, some understanding of language is crucial!

I am hoping that these daily hitches will soon subside, as I have started taking Vietnamese lessons at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities of Ha Noi, who offer lessons for every level.

I hope that one day soon I can be confident in my language ability. After all, as Goethe said, "those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own".

The Vietnamese language is paradoxical like the country itself. It can be complex and straightforward, sometimes as the same time. Although it is difficult to grasp, it is so precious when you do. Because foreigners rarely make this effort, if you speak to local people in Vietnamese they will connect with you and make you feel even more welcome. And I can see no greater motivation than that.

By Eloise Levesque

Source: VNS

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