Learning Vietnamese can be an interesting yet very frustrating experience. As many know it’s a tonal language, which doesn’t sound too terrifying, after all don’t we all use tones in our native tongue?
The thing is, with Vietnamese the tone you use actually changes the meaning of the word, for example “ban” can mean busy, table,sell or friend (and probably a couple of other things) depending on how you say it. Now the fact that there are six different tones means that many words with similar spellings can have completely different meanings. The fact that Australians naturally go up in tone at the end of many sentences has caused me all sorts of problems.
And don’t think the linguistic minefield ends with the tones, there are also three versions of the vowel “a” and “o” and two each for “e” and “u”, they all have quite different sounds and depend on whether they have a hat ^ or tail (impossible to show here) attached. Oh, and did i mention that “s” and “x” at the beginning of a word sound very similar, that “t” sounds a little like an english “d”, that “th” sounds like an english “t” that “d” sounds like an english “y”. Sounds like an easy language to learn? And these are just small snowflakes on top of the tip of the linguistic iceberg. Below the waterline lies, regional accents, completely different regional words, personal pronouns that require you to guess the age of someone relative to you within a few seconds of meeting, a wide range of differing pronunciation of many consonants and last, but by no means least, the dreaded “NG” at the start of a word which is like some cruel linguistic joke played at the expense of every non-vietnamese. Learning the word for sleep “ngu” nearly caused a friendship to end such was the frustration my friend felt at my pronunciation of that word. So much so she stormed out of our lesson with the parting words “why can’t you control your tongue!” which is something I never thought I had a problem with before.
Something my Year 7 music teacher once said keeps coming back and circling my brain, many a night at karaoke had given me some suspicions but last Monday night’s Vietnamese lesson was far more convincing, after years of deluding myself i’ve realised, i may in actual fact be tone deaf!