Learning a new language is done in many diverse ways. Most Vietnamese-Americans learn it growing up in their home, and if you’re like me, as an adult, you still only know basic Vietnamese and words and phrases you would only use when speaking as a child to an adult—even though you, yourself, are now an adult.
My parents used to tell me, “If you don’t continually practice your Vietnamese, you’ll just forget it all one day, and a second or third language is a very good thing to have in this world.” That’s all true enough, but through my own experience, if you want to use your Vietnamese in the adult world, you have a completely new language to learn.
As a child, I only spoke Vietnamese to my grandmother, and I think we can all agree that how a child speaks to her grandmother is not how she should speak as an adult to a business associate or possible client. Eventually, my parents told me it’s best to just speak English because everyone speaks English, and as an adult in my mid-twenties, the Vietnamese I know would probably make people uncomfortable since I still use words, phrases and titles as if I was six years old.
It’s intimidating being around older Vietnamese; sometimes I feel like I’m six years old again. I remember meeting an old friend of my grandmother’s and I crossed my arms and began to bow down low, like how I was taught when I was young when I felt a sudden tug on my shirt straightening me back up. I was informed that adults don’t bow like that anymore, so I put out my right hand and immediately—once again, it was pulled back. I shouldn’t be firmly shaking an elderly Vietnamese person’s hand either—so what do I do? I had no idea, so I stood there with a smile pasted on my face the entire meeting.
One of the most important things we, as Vietnamese-Americans, have to pass on to future generations is our language. As older family members pass on, there are fewer and fewer people we have whom we are obligated to speak Vietnamese to. Personally, I don’t ever want to forget my Vietnamese, but it’s something that slowly deteriorates over the years.
Informally teaching my significant other, Ben, Vietnamese words and phrases helps reinforce the Vietnamese I already know and from my experience and observation of others, it’s fun and rewarding as well. I interviewed my friends and family with non-Vietnamese boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands to see which words each thought were most important to teach and why it was important to share their Vietnamese with their loved ones.
Kimberly and Ben
Through my own experience, it’s easier to first learn simple commands. For example, the first Vietnamese word my significant other, Ben, has ever learned was, “di,” or the command, “let’s go.” The question I was asked when I asked others how I should go about beginning to teach my significant other Vietnamese is, “Are you willing to say things three times?” Teaching Vietnamese isn’t something I have to go out of my way to do, but I do have to put forth an effort. When I want to teach him a word or phrase, I say it once in Vietnamese, once in English and again in Vietnamese. He doesn’t have to get it the first time, but eventually he picks it up without even knowing it. That’s how he learned his first word, “di.” We’re always on the go, and he gets distracted easily, so I just started saying to him, “di,” while tugging him along, and he learned that was the command, “Let’s go.” Knowing that word, one day, I just asked him, “Chung nao minh di?” He knew from me saying my last word in a slightly higher tone that it was a question, and since I was dressed up and all ready to go, he concluded that whole phrase meant, “When are we leaving?” Vietnamese words are difficult to learn one by one, so it’s easier to learn phrases first. He may not have first learned that “chung nao” means “when,” but he knows the whole phrase, and continually learning other short phrases, he was able to deduce what each word in each phrase actually meant.
Just as the word “di” had subtly slipped in his Vietnamese vocabulary, so did the word, “dung,” or “don’t.” I know it may seem odd, but those are the simplest short commands to first teach. Any other words used not as a command would require full sentences, and a full sentence in any foreign language sounds like gibberish if you don’t know the words, or if the speaker is speaking too quickly.
I taught Ben that there are no tenses in the Vietnamese language. Words like “now,” “today,” “yesterday,” and “tomorrow” are simply attached onto the end of sentences as adverbs and the verbs remain the same—unlike some other languages. Vietnamese is a difficult language to learn, and it is often seen as not having structured grammar—only the art properly putting the correct words next to each other. If you think about it carefully, you’ll realize that there are no tenses in Vietnamese. To put together a simple sentence, just remember, noun+verb+noun. Then, if you need to denote tense, just add words to the end of the sentence, like “yesterday,” “today,” or “tomorrow,” or, “hom qua,” “hom nay,” and “ngay mai.”
When I began teaching my boyfriend Vietnamese in a more constructive manner, nothing stuck. I couldn’t sit there and say, “mot” means “one,” “hai” means “two,” etc. For the record, he was able to get up to number five with that method. Teaching English in such a structured way did not make sense it and it was even more difficult to learn with such a method.
I wanted to teach him how to say “I love you,” in Vietnamese. Until I had thought about it—I never realized how weird it probably is to learn that phrase. First, I had to teach him that there were no universal pronouns in Vietnamese like “I,” “you,” “they” etc, and there were only “titles.” First, I told him, “You’re ‘anh’ and I’m ‘em.’” That was simple enough to remember, and the word for romantic love is “yeu,” pronounced, “ew.” He gave me an odd look, and that was when I realized, to say that you love someone, you say, “ew.” I had never noticed that word until that day. In case he was planning on saying it to anyone else, I taught my boyfriend the two different types of “love” in Vietnamese—“yeu” and “thuong.” I told him, “‘Yeu’ is romantic love, and ‘thuong’ is just love. You ‘yeu’ me, and you ‘thuong’ your parents. You can ‘thuong’ me, but you don’t ‘yeu’ your parents.”
There are many other words all of our significant others had randomly picked up themselves. If I asked them, “How do you say ‘why’ in Vietnamese?” they would draw a blank. However, if I had asked them, “What does ‘tai sao’ mean?” they can answer “Why.” Learning Vietnamese isn’t just about memorizing words, but it’s also about learning it in context. If I started a question with “tai sao” and continued on, immediately, they know, she’s asking “why…” and even if they didn’t know every single word in that question, random words would help them piece the whole question together and conclude what the rest of the words mean. For example, if I said, “Tai sao minh khong di mua café sua da?” My boyfriend knows the words, “Tai sao,” “di” and “café sua da.” So, if he pieces together the words, “why,” “go,” and “coffee,” he gets the sentence, “Why don’t we go get some coffee?”
Ben knows how to say hello, and he knows never to just say, “chao.” If you’re going to say chao, you’ll need a title after that. I only taught him “chao ong,” and “chao ba,” because most Vietnamese people just say “hello,” and he would only need to know those two phrases to greet my grandparents. Another word that was quick and easy to learn was “an.” I always said that when I wanted to eat with him, when I wanted to eat something, or when I wanted to give him a quick taste of something. I even taught him the short command, “cho an,” which I explained literally meant, “give eat.”
Another good thing to teach right off the bat—whatever the verb is, if you put the word “khong” in front of it, it simply negates it—no matter what context it’s in.
Hai and Andrew
A friend of mine, Hai Nguyen has been with her fiancé, Andrew, for 2 years and when she told me the first thing Andrew learned to say in Vietnamese, I was delighted. Andrew told Hai that he wanted to give her mom a compliment in Vietnamese when he first met her, so he learned the sentence “Co dep qua.” I think that is so sweet and a great way to start off learning a new language—learning phrases you might actually use! Like my own Vietnamese-learner, Andrew is in love with café sua da, so he learned those words. An addiction to the drink is a great thing, because constantly craving it will have him constantly ordering it and speaking Vietnamese—particularly the whole sentence, “Xin cho mot ly ca phe sua da.” You have to admit, probably 99% of people living in Orange County know what pho is, but Andrew knows how to specifically order “pho ga,” his favorite. Lunar new year, or Tet, is a big deal for Vietnamese, so our significant others need to learn one line for this time of year, “Chuc mung nam moi.”
Aunt Kim and Uncle Eddy
My uncle has been married to my aunt for over 30 years. He’s been in the family longer than I’ve been in the family, and he’s picked up a few words and phrases, but doesn’t speak fluently because unless it’s something you practice often, language is easily lost. I’m sure it’s safe to say my Uncle Eddy probably knew more Vietnamese when he was only dating my Aunt Kim than he does now that he’s been married to her for so many years. The thing I thought was most impressive was he knew how to say all the numbers—every single one. I don’t mean “one, two, three,” or “mot, hai, ba,” I mean, he knows how to say “hundred,” “thousand,” “million,” “billion,” and even “trillion.” I think I only know how to count my Vietnamese numbers up to 9,999. Numbers are seemingly simpler because one only needs to learn the numbers one through ten and then learn how to connect the words together to make other numbers.
My grandmother was able to speak English, but tried not to because she wanted her kids and grandchildren to remember to speak Vietnamese, but I remember her always switching to English when telling my uncle, “Eddy, go eat some food,” and he replied to her, “cam on, thiem” instead of “thank you, aunt.” That’s an especially important word to learn if one marries into a Vietnamese family. You should always know how to say “thank you,” because you will be fed a lot in a Vietnamese family. As I have said, my uncle probably knew more Vietnamese then than he does now, because language is easily lost if not utilized on a daily basis. Teaching your significant other Vietnamese is great, but continually practicing is a must if it is to be kept intact. Raising bilingual children would very much help the adults who are learning Vietnamese as a second language because it’s easier for children to learn multiple languages from the beginning than it is try and learn it later on. Having a child speak another language would help you learn that language as well.