Language Notes (VN Diary No. 15)

There's nothing like one's first language lesson in eight years to drive home one's almost complete ignorance of the language. It's like a Renaissance map -- not the complete Medieval fiction with Jerusalem at the center, some few regions have been filled in: a more or less accurate coast line for Portugal, say, but a completely fanciful view of Africa. My map of Vietnamese has tiny fractions of sense, small bits that track the real world, but which is mostly empty. I know a lot of nouns and a few basic verbs, but lack the syntax necessary to track the world in any accurate way. And as if the lesson itself  did not provide enough humiliation, I took a xe om back downtown afterward and the driver, hearing my few words of Vietnamese, started off on a long series of questions in his own language -- he also had a bit of English -- while roaring through traffic. I might not have been able to understand him had we been sitting across a table from each other, but I was completely lost in the noise of the traffic. Update: This morning I went to lunch with Vietnamese friends who speak English, along with an American who speaks the language well. I find I can ear quite a few individual words in conversation and thus begin to get the drift, but it still moves so fast I get lost. And the American was easiest to understand, perhaps because her Vietnamese was a beat slower and somewhat more textbook clear.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.