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.