Small Demon
Jul 152012
 

There are people who retain the ability to learn languages with relative ease into adulthood. I’m not one of them. In fact, I was a lousy language learner even as a kid taking Spanish and then French in school. I wonder if this has anything to do with musical ability. The young Rousseau, he tells us in the Confessions, went to Turin & picked up Italian in a few months; he was also a good enough musician that he could take small solo parts in a church choir. Some people have an innate ability to grasp the logic of musical sequences that exhibits itself, often, when they are very young. Again, not me. Piano lessons were a dismal failure. I played the snare drum for a while in the elementary school orchestra, but never progressed beyond that point. I do have a strong sense of rhythm & meter, I think, especially when applied to my native language. I didn’t start trying to learn Vietnamese until I was fifty & it has been something of a struggle. I do pretty well with the written language & can makes sounds that sufficiently resemble Vietnamese to be understood by (sympathetic) native speakers, but I still have a very difficult time with auditory comprehension.

When the Jesuit missionary Alexander de Rhodes–already fluent in French, Portuguese, Latin, & Chinese–came to central Vietnam in 1624, he said that spoken Vietnamese sounded like “the twittering of birds” & despaired of ever being able to learn the language. Nevertheless, with the help of a twelve year old Vietnamese boy & another Jesuit who had arrived earlier, he was fluently speaking the language in less than a year. He went on to invent a phonetic writing system for Vietnamese, using the Roman alphabet, that over the next couple of centuries slowly–& then in the 20th century, quickly–replaced the old system based on Chinese characters. I would never have attempted Vietnamese if I had been required to learn ideographs. As it is, the myriad vowels marked by diacritical marks and the six tones, indicated by another set of marks, give me plenty of work to do. For some reason I’m not entirely clear about myself, I have made more progress with the spoken language on this trip than on all my previous trips, even when they were longer & when I studied formally with a teacher. Maybe it is because I continued to practice in the US using Rosetta Stone. For simple interactions on the street & in the hotel, etc. I am living in Vietnamese now.