Going around Hanoi and trying to speak Vietnamese (with my limited vocabulary and grammatical resources) has made me acutely aware of the social contexts in which language operates. In a restaurant, certain kinds of words and sentences are used; in a shop, different words and sentences. In fact, this makes it easier for me to communicate because I know what to expect in different places. I’ve also learned to expect several stock questions: How long have I been in Vietnam? How old am I? What work do you do? What country am I from? And because I expect these questions, I don’t have to think quite so hard, but can fall back into language I already know. Such scts of communication always take place within some social context. Aren’t poems the same, in some respects. In poetry, the shop or restaurant might be replaces with a mode or genre — an elegy or a sonnet. So the conventions of conversation or poetry are not something — at least initially — to be gotten outside of, but something to be used. The actual language of a conversation or a poem can only be extracted from the context by an act of critical violence, an act of Abstraction, to adopt Blake’s terminology. But surely we don’t want to be limited to conventional subjects and modes. True enough. I offer my observation only to make the point that such conventional situations can carry a good deal of satisfaction and even emotional power. They ought not be sneered at or avoided in favor of novelty or originality, I think. Such moments of mutuality can be deeply significant. Poems, like my primitive conversations, start in such places and such moments.
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.
I’m better at speaking Vietnamese in the morning. This morning I went to buy a small shoulder bag to carry around my wallet and notebook and dictionary. I already knew the street where such things are sold so I headed over there and began looking around. One of the shops seemed to have several bags that might do, so I went in and, speaking Vietnamese, asked for a shoulder bag, a small one. For five minutes or so I looked at various bags, asking for different colors and sizes, then negotiating the price (The owner knocked a dollar off! I’m such a tough negotiator.) I did the whole thing completely in vietnamese. Must have been the shot of espresso I had after breakfast. This afternoon, on the other hand, wrung out from the heat, I couldn’t even manage to order a Mango smoothie in the language. I really should stay ot of places that cater to tourists, where the staff (rightly) wants to help me by speaking my language. I have the best experiences when buying from the street, where people’s English is minimal to non-existant. Anyway, I certainly was not fluent this morning, but I conducted an extended transaction — a stylized conversation — completely in Vietnamese.