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Thursday, July 25, 2024

Embracing imperfections

The Saigon Times

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The Vietnamese language has earned a reputation as one of the most challenging to master, causing many learners to take breaks due to its intricate tonal system, which mirrors the ups and downs of life quite literally. In a conversation with The Saigon Times, David Wann, an American ESL teacher in Taiwan, shares his cheerful adventure into mastering Vietnamese. He highlights that finding joy may lie in embracing our imperfections, accepting and learning from our mistakes in tones, pronunciation, and vocabulary.

The Saigon Times: What inspired you to learn Vietnamese, and how did your journey commence?

David Wann: My motivation stemmed from my interactions with Vietnamese people. I had such a positive experience when I first arrived in this country that I was eager to engage in conversations. Whenever I travel, I make it a point to learn some of the local language, as it enables me to connect with the locals. I believe it’s more respectful to at least attempt to use the local tongue.

Did you attend formal classes, or did you teach yourself?

I did attend some formal Vietnamese classes, but I found the textbook-focused approach to be slow and somewhat tedious. It reminded me of my Spanish and French classes back in the U.S., where teachers spent half the class speaking in English while discussing the second language. In my opinion, immersing oneself in a new language provides more authentic language exposure and accelerates acquisition. So, most of my early knowledge came from interacting with friends outside of class, hanging out, and listening to locals conversing with each other in real-life situations. This approach is less theoretical, more practical, and much more enjoyable.


Can you share your initial experiences when you began learning Vietnamese?

Learning Vietnamese has been quite a journey. Every language presents its unique challenges, and for Western language speakers like me, Vietnamese tones can be a significant hurdle. Even now, I occasionally struggle to convey my message accurately due to the tonal nuances. However, the Vietnamese writing system, which is phonetic, has been incredibly helpful in acquiring new words. On the flip side, Vietnamese pronunciation differs significantly from English, leading to potential misunderstandings. For instance, it can be amusing when trying to ask for directions to the train station (ga), and the taxi driver thinks you’re ordering chicken (gà). Similar mix-ups happen, like requesting fish (cá) and receiving a tomato (cà). These mistakes, while initially frustrating, have become valuable learning experiences, adding a humorous and essential aspect to my language acquisition journey.

How has your experience as an English language teacher influenced your approach to learning Vietnamese?

I often share the story of a student I had in Vietnam who displayed exceptional English proficiency despite having no formal materials and a disinterest in the classroom. Surprisingly, he spent several hours daily playing an online game where English communication was crucial for achieving in-game goals. His immersive experience, fueled by his passion for the game, resulted in three hours of enjoyable English practice every day. It was incredible. I’ve noticed a similar pattern among my highest-level English students—they have a strong connection to the language through their interests, whether it is a person, a TV show, a game, or a pop star.

As a teacher, I make it a point to connect English to my students’ interests, making the learning experience enjoyable and significantly enhancing their comprehension. I have carried this principle into my own language learning journey.

Were there any specific methods or resources that you found particularly effective in your language learning journey?

I am a big advocate of the “comprehensible input” method, which I both use in my teaching and apply to my own learning. The concept behind this approach is that language acquisition occurs when we are exposed to communication that we can mostly understand. As long as the message is comprehensible, our brains are absorbing the language. This method stresses continuous exposure to authentic language input, allowing our brains to subconsciously absorb it. In contrast, conscious learning through textbook exercises, extensive grammar drills, and memorization of vocabulary lists and dialogues has been found to be less effective in embedding the language into our minds.

Language is often deeply connected to culture. How did you immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture to enhance your language skills?

While it is easy to live your life in English in HCMC if you prefer, I found that immersing myself in Vietnamese culture was essential for enhancing my language skills. It’s more comfortable to stick to certain districts and socialize with individuals who have a high level of English proficiency. However, for a deeper connection to the culture, stepping beyond these areas and into places with less emphasis on the tourist industry proved highly beneficial. During my initial stay in HCMC, my first home was in Thu Duc City, near the HCMC University of Technology and Education. This area had minimal tourist presence, and English was less prevalent, providing an ideal environment for immersing myself in the local culture and gaining a more authentic experience.

Did you find any cultural aspects that significantly influenced your language learning process?

Absolutely, Vietnam’s social culture is truly remarkable. I often tell people that knowing one Vietnamese person quickly leads to knowing 20. This is in contrast to my experiences in Taiwan, where the culture is friendly but building social networks takes more time. I encountered a similar situation in Quebec, Canada, when I was there to learn French. Fortunately, for those learning the Vietnamese language, it is considerably easier to engage in casual social situations in the country. This cultural openness enhances language input in a delightful manner. Plus, the abundance of incredible coffee certainly adds to the overall enjoyable experience of language learning in Vietnam.

What misconception should be clarified about the process of learning the Vietnamese language?

It is crucial to recognize that language acquisition is a natural function of the human brain. The process relies on the brain’s innate ability for pattern recognition, enabling individuals to subconsciously acquire any language with sufficient input and time. Drawing a parallel, just as we do not expect Vietnamese babies to speak perfect Vietnamese sentences with flawless tones and pronunciation, we should not expect the same from A-level beginning learners of Vietnamese, or any language for that matter. If there is a teacher involved, their primary role should be to provide the necessary input to facilitate genuine language acquisition. This approach relieves learners of unnecessary stress, understanding that the beautiful production of language is a natural outcome.

Can you recommend any specific tools that have been particularly helpful in your journey to master Vietnamese?

Certainly, I have recently started exploring ChatGPT, using prompts to engage in conversations tailored to my interests and language proficiency in Vietnamese. I believe that AI holds significant potential for language learning. Additionally, I use an app that provides short stories and news in Vietnamese with audio. Simultaneous listening and reading have significantly enhanced my learning experience. I stay away from dry textbooks and prefer reading fiction books in Vietnamese, some of which I have already read in English. This familiarity greatly aids in comprehension. Furthermore, accessing Vietnamese manga enriches my learning routine, as I am familiar with the characters and storylines. Interestingly, I also use manga and comics as effective and engaging learning tools in my English classes.

Are there any strategies or mindset shifts that you found particularly beneficial in your language learning adventure?

One key lesson is not to try to impose “logic” on a language. Instead, accept its differences from your first language. Embrace acceptance, patience, and determination to persist, even if it takes years. It’s beneficial to be able to laugh at yourself during this process. In a very real sense, you are a language “baby” in your target language, regardless of holding advanced degrees or leading TED Talks. Embracing this “baby status” may require a bit of humility, but I find it to be quite enjoyable. Languages broaden our thinking, understanding, and connections, making it a worthy pursuit.

Reported by The Ky

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