Although he did not know what he wanted to be when he grew up, Garret Sokoloff, a retired New York City public high school teacher, knew one thing: he wanted to learn new languages all his life. With over 24 years of experience teaching Japanese and Literature, Sokoloff, 67, has returned to Vietnam for the second time to continue his journey of learning Vietnamese. In an interview with The Saigon Times, Sokoloff shared why he chose to learn Vietnamese and his experience in the country. Excerpts:
The Saigon Times: Is this your second time in Vietnam?
Garret Sokoloff: Yes, I came to Vietnam for the first time in 2019, right before the pandemic. I lived in Saigon for one month in a room over a bookstore near Bui Vien Street. I also made a weekend trip to Vung Tau.
Even though I was in Saigon for a month, I still find the city a mystery.
A mystery, how?
Saigon is so big, much bigger than New York City (NYC), and while parts of NYC are crowded, all of Saigon is crowded. And everybody who’s on a motorcycle seems to know exactly where they are going. No New Yorker would understand how the city flows, how you go from here to there, or where things are.
Many people in New York City know only a small part of the city. But in Saigon, it seems people understand a large part of the city. And of course, they have great energy riding their motorcycles. We just travel around New York on the subway, which is very easy, but not very dynamic or high-energy.
How do you feel about the crowds and crossing the street here?
It’s exciting. There are two ways to do it: the easiest way is to look for a grandmother and get right behind her.
On a serious note, my advice to first-time foreigners looking to cross the street here would be to take that responsibility very seriously. First of all, you have to watch how other people cross the street before you do it, and you have to make sure that you take care of yourself because nobody else will take care of you, and you have to do it carefully.
You’ve studied a bit of Vietnamese, right?
I have been studying Vietnamese for three years and I am embarrassed to say, I haven’t made much progress.
Why did you choose to learn Vietnamese?
I met some Vietnamese people in New York, and they were very intelligent. They spoke English like native Americans. They knew all the idioms, and they hadn’t really studied before. They often spoke much better than the Chinese who had been studying for a long time.
They just had a quickness about them that made me curious about Vietnam. And then when I heard Vietnamese being spoken, I realized it was difficult. And I like a good challenge. That was a major reason why I chose to study Vietnamese.
However, after I came here, I fell in love with the country, especially Saigon. People from Saigon do not realize how incredible their city is. And I think it’s a big tragedy that I have discovered Saigon when I am old, at 67. It’s the only place that makes me feel like I wish I was in my twenties again. I don’t feel that way in Tokyo.
How would you compare Japanese and Vietnamese?
Japanese is known for being difficult to read and write but it’s actually a lot of fun to learn. The Japanese pronunciation is very simple. I think I could teach you how to speak Japanese in a way that a Japanese person could understand in less than an hour. It’s very easy.
As for Vietnamese, it’s not easy to learn how to pronounce the words. You really have to train new muscles. If you want to study Vietnamese, first, you have to study a little bit and then hit your head against the wall and then, start to study again. And practice, practice, practice. Practicing listening, practicing speaking.
The pronunciation is quite difficult. “Th” versus “t” or “ng” versus “n”. But for me, the closest thing to an English “t” is the Vietnamese “d” with a cross. Those are difficult for a foreigner to hear.
But the tones are actually not as difficult as many people think they are. You can actually hear the tones. I think most of us can hear tones pretty soon.
Native speakers or online audios?
Online audios work only a little bit. You really have to work with a native teacher one-on-one.
What would be your advice to someone learning Vietnamese?
For the first month, don’t speak, just listen. And try to do that every day for as much as you can stand it. And then maybe after three months, you should begin to imitate. But don’t try to speak by yourself without imitating somebody. You really need to put the time into learning how to hear and then pronounce.
If I could, I would take a Vietnamese person, glue them onto my arm, walk down to Saigon and point to things, which they would say in Vietnamese. Then, I could learn new words.
How long do you plan to stay here?
I will stay for almost a month. I would love to stay longer, but I have family in the United States. I am the oldest son, so I have responsibilities.
Where do you plan to visit?
I want to stay mostly in Saigon. I am studying Vietnamese at a little school with good teachers. But I do hope to make a side trip, maybe to Hoi An or Danang.
What will you miss the most about NYC?
The one thing that I would probably miss most is the diversity. We have people from all over the world. If you step off the airplane, at John F. Kennedy Airport, you are a New Yorker right away. So anybody who comes to New York from any country, Guyana, Israel, Germany, South America, etc., are all New Yorkers. It’s the outsiders that make New York, New York.
If you could say something in Vietnamese right now, what would it be?
Right now, I would say with all my heart: “Anh yêu Vietnam”.