The first time I went to Viet Nam I bought Vietnamese, Level One from Rosetta Stone and pretty much worked my way through it. I even stumbled through a rudimentary conversation on the phone with a tutor in which I managed to say I had one gray cat, one brown cat, and one white dog. Or at least I think I managed to say that.
This time I have gotten out Level One again and I actually remember some of what I learned before so I am paying better attention to those little markings scattered everywhere. Xe đạp là màu xanh lá cây (the bicycle is green), for instance. All those little marks mean you have to make your voice go up or down or cup the sound in the back of your throat or stop suddenly. Rosetta Stone does not go into what each word might mean if you were to go down instead of up so when I landed in Hanoi two years ago, I immediately forgot everything I knew. I could get back to the apartment in the taxi and order beer but that was about it. I recognized things – like a sign that said the store was selling shoes – and was inordinately proud of myself when I did so (overlooking the fact that the sign was surrounded by a helpful shoe display) but the terror of insulting someone when all I wanted to do was say how good the food tasted kept me mute.
So this time I repeat the Rosetta Stone sentences over and over until I am satisfied I have mimicked the same intonation. There is no possibility of hanging back here. Hanging back means saying everything in a desperate monotone and right there you have said another thing altogether. It is not so much learning lists of vocabulary as learning to sing.
I keep wondering, what are the cognitive skills that surround, embed, and grow out of such a language? Robert Olen Butler, whose enchanting collection of stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, explores many aspects of the Vietnamese-American cultural encounter, wrote about a woman whose American lover said one thing and meant another and she didn’t know it “until everything is too late.” The story, “Fairytale,” contains another twist that I am reaching to understand. What the man wants to say “to those people in Saigon” is “‘May Vietnam live for ten thousand years.'” But what he actually says is “The sunburnt duck is lying down” and this is why the woman goes with him to America and discovers that he is the kind of person who would say “May Vietnam live for ten thousand years” instead of “The sunburnt duck is lying down.”
There are so many ways to go wrong.
In English we can undercut the meaning of a word by the tone we say it in, or we can make it ironic, or teasing (all of which is an argument in favor of annoying emoticons in email) but so far as I know, we can’t manipulate entire sentences using tone alone. Perhaps there is some clue here to the past tragedy of Vietnamese-American conflict and a way forward not only for friendship but for the stirrings of enlightenment.