I love languages.  The sounds created by people speaking endearingly in their native language caress my ears and emotions almost as if someone was actually touching me.  If you stop and listen to a woman speaking softly to someone she loves, you hear music as beautiful as a delicate Mozart symphony.  It warms me, amazes me, and folds me in a comfort blanket that makes me think of tiny bells tinkling softly in a gentle breeze.

I came to this enlightenment when I moved to SE Asia.  I had traveled a lot in China, and although most of the voices I heard were conversational or street vendors hawking wares, there were those moments when a woman whispered softly and made me think of sweet warm chocolate flowing like a river over me.  In Thailand, the same happened, and now in Vietnam again.  I overhear a girl speaking to her boyfriend and I don’t need to understand the words because the meaning is so obvious, and so beautiful to my ears.  When my wife speaks softly to me of things that are only for us, and sometimes switches to Vietnamese because her emotions are too strong to be conveyed in English, her voice becomes like her singing–full of love and gentle music just for me.

It is at these times that I most want to understand Vietnamese.  I thought I was pretty adept at learning languages, and even in China and Thailand I was able to quickly learn some basic phrases to get me through most situations.  I was never fluent as I am in Hebrew, and at times I thought that my inability to read was holding me back, stopping my progress.  When I came to Vietnam I thought it would be much easier to learn the language because the characters of the alphabet are Roman, same as English. I didn’t think much about the little marks above and sometimes below the letters, not until I started to study.

I found this in a website for learning phrases–they promise to teach you 50 useful phrases for $25:

“The writing system used in Vietnam is the Vietnamese alphabet “quốc ngữ” or “national script.” The system is based on the Latin alphabet, resulting from European influence on Vietnam.

The phonology of Vietnamese is comparitely difficult to other languages, as Vietnamese is a tonal language. There are six tones in Vietnamese:

  • first tone – high level tone
  • second tone – low falling tone
  • third tone – high rising tone
  • fourth tone – falling-rising tone
  • fifth tone – breaking-rising tone
  • sixth – constricted tone”      …and that’s the problem.  Six tones.  The explanation sounds simple (well, “constricted tone” is admittedly complicated, but the others are just as stated.  What they don’t tell you is that deviation of any kind is not allowed.  Get the tone wrong on any word, and you might as well be speaking Hebrew to this Vietnamese.  He or she just is not going to understand what you are saying.  I’ll continue this in the next blog.  Stay tuned please.

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