language is culture, culture is language

Since moving to Viet Nam 4 years ago I have enrolled in 3 Vietnamese language courses, 1 in VN and 2 while back in Australia. I also own 4 different self help learning kits, have 5 electronic Viet-English dictionary programs for laptop and Palm Pilot and 2 reasonably large hard copy dictionaries. But I have to admit that, until now, I have not been completely serious about learning the language. However, I decided that I needed to adopt a more positive attitude toward learning Vietnamese if I am going to continue to live here and accordingly have enrolled in the Vietnamese language course at the Vietnam National University (VNU).

This course is conducted within the University of Social Sciences & Humanities in the Dept. of Vietnamese Studies & Vietnamese Language for Foreigners. It is quite full on because classes are 5 mornings per week and I attend between 8 & 10 am. This is good because it forces me to get up early and get out of my house every morning and creates some structure in what can otherwise be a very unstructured existence.

It also means that I am able to interact with other people every morning, and this is also good, because anyone who has been engaged in any form of writing will know that it can be a very isolating experience. This is especially so when you are working on a PhD because, apart from your supervisors, (and mine are in Brisbane), you are the only person who has the faintest idea about what it is you are doing.

My class has 13 persons. Myself and 12 Koreans, so my interaction is a bit limited but they do take pity on me and talk in English every so often during the break so that I know what is happening. It does add a new dimension to my living in Viet Nam however, as Koreans have by far the largest percentage of any ex-pat group living here and I did not know any up until now.

The University has produced its own range of learning books and accompanying CD’s or tapes and they are arguably the best I have come across. It is especially comforting to discover that the same people who wrote these books are the teachers that we have in class. Given my background and previous VN language courses they were going to start me off in module 6 of the elementary 1 course but I decided to start from the beginning again and I’m glad that I did. In this beginning course they concentrate very heavily on pronunciation, something I now realise was sadly lacking in the other courses, so I am happy about that.

I am now in my third week of the course and already I have a better understanding of some aspects of the Vietnamese culture than I had previously. I’m seeing that the adage about language and culture being one in the same is a very accurate one indeed.