learning more than just the language

A few months before we left Viet Nam I had finally begun learning the Vietnamese language with the Friendship School on Vo Thi Sau St, and it was my intention to continue learning Vietnamese when I returned to Australia. Subsequently I enrolled in the VN language course at Queensland University, but sadly, it was cancelled due to a lack of numbers.

I have several different self learning books accompanied by either tape or CD’s and have been stumbling along at home teaching myself, but self learning is difficult at the best of times and even more so when you have things like PhD theses on your mind, so I have not been giving it my best shot. The 3 months I spent back in Viet Nam late last year certainly helped my language skills, but I realised that if I didn’t find another way of learning while back in Australia, there was a likelihood that my meagre skills would rapidly evaporate. That is why, this morning, I found myself sitting in a classroom with Vietnamese children of primary school age, stretching my brain to keep up with what was going on around me.

This all started when the Trung Nguyen coffee in our pantry began to run out and our sources of supply at both West End and Fortitude Valley dried up. Fortunately the importers phone number was on the last remaining box and when I rang, he suggested I should try a store at the Brisbane suburb of Inala called Thai Hoa. Thai Hoa certainly does have a good stock of coffee, and Inala shopping centre was a great eye opener, as the Vietnamese Diaspora have made the area their own and the shops carry an abundance of Vietnamese produce.

Last Sunday, after sitting with Milton and Ping and eating a banh mi thit heo (pork bread roll) washed down with a good strong Ca Phe Da (and to hell with the high blood pressure), I asked Minh at Thai Hoa if she knew where I could take VN language lessons and she told me she would try to find out. Sure enough, not 5 minutes later I was introduced to another lady, Thu, who said that her children took lessons every Saturday morning at the local Catholic primary school, St Marks.

I reasoned that primary school level Vietnamese was just what I needed, so this morning I met Thu at St Marks, enrolled in my course, and trooped into the classroom alongside my fellow students, most of whom barely come up to my chest level. (At least though I was spared the indignity of lining up with them on the parade ground and being marched up to the room grin

The whole experience this morning was excellent, although there are a couple of things that I didn’t anticipate. For starters, the lesson is run completely in Vietnamese as are the text books, not English. I think that this will be beneficial for me, but it means that I miss some of the context of what is happening and of course I have to concentrate very hard, but that’s good.

The second fascination is that my class mates all speak excellent Australian/English as most were born here and for me, that seems really strange. They all speak Vietnamese, but have trouble reading or writing it and don’t have much of a vocabulary, hence they spend every Saturday morning from 9 to 12 taking these classes. It is weird when they talk to me using very Aussie vernacular and then struggle to remember how to spell simple Vietnamese words and many told me how difficult it is for them to learn. I’ll be interested to know if any of them have ever been to Viet Nam. I would wager that not many have and I find if fascinating to speculate that I possibly have a more intimate knowledge of their country then they.

Our teacher is a Catholic nun from Ha Noi who has been in Australia for over two years learning English so that she can teach it when she returns home. She is very friendly (as are all the people I have encountered there) and is willing to spend time giving me some extra help, on the proviso that I correct her English when she makes mistakes.

My fellow students were a little incredulous when I first turned up this morning, but said they thought it was “cool” that I was wanting to learn Vietnamese and are eager to help me when they can. The young guy beside me was constantly translating into English and advising me on what I should be doing and a young girl from another group kept coming over to check on my work and point out any mistakes. “Cool” indeed.

I think I will enjoy my lessons at this school, and I’m looking forward to my next class. I’d better ensure that all of my homework is completed though, as Sister Den looks as though she could be a bit of a hard task mistress.

Yet again, the hospitality and overwhelming friendliness of the Vietnamese people shines through. Thu came and checked on me after class and when I thanked her for going to so much trouble on my account she told me, “No problem, you go to Vietnam and teach our people, no trouble for me to help you now. You need any more help, you just call me”. Just so typical.

To be continued…