I am growing increasingly frustrated at my inability to speak Vietnamese. I want to be a sociable person in my neighborhood, but I haven't gotten past "Hello, how are you" yet. Vietnamese people are very sociable people -- they love to talk. They seem to value witty and poetic people, and the conversations lead constantly to laughter. I would love to participate, but by the time my wife translates, the conversation has moved along -- sort of a "you had to be there" feeling.
When you can't maintain conversations, you don't make friends easily, which is killing me here. Nevertheless, we have made a few friends, but my wife has to sustain the relationship. The only respect I get is for eating everything that is put in front of me -- that has to be my contribution to sustaining relationships, and that has been effective for now. But this is definitely not satisfying for me. I want to pick people's brains.
Some people seem to pick up languages easily, but I am not one of them. My wife speaks five dialects of Chinese as well as Vietnamese (with a Chinese accent) and of course English. As she hears or reads a word she has not seen before, she commits it to her vocabulary immediately. Nothing sticks for me. I took a year of Latin in high school, as well as two years of French. Nothing remains, and I got D grades in those courses while getting As and Bs in everything else. I took a couple of years of Cantonese and a year of Chinese Mandarin, and nothing stuck with those languages either.
But I am now determined that I will learn to communicate in Vietnamese since we would like to live here for at least five years. Vietnamese grammar is not complicated -- pronunciation seems to be the hardest part because of the tones and additional vowels like ư and ơ with tongue positions I am struggling with. I have learned that I cannot depend on my wife for the correct pronunciation because of her accent, so I have found a good online Vietnamese language resource at evietnamese.net featuring native speakers for pronunciation practice.
When I was here in Saigon for a year in 1971-72, all of the Vietnamese construction inspectors and contractors I worked with spoke English very well, so I did not learn Vietnamese then as I should have when I was a young man with a presumably more pliable brain. Today, that is not the case even though most students take English in school, and there are at least a hundred commercial schools in HCMC teaching business English. But this is their country, and it is my job to learn to communicate in their language.