Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Class Struggle

I'm taking classes in both French and Vietnamese at L'Institut Français de Hanoi, which is housed in a building called L'Espace. I originally wanted to take intensive classes that were three hours a day, five days a week, after seeing that intensive classes were offered, but after the placement test, which placed me at the upper intermediate level, I found out that they do not offer intensive classes at that level. It was a little bit of a disappointment, but I decided that I would make up the time by doing as much side study on my own as I can. I have been watching a lot of French language television, as there is a TV station here that broadcasts solely in French. Sometimes it has English subtitles as well. Occasionally it will have French subtitles, but this seems to be strangely confined only to shows that originate in Quebec. Also, I can check out movies in French from the library at the Institut; I have a free borrowing card that comes along with taking a class there. I try to watch a movie a few times...the first time, I will utilize the subtitles (if there are any; not all the movies have them) and just try to follow the plot and catch any French I can. Subsequent times that I watch a movie, I just try to fill in the gaps in the words that I did not catch the first time.

So right now I am taking the regular classes, which are 1½ hours a week three times a week. One advantage is that they only cost a third of the price of the intensive classes. Either way, the classes are incredibly cheap. The intensive classes would have been around three hundred dollars for seven weeks, and the regular classes are costing me about a hundred dollars for the same length of time. Since I could not get intensive classes, I decided to try learning the Vietnamese language as well. They teach Vietnamese there, but the classes are taught in French. I figured that would be an opportunity for me to reinforce my French as well. And, besides, most of the class is in Vietnamese anyway, and it is only every once in a while that the teacher will explain something in French.

Originally, the French class was scheduled for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the Vietnamese class was supposed to be Tuesday and Thursday. But a few days before the classes started, they moved the Vietnamese class to Monday and Friday. The advantage is that I only have to go to that end of town three times a week. The disadvantage is that I'm more burned out and probably would have had more alertness in class if I was starting fresh. But it is not that bad.

There is a completely different demographic in each of the two classes. The French class is populated with mostly young Vietnamese people, mostly around college age. The only foreign students are a German guy and me. In the Vietnamese class, everybody there except for me is originally from France, and they trend probably a generation older than those in the other class. Some of them have been in Vietnam for quite a while and it is evident that some of them have had a good deal of exposure already to the Vietnamese language, as there are a few who are able to make it through the class discussions much easier than others, and know many words beyond the ones we are covering. The textbook is kind of crappy. It does not have any vocabulary at all, and has a lot of exercises in it at the end of each chapter that call for words that have never been discussed in the lessons. Fortunately, the teacher gives out a lot of handouts and provides a lot of in-class material to fill the gaps in this sucky textbook.

I haven't studied Vietnamese for long, but I've made a few observations about what I have seen so far of the language. The vast majority of the words in Vietnamese are monosyllabic. I've been not only looking at the material we are covering, but also trying to look over signs and postings of regulations and such in public places. Sometimes there will be an imported foreign word that has more than one syllable. For example, I saw the word “carrageenan” on a list of ingredients (ha, this word isn't in my spellcheck either, and gives me “Narragansett” as the supposedly correct alternative). Also, verbs are never conjugated (at least from what we have covered so far and what I have curiously looked up online). A verb will not change at all between different persons, and for different tenses, there may be a helper word that is added to convey the different tense. There are accent marks for letters, and accent marks for words that convey the tone assigned to the word. There are six different tones that a word can have, and it can be difficult to figure out in the rapidity of a conversation which one to apply. Tonal languages are supposed to be difficult for westerners, and I can see why. The tone you impart to a word can often completely change the meaning of the word, but I have heard that when a westerner who is struggling with the language is speaking, a Vietnamese person can often compensate for their incorrect tone and understand what they are saying because of the context. The rising tone is a little bit like the rise in intonation you might add at the end of a question in English (and other languages) to differentiate it from a statement, but more understated, and much faster. Since a rising tone conveys meaning in a word, it means that Vietnamese do not rise their tone at the end of a sentence to denote a question. Keep in mind that these are just initial observations, and I could be wrong about any of this stuff or applying it in the wrong context; if you know otherwise, feel free to correct me in the comments. I am definitely no expert on the language and it is a struggle to learn it.

When I started learning Polish, it seemed to me that words in that language were really difficult to learn. And new words in Polish can still be difficult for me unless they spring from some root that I am familiar with, and/or utilize some rule that I am aware of to denote the correct part of speech. For some reason, verbs seemed even harder than other parts of speech; at least verbs beyond the initial few that one uses all that time. Probably one of the reasons verbs are so hard is that they don't denote a thing and therefore are harder to visualize. I think part of the struggle is that Slavic roots are so foreign to a Germanic/Romance language model, but you still might encounter something vaguely familiar occasionally. Vietnamese is a whole different ball of wax. You are never going to encounter anything familiar except for words that have been imported wholesale. And all these monosyllabic words with strict tonal guidelines look similar and are incredibly hard to memorize and keep distinct...particularly when there are words that are spelled the same but have different tonal or letter accents.

In my French class, we have two regular teachers. One is a middle-aged Vietnamese woman who comes in on Mondays, and the other is a younger French woman who teaches on Wednesdays and Fridays. There was another woman who substituted once. It is good to have the two perspectives on teaching as each teacher emphasizes different things. The Monday teacher seems to hew very closely to the textbook and seems to be more interested in details, while the other teacher tends to just kind of go with the flow and seems to be more expansive. Both of the teachers seem very knowledgeable and engaging.

On a side note, it has been raining a lot the last couple of days.  I know it is still the rainy season, which supposedly lasts through November, but it has not been raining much the last couple of weeks.  Now suddenly the rain has ramped up somewhat.  I am sitting in my apartment watching it pour rain outside from the window of my apartment.  It usually doesn't rain for very long, but the rain comes off and on throughout the day.  I don't think it gets very cold in Hanoi in the wintertime, but it may get down to slightly cool temperatures.  But by winter, I'll probably be moving again, checking out my next destinations.

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