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Lessons in Depolarization from Learning Vietnamese


A few weeks ago, I was trying—feebly—to learn Vietnamese. My girlfriend is from Vietnam, and my first encounter with her parents was around then. It seemed like the very least I could do, to try to make a good impression, to learn a few phrases in their tongue, particularly since their English isn’t very strong.

We started out recently with a few phrases like “Nice to meet you” and “My name is Randy.” But I figured I’d give it a more well-rounded effort and see if I could cram a bit more with some technological help. Naturally I went to DuoLingo—with which I’ve tried to maintain my Spanish and German skills—to start from scratch on the new language.

After realizing that DuoLingo, inexplicably, doesn’t include much pronunciation help in its Vietnamese course (unlike some of its other language courses,) I found another program for my Mac, WordPower. WordPower does provide many more pronunciation aids, though aesthetically speaking it seems stuck in 2012, when the first of its two reviews were posted.

I’ve since found a better app on my phone, but my interaction with WordPower in the company of my girlfriend led to some involved conversations, as I tried to understand the highly complex pronunciations of this highly complex language.

I’ve long been aware of how difficult Chinese is to learn due to its highly inflective nature. If you stress a word just slightly differently, it can completely change meanings, and become highly offensive. While Vietnamese is at least written in ostensibly the same alphabet as English, it uses inflection the same way Chinese does. And its diacritical marks—the hat that this “ê” is wearing, or the appendage coming out of this “ớ”—happen to indicate exactly how those vowels should be pronounced.

But there’s a step beyond this level of modification in Vietnamese, and that’s the way in which the vowel’s pronunciation may even affect the consonants. This is why the combination “ng” might sound different depending on the version of “o” that precedes it. In some words, when my girlfriend spoke them, that combo sounded to me pretty much like an “m.” DuoLingo had really failed me in declining to take me through a basic pronunciation course, as this consonant modification would likely have been one of the critical insights conveyed upfront.

It kind of reminded me of when I was learning to drive stick shift. I started to learn at a time when I still fundamentally misunderstood what the heck was going on inside a car. I saw a picture in my head of two gears coming together, their teeth meshing when the clutch was released.

While I’d be disappointed in myself now for not knowing that it’s instead two friction plates increasingly gripping each other as they come together, no one had bothered to explain that to me. And that made things a lot harder. I was being told to release the clutch gradually, but that picture in my head kept telling me to release the clutch as soon as I felt the transmission grab so as not to grind gear teeth.

It took an explanation of the most basic idea, that many who already possess the skill might take for granted, for me to understand how to develop that skill in myself. And it takes good communication to establish the knowledge that is needed.

Trying to learn Vietnamese gave me a greater appreciation for how communication helps us to avoid the most basic pitfalls of misunderstanding ideas. And I thought a bit about how we talk past one another in our arguments because we don’t manage to get down to our most fundamental disconnects. And those disconnects get even further entrenched when we refuse to talk to one another.

I co-wrote a piece recently with Paul Norris, a red from San Francisco, that touched on our different views of media bias. In it I laid out a pretty fundamental predicate of his mistrust of the New York Times that I had missed: it’s not that Paul believes that Times reporters are intentionally misrepresenting their facts, it’s more that the facts are prefiltered for them even before they get to the reporter.

With that most basic correction to my understanding of his viewpoint, his picture of the media landscape became much clearer and easier to grasp.

So I would advocate communication that gives people the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best possible interpretation of someone’s line of thinking, and give them the space to make that case, rather than assuming that you already know the most basic things they take for granted, and therefore the full nature of their system of beliefs.

I can certainly attest to how much it’s appreciated when you take the time to try to speak someone else’s language.

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