I will always remember when Vu, our program coordinator, told us that if we get hit by a motorbike, we should just brush it off and let it go. Some more random stories that will make you say #onlyinvietnam:
The people of Vietnam are warm and welcoming, generous and kind, caring and compassionate, but also diverse and unique as well. It's impossible to generalize the social practices of a whole country accurately and completely, but with the help of our Vietnamese roommates and buddies, we've started to delineate some key differences in how people interact in Vietnam vs. America.
At this point in time, I'm at my aunt's beautiful Delaware beach house overlooking the Atlantic and I could not be more shocked with the differences in my environment now and just a week ago. Starting today, this will be a short series compiling anecdotes and miniature analyses on cultural differences between Vietnam and the United States.
One of the most clear, and sometimes frustrating, differences between American and Vietnamese culture has been the issue of personal space. In America, people are expected to maintain and respect a bubble of personal space. But in Vietnam, this concept just doesn't really exist. Motorbikers will park right in front of you, pedestrians will brush by you, and if your hair is not black or straight, 9/10 chance someone will touch it. Click through these photos for more stories:
*NOTE: Bear with me because I use International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) notation in /brackets/. I taught my students IPA the first week of class and it has proven invaluable to me as an ESL instructor. If you'd like to learn, click here.
Let me get on my soapbox so I can extol the virtues of teaching linguistics (particularly phonetics and phonology) in the ESL classroom. If there is one class I'm so grateful for having taken in college, it's Introduction to Linguistics (LING 201) with Dr. Gareth Price. First off, I find linguistics really neat and fascinating. But moreover, since I'm a native English speaker, it's easy to take so many things for granted. For example, we pronounce the past tense '-ed' with a /t/ in 'popped' but with /d/ in 'buzzed', and I bet that's never crossed your mind if English is your first language. With LING 201 under my belt, I now have a better understanding of why certain things are difficult for or misunderstood by nonnative speakers, and I can teach my students with a greater awareness of these challenges. Knowing that my students would be entering their final years in high school, I also felt comfortable pushing them further by teaching the same linguistics concepts I've learned from my class. This not only helps them get a leg-up on the college-level English courses they'd take in university, but it also helps them deconstruct the English language and analyze it from a perspective they might not have considered before.
I've learned that oftentimes, rote memorization and repetition is pretty much the only way our students learn English. To continue with the past tense '-ed' pronunciation example, I hope that they not only learn the rules of when to use which pronunciation, but also understand the phonological processes at play (ex. verbs ending in /t/ or /d/ require one to pronounce the 'ed' as an extra syllable due to dissimilation as in 'wanted', etc.). If they can analyze sound patterns, and understand why processes like dissimilation occur, then I feel like they can understand more fully why English works the way it does. Plus, after teaching them linguistics concepts like rhoticization or syllable- vs. stress-timing, we can have intelligent conversations on how British English differs from American English, or how English differs from Vietnamese. Equipped with the tools of linguistic analysis, I hope they are able to come up with new conclusions on their own and broaden their own English skills without dependence on an instructor to teach them rules.
Two examples for how a linguistics perspective has immensely improved both my ability to teach English and my students' abilities to learn English:
1. Putting on my linguistics hat, I've learned from peers, experience, and online articles that word-final sounds in Vietnamese are not all that important. For example, the word nước (the Vietnamese word for 'water') ends with c, which suggests a /k/ sound. But if you actually enunciated that 'c', you'd sound like a fool because in Vietnamese, word-final /p/, /t/, and /k/ sounds are glottalized and unreleased. In laymen's terms, you should never actually pronounce the word-final /k/. You should shape the mouth and tongue in the positions to create that final /k/ sound but you shouldn't release air to enunciate it. Now, take the English word 'nook' and a Vietnamese ESL learner will pronounce it similarly to nước, with a glottalized and unreleased /k/. To a native English speaker, this may sound silly or incomprehensible, but that is because the ESL learner is using a Vietnamese phonological rule in an English context. These kinds of phonological mix-ups contribute to what we hear as an 'accent'.
So one of the most useful pronunciation lessons I taught was that English word endings are REALLY important and must be ENUNCIATED (<-- taught them this new vocab term, too). In fact, I told them to pronounce any word ending with a consonant to be followed by an exaggerated schwa vowel (sounds like the 'uh' in 'about'). So 'red' became 'red-uh', 'bike' became 'bike-uh', etc. The whole point was to get them releasing air and pronouncing those word-final sounds. It vastly improved my ability to understand what they were trying to say in English.
2. One of my students was having trouble pronouncing the /j/ sound (the 'y' in 'yellow'). She would pronounce it as 'zellow' with a /z/. Having learned from Thịnh and the Langenscheidt's Vietnamese Pocket Dictionary (an ah-mazing resource for the Vietnam traveler), I knew that many North Vietnamese often replace /j/ with /z/. For example, the 'gi' in giờ (the Vietnamese word for 'hour') can be pronounced with either a /j/ or /z/ depending on your regional accent. One might even argue that /j/ and /z/ are allophonic (i.e. different pronunciations do NOT change the meaning) in the word-initial position in Vietnamese*. Of course, in English, /j/ and /z/ are phonemic (i.e. different pronunciations DO change the meaning) since 'yellow' is a color and 'zellow' is gibberish.
I knew that simply saying 'yellow' and having her repeat wouldn't help because her ear wasn't yet used to hearing the difference between her /z/ and my /j/. So instead I attempted a more roundabout way of teaching her how to produce the /j/ sound. Since the /j/ sound is classified as an approximant corresponding to the /i/ vowel sound (the 'ee' in 'bee'), I knew that if I could get her to make the /i/ sound and then transition to the next vowel, her mouth would automatically form the /j/ sound during the transition. In fact, I made the whole class loudly utter and connect 'eeeeee' ----> 'uhhhhh'. When the change from 'eeeee' to 'uhhhh' is sped up, it is practically indistinguishable from a /j/. So in pronouncing the word 'yes', it starts as /iiiiiiiiɛs/ ---> then becomes /iiiɛs/ ---> and finally /jɛs/, the correct pronunciation! This method worked miracles with my student and I will never forget this trick.
In short, phonetics is bae. Phonology is bae. Linguistics is bae. IPA is bae. Dr. Price is bae (if you're reading this, WARM HUGS YOUR WAY!).
*Of course, more research is necessary to back this up, but from what I've observed so far, it seems likely. Also the definitions of allophonic and phonemic are actually more complicated but you can look that up yourself. Disclaimer: I don't claim to be an expert in linguistics at all, but I have pointed my students to expert sources if they really want to dig into it.