Learning Vietnamese through French with Assimil:

I have been butchering… er, ahem, LEARNING Vietnamese for a little over two weeks now. I won’t belabor the facts about how difficult Vietnamese is. (Did I mention the 6 tones?)  Rather, I am quite pleased with how much I feel I have accomplished in such little time!  Not that my abilities in Vietnamese are much better at this point than a Vietnamese one year old, but I’m am nonetheless pleased.  I’d like to give most of the credit for this to the Assimil method.Assimil is a French company founded by Alphonse Chérel in 1929.  The courses he created carried titles along the lines of “With Ease” ,” Without Toil”, “Sans Peine”, “Senza Sforzo”, “Sin Esfuerzo” etc. His goal was to make language learning just that, “without toil”!
 The Assimil courses contain anywhere from 60-120 lessons in a course (sadly, Vietnamese has only 63…) The native language is printed on the even pages and the the target language is printed on the odd.  This makes it easy to cover up one side and translate back and forth without peeking.  Each lesson consists of 10 line, brief, recorded conversations which teach the language in context (not lists of isolated vocabulary words).  There are also some scant exercises and fill-in-the blank drills at the conclusion of each unit. I am told the conversations are intentionally composed such that they are authentic and colloquial.   A woman who completed the French course told me that in France people were quite surprised with the authenticity of her French.  She said several people commented “ Wow! You actually speak French like we do!” …and we all know how liberally the French compliment foreigners attempting to speak their language!

Here is the real beauty of the Assimil approach.  Each unit should take only 20-30 minutes a day to complete. The following day, one simply moves on to the next unit.  Alphonse Chérel called this the PASSIVE phase of learning.  “With ease”, one just listens and repeats. The brain gradually begins to ASSIMILATE the language so it becomes automatic (Get it?  Assimil – ate?). Later, after 50 units or so, the student is encouraged to go back to the first unit and begin to translate the dialogues from the native language back to the target language. This is the ACTIVE phase and is said to cement the dialogues back in one’s mind after several weeks away from them.

I had never done a full Assimil course before so I figured I had nothing to lose trying the course for Vietnamese.  After about 10 lessons, I felt totally lost.   “Shouldn’t I be doing something more? Shouldn’t I be making vocabulary lists and translating sentences every night? What if I forget today’s vocabulary? How on earth can I move on to the next unit tomorrow if I haven’t totally mastered today’s yet?!?”  I reached out with my concerns to several Assimil veterans and they essentially told me to just chill out.  They said it isn’t called “Without Toil” for nothing and to just keep doing my daily regimen.  One suggested that if I was so worried, I should go back to the previous week’s units and go through them all.  He said I would be amazed with how easy they would be; he was right! What seemed near impossible a week ago was pretty easy on review. Maybe there is something to the method and its existence (nearly unchanged) for almost 90 years!
The only issue for me is that Assimil’s Le Vietnamien Sans Peine is only available in French. I have never studied French so I’m learning a language I don’t know, through a language that I don’t know.  Luckily, written French is close enough to languages I DO know (Spanish, Portuguese and Italian) that I can figure out about 98% of what is written in French.  For the remaining 2%, hellloooooo Google Translate! I may have more problems as the conversations get more complex, but for now I’m making it work.  An unintentional, extra bonus is that my French is getting a heck of a lot better!
ImageHere is a  great NPR story about Assimil: I love the line, “…then presto! You will be talking like, roughly, an unusually cosmopolitan three-year-old.”
& Assimil’s website:
& Video from Professor Alexander Arguelles (speaker of 50 or so languages) singing Assimil’s praises and taking the viewer through a few courses:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLvTEqXqlsIAssimil wiki:

These are my conversations that I learned this week… translated from Vietnamese… and French into English …
Bai Thu Tam
Are you still hungry?
Not any more. I’m not hungry any more.
Me, I’m really hungry!
Let’s go and eat!
OK, but where?
Nearby, at a Vietnamese restaurant.
You have eaten there before?
Yeah before, many times before.
Well then, lets go.
Bai Thu Chin
This is my new house.
How Beautiful! Your house, how many meters (big) is it?
My house, it is 100 meters (big).
How big! In this house, how many rooms (are there)?
My house has seven rooms.
1 dining room, 2 salons (“meeting rooms”), and 4 bedrooms.
Your family, how many people are there?
My family has 3 people.
Me, my wife and my son.
Bai Thu Muoi
Excuse me sir, this square, what is it called?
It is Da Kao square.
We are looking for Tan Dinh market.
Please sir, will you show us the way? (show the road for us)
It’s easy! You two arrive at the crossroad…
afterwards, you two turn right.
Tan Dinh market…from the crossroad, is it far?
No, Tan Dinh market, can’t be more, from the crossroad… about 500m.
… it is in front of the church.
Thank you very much!Bai Thu Muoi Mot
Is your work nearby?
No, I work in the outskirts.
How far from here?
Well, from here, the outskirts are 30 km.
That’s far! Then, how do you get to work?
Well, by bike!
I can’t believe that! Are you telling the truth?
It’s the truth! I go by bike to arrive at the station…
then, I take the train (in order to)  go to work!

Bai Thu Muoi Hai
It’s beautiful weather today.
Let’s go out!
OK, but where to?
Would you like to go to the zoo?
A zoo? What is that?
It has plants, animals, people…
Are there a lot of people?
Today is Sunday, the zoo is crowded!
Well then, I’m not going …
I’m very afraid of crowds!

On to next week and 7 more lessons!


First Impressions of Vietnamese:


One week into my Vietnamese study.  So far it has been a lot of fun although I haven’t attempted to speak with anyone yet (excluding myself, of course!).  I would say from my brief foray into this exotic tongue that Vietnamese is at least as difficult as Mandarin.  Sharp, monosyllables are shot at you like a machine-gun in Vietnamese and the six tones are really tough for me to recognize at this point.  At least I have that Latin script to fall back on.

I mentioned before about the two main dialects of Vietnamese.  While there are certainly differences in vocabulary between them, the main differences seem to be in pronunciation.  The Northern dialect (the one in my Assimil course) uses a “z” sound for the letters gi and r whereas the Southern dialect uses a “y” sound. So, in the North one would say “Ông, tên là gì (What is your name?) ?” “ung ten ZEE” but in the South it would sound like “ung tenYII” . “Bây giờ mấy giờ rồi (what time is it now)? would be “bayzuh, mayzuh zoi” in the North and “bayyuh mayyuh roi” in the South.  I am trying to get some exposure to both dialects so I’m not totally lost if I come into contact with a Tiếng Nam (southern) speaker.  I have been listening to some podcasts to try and pick out which dialect the speaker is using.  Interestingly, the news podcasts I downloaded are all tiếng-Bắc (northern), even VOA’s!  The Southern California online stations, however are all Tiếng Nam; go figure!


The dialects are tricky but when it comes to forms of address, I’m completely lost! In English, we have “you” and if one wants to split hairs I suppose we also have “thou”.  In Vietnamese there are dozens of ways to address someone depending on the relationships between the speaker and addressee.  This is a partial list of potential ways to address another in Vietnamese that I took from Wikipedia’s Vietnamese Grammar page:
From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_pronouns

Term Reciprocal Literal meaning Non-kinship usage Note
cha con father a priest Many other terms are used, depending on the dialect: babốtíathầy
mẹ con mother   mẹ is the Northern form,  is used in the South. Many other terms are used, depending on the dialect: u,bầmmạ
anh em older brother an older man of the same generation; the man in a romantic relationship; a man (formal use) Can be used to address any male regardless of status. e.g. By military personnel to those of lower ranks.
chị em older sister an older woman of the same generation; a woman (formal use)  
em anh or chị younger sibling or cousin of the same generation a younger person of the same generation; a child; the woman in a romantic relationship  
con cha, mẹ, bà, etc. one’s child a young child; a person at least one generation younger  
cháu ông, bà, bác, chú, etc. grandchild; niece; nephew; cousin of junior generations a young child; a person at least one generation younger  
ông cháu or con grandfather a middle-aged man paternal and maternal grandfathers are differentiated as ông nội (“internal grandfather”) and ông ngoại(“external grandfather”), respectively
cháu or con grandmother a middle-aged (married) woman paternal and maternal grandmothers are differentiated as bà nội (“internal grandmother”) and bà ngoại(“external grandmother”), respectively
cháu father’s sister a female teacher, an older woman as old as one’s father, a young (usually unmarried) woman (formal) in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to father’s younger sister
chú cháu father’s younger brother an older man as old as one’s father, a slightly younger man (formal) in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to father’s younger brother
thím cháu chú’s wife    
bác cháu a parent’s older sibling a person older than one’s parents in some dialects, can also refer to father’s elder brother or sister as well as mother’s elder brother or sister
cháu mother’s sister, stepmother a woman as old as one’s mother, in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to mother’s younger sister
cậu cháu mother’s brother a man as old as one’s mother, a close friend (Northern variety) in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to mother’s younger brother
mợ cháu cậu’s wife   in some dialects, used by the husband to refer to his wife, children to refer to mother, or parents-in-law to refer to a daughter-in-law
dượng cháu the husband of  or , stepfather    
cụ/cố cháu great-grandparent a very old person  
cháu great-great-grandparent    
họ   clan they third person plural for a group of people
Using the correct pronoun is extremely important as using the wrong one apparently can cause serious offense!  Hopefully they cut foreigners a little slack!I am on Unit 6 of Assimil and so far this is what I can say so far in Vietnamese:
Do you know her?
of course I know her!
Who is she?
She is my friend’s older sister.
Who is your friend?
My friend is Mr. Ho, husband of Mrs. Hoa.
What is her name?
Her name is Lan.
She is young and very pretty!

Ong có biết chị ấy không?
Tôi biết chu!
Cô ấy là ai?
Cô là chị gái của bạn tôi.
Ong bạn là ai?
Bạn tôi là ông Hồ, chồng bà Hòa.
Tên chị là gì?
Chị ấy tên là Lan.
chị ấy trẻ và đẹp qua!

Mr. What is your name?
My name is Ho.
What is your family- name?
My surname is Pham.
What is your work?
I am a journalist.
What about that woman? What is her name?
Her name is Tran Thin Lan.
She is also a journalist, isn’t she?
No She is a teacher.  

Ông tên là gì?
Tên tôi là Hồ.
Ông họ là gì?
Họ là Phạm.
Ông việc của là gì?
Tôi là nhà báo.
Ve cô ấy ? Tên cô ấy là gì?
Tên cô ấy là Trần Thìn Lan.
Cô cũng là nhà báo, không phải?
Không ,cô ấy là giáo viên.


A Side Trip to Bangladesh (or); What Makes a Popular Language?

My daughter and I have a weekly routine every Sunday night.  We watch the travel program Globe Trekker and transport ourselves vicariously to an exotic corner of the world (without the expense, time off work or food borne illnesses!).  Last Sunday we watched a Globe Trekker program on Bangladesh.  Truthfully, before seeing the program, I didn’t know much about Bangladesh aside from its reputation as being one of the poorest and densely populated countries in the world.  As it turns out, Bangladesh looks absolutely fascinating … outside of monsoon season that is … Tigers, jungles, river cruises, tea plantations in the mountains, interesting people; Bangladesh looks like an incredible place despite its reputation.

Of course, being the amateur linguist that I am, I had to investigate the Bengali language afterwards [also known as Bangla].  What I found was somewhat shocking.

Bangla is an Indo-Aryan language closely related to other Northern Indian languages such as Hindi, Assamese and Bihari.  Its vocabulary has also been heavily influenced by Persian.  It is native to the region comprising Bangladesh, West Bengal, and parts of the Indian states of Tripura and Assam. Bangla has nearly 300 million total speakers which makes it the sixth most spoken language in the world.


Bangla is also the second most spoken Indian language after Hindi.   Bangla speakers are actively campaigning to have it recognized as an official language of the U.N..  Bangla has an extremely rich history in art and literature as well as being the native language of Satyajit Ray, perhaps the best known Indian film director of the 20th century.  As far as its economy, Bangladesh ranked as the 43rd largest economy in the world in 2010.  That may not sound impressive, but it is growing at 6-7% per year. This makes it one of the fastest growing economies in the world.


This led me to ask myself, why aren’t more people studying Bangla?  In fact, why aren’t more people studying Indian languages in general?  After all, Hindi is estimated to have nearly 500 million speakers (native and second language speakers) which would rank it as the second most spoken language in the world. That is more speakers than either Spanish or English! (although some estimates place non-native English speakers as high as 1.5 billion)  Punjabi  is estimated to have as many as 110 million native speakers.  That’s more native speakers than German and twice as many native speakers as French and Italian!  Punjabi is now the fourth most spoken language in Canada.


These languages have also been designated as “critical languages” by the U.S. government ( Critical languages are languages where the need for trained speakers exceeds the number of bilingual speakers available. They are deemed critical for U.S. national security and economic competitiveness. The current critical languages as recognized by the U.S. government are: Arabic, Persian, Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali, Hindi/Urdu, Indonesian, Korean, Punjabi, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian).

For whatever reason, there is very little interest in the U.S. to study these languages. Less than 100 U.S. universities teach Hindi, while only 19 teach Bengali and 13 teach Punjabi.   Meanwhile, 875 U.S. universities teach Italian, 415 teach Portuguese, 120 teach Swahili, 80 teach Swedish, 60 teach Norwegian, 54 teach Irish (with 85,000 speakers)  and 30 teach Welsh (with 350,000 speakers). Spanish, French and German were not included in the database since virtually all U.S. universities include these languages in their curricula. (taken from the CARLA database at: http://www.carla.umn.edu/lctl/db/index.php )

One only needs to walk down the language aisle in a local bookstore to see volumes of instructional material in Dutch, Danish, Polish, Czech, Greek, even Bulgarian!  Hindi materials are rare and Bangla/Punjabi materials are non-existent! (Other Indian language materials in languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Marathi are even MORE scarce despite all of them having well in the tens of millions of speakers!) Clearly Indian languages are the unloved underdogs of the language universe. But why?!

I asked this question (specifically about Bangla)  to the members of a language forum here: http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=32357&PN=1
Here are some of the responses that I received:

“Probably because it doesn’t have much economic clout for a language of 300 million speakers. Languages with “rich culture” are a dime a dozen, but most language learners probably focus on the few languages that have enough economic clout to make their studies worthwhile. Another reason may be many Bangla people speak English, but I don’t know about that. “

“Bengali holds a very special position within modern Indian literature being the first language which gave voice to it, and several of its authors have earned a place within the universal canon of letters. Why isn’t it more widely studied? Lack of awareness, probably. Along with the position of English within India itself. “

“I can only speak for myself. There are some 6000 languages in the world. and I can’t study them all. Therefore, I study only a few. India and Bangladesh are far, far away. I have never visited them. Maybe I will some day, but I don’t  know. I only know one Bengali speaker. He speaks excellent English and some Norwegian, so I don’t need Bengali to speak to him. It makes more sense for me to study European languages. If I’m going to study an “exotic” language,  Chinese or Japanese seem like more obvious choices. “

“Plus you’re far more likely to meet a Japanese or Chinese businessman or tourist than a Bangla businessman or tourist. There’s economics again.”

“I think part of the reason is geography. Though it has a large population of native speakers, they mostly live in Bangladesh and West Bengal, in India. For native English speakers, there aren’t a lot of occasions to use Bengali or interact with Bengali (UNLESS you live in a part of the United States, the UK or Australia where there is a community.)  I think economics aren’t as strong of a reason to learn a foreign language than people may think… Spanish, in the US, for example, is often learned because of the weight of the Spanish-speaking population in the country. I think that contact is a really important element. “

“I have an uncle-in-law who is from Bangladesh. He and my aunt’s children (my cousins) don’t speak any Bengali. He speaks perfect English, I have never asked him if he spoke both Bengali and English as a child, his accent is a bit difficult to decipher… sounds somewhat like an Indian who has spoken English natively in addition to Hindi… I digress. He also speaks Chittagona (?) dialect. Anyway I have always wanted to try learning Bengali, just basic conversation, to surprise him some day. I never found a decent course, though, and also in the back of my mind was the idea that it might not be a good idea, since his own children never made the effort to learn, and I wouldn’t want to hurt any feelings. “

So, what makes a language popular (or unpopular) to study?  I doubt it rests solely on economic opportunities and benefits (the most commonly given reason) .  Clearly the number of speakers doesn’t have much of an influence since there are scores more US students studying Welsh and Irish than are studying Bangla and Punjabi. Could it be that the prevalence of English within India/Pakistan/Bangladesh makes foreigners feel as if learning the local languages are a waste of time?   Possibly, however, many Indians have told me that most Indians without a secondary education cannot communicate at all in English.

Heritage clearly has influence over language choice.  Considering that the first wave of immigrants to the U.S. were European, it is not hard to understand how the “Big 3” of language instruction emerged as French, German and Spanish.  Over the last 40 years, however, if one excludes Mexico and Central America, the immigrants have been overwhelmingly Asian.  While schools have taken an interest in promoting Japanese and Mandarin, there seems to be little interest in promoting Indian languages, Thai, Vietnamese or Filipino.

So, I guess I’m not really sure what it takes to make it as a “popular” language.  It does seem clear that French, German and Spanish will be secure as the preferred languages for secondary language instruction in the U.S. for many years to come. Perhaps once India overtakes China as the world’s most populous country people will pay India some respect?

Anyhow, this week I took a break from Georgian to brush up on my Hindi as it was getting quite rusty and I was inspired by my research.  I went down to my local Indian restaurant to grab a bite to eat and hopefully speak a little Hindi.  As I effortlessly produced a sentence in eloquent, PERFECT Hindi to my waitress ( if I do say so myself 🙂  ) , she gave me a funny look and shook her head.

“Sir, I’m Punjabi!!!”

(grrrr.. second most spoken language in the world and I can’t find anyone to speak it with …)