Foreign tongues don't always come easy

By Peter Jon Lindberg, Travel + LeisureUpdated 12th January 2012
It's back-to-school time at the Lindberg household, as a new semester of Vietnamese lessons begins this week. Once again I'll climb the stairs to my tutor's Chinatown walk-up, dog-eared vocab book in hand. Once again I'll return to my well-worn boulder and confounding hill, to resume my lifelong, Sisyphean attempt to learn a foreign language.
Professor Lap is an affable septuagenarian from Vinh Long province, possessed of periwinkle hair and infinite patience. Over the 22 months that I've studied Vietnamese with him, he has never lost his temper, no matter how relentlessly I butcher his mother tongue. His stoicism is a lesson in itself.
After retiring from a career in engineering, Lap took up teaching Vietnamese out of his apartment. Alas, it seems no amount of engineering could transform me into a capable Vietnamese speaker. My vocabulary still ranks below that of a toddler, my pronunciation no better than a newborn's. As with every second language I've endeavored to learn, some basic click has gone unclicked.
The irony of this -- Hi, I'm Peter; I make a living traveling and using words -- is not lost on me. I may be a chatty raconteur at home, but overseas I've always been a conspicuously quiet American.
My wife has no such problems. Born in Tehran, educated at international schools, Nilou spoke three languages -- Farsi, French, and English -- by the fourth grade. That same year her family left Iran for Paris; when she was 12 they moved to the States. In junior high she picked up Spanish, the way other people might pick up a stapler. Fluent in four tongues, she has no trace of an accent in any, such that shopkeepers in Chicago, Lyons, Seville, or Shiraz will all assume Nilou is a local. (If I'm with her, they guess she is a tour guide.)
I, meanwhile, can't even pronounce her proper name.
"Niloufar," I'll say.
"Niloufar," she'll correct me.
"Niloufar," I'll repeat, exactly as she said it.
"No, honey," she'll say. "Ni-lou-far."
I'll try again -- the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate, to collapse, in shame, on the teeth. This usually goes on for another 15 minutes before she gives up and goes back to her Le Figaro.
We have been married for eight years.
Unlike Nilou, I came to languages late -- at 14, with eighth-grade French. The teacher was a patchouli-reeking Deadhead from Montepelier, Vermont, which she insisted on pronouncing "Mohn-pell-yay."
It was the wrong language for me from the get-go. French, I quickly learned, is far less intuitive and far less forgiving than other tongues: precision is everything. (I have read that hapless French schoolchildren are forced to hold their crayons between the nose and upper lip for hours on end, to strengthen the muscles required to produce that pinched eu sound all budding francophones know and loathe.)
Through free-flowing conversation and interaction among students, the best language instructors make speaking feel as natural as possible. The problem is that (a) there is nothing remotely "natural" about speaking French, as any kid with a pencil mustache would tell you if he could only form the words; and (b) when you're a shy, pimply-faced pubescent boy, the very last thing you want to do is make eu sounds in a dialogue with Gretchen Hoginski, who already thought you were kind of odd and mumbly to begin with.
And so it was in eighth-grade French class that I experienced the first twinges of performance anxiety. That's how it's been for me ever since. In France, I still break into flop sweats at boulangeries, banks, and railway stations, nervously awaiting my turn in line. Often I'll chicken out before reaching the front of the queue, telling myself, Y'know, I don't really need that croissant/cash/train ticket. It's cool. I'll just walk over here instead.
So, as a monoglot traveler, do I have a less "complete" experience than my polyglot wife? Of course I do. Traveling in places where you don't speak the language is like going to a play in Hungarian: the scenery is lovely, but you have no idea what the hell is going on. (Wait, why'd that guy kill the other guy? Is that her boyfriend? Hold up -- that's her dad?) The monolingual tourist always has the nagging sense that he's missed something -- that same feeling you'd get from the dating sections of old Berlitz phrase books, which jumped magically from "Can I buy you a drink?" to "How was it for you?"
But back to professor Lap. I've been traveling to Vietnam since the mid-nineties, yet until two years ago I'd never attempted to learn the language. It is, needless to say, challenging for a Westerner. Like Mandarin and Thai, Vietnamese is a tonal language, demanding both a highly attuned ear and a high threshold of embarrassment, since one is not just uttering strange syllables but singing them. While it does use the Roman alphabet, written Vietnamese functions more like sheet music, with diacritics to indicate the tones. Those tones are crucial: a single phoneme -- like ga -- might have five different meanings based on variations in pitch. My constant fear is that the wrong melody could turn "I'd like to rent a motorbike" into "I'd like to eat your dog."
After a few months with Professor Lap, I returned to Vietnam to try out my newfound skills. My fantasy was to sit in a café next to a tableful of giggling Vietnamese teenagers, who, as per usual, would poke fun at me in their native tongue, the big goofy American, until I'd finally spin around and say, in pitch-perfect Vietnamese, "AHA! So I amuse you, eh? Well, look who's talking now, suckers!"
Sadly, Professor Lap hadn't taught me how to say "suckers." And overall, speaking Vietnamese didn't work out like I planned. I was comfortable enough with food words -- eating being my favorite thing to do in Vietnam. It was sentences that flummoxed me. I could launch conversations, but had to withdraw quickly before they got too involved. Here was a not-atypical exchange, this one with my hotel concierge:
"Tôi tên là Peter," I began. My name is Peter.
"Xin chào anh," he replied. "Anh làm nghê' gì?" (Literally: "You do job what?")
And here I was stuck.
"Mm-hmm," I said, considering my options. He waited. A full minute went by. My cheeks grew hot. Finally, like a typewriting monkey, I let loose a flurry of Vietnamese words -- any words, just to fill the space -- which I believe translated to: "Cat! Blouse! Shrimp! Pencil! Soup!"
A look of panic crossed the concierge's face. He stood perfectly still, hoping I'd just walk away. I did.
In some cases people wouldn't even acknowledge I was speaking Vietnamese. At restaurants I'd ask the waitstaff for my bill -- thanh toán tiê'n -- only to be met with blank stares. "Thanh toán tiê'n," I'd repeat, scribbling the air as if signing a check. Again, nothing. I could see their mental gears turning: How strange -- it sounds like the pink man is saying "Check, please," but he couldn't possibly be speaking Vietnamese. So what is it he wants?
After a week of this I began to doubt my ability to communicate at all. Why had I chosen such a difficult language? So I'd have yet another excuse to fail? Why not, say, Italian? It always sounds so easy, so obvious, so fun. All those hand gestures! But no. I had to pick Vietnamese -- lousy, useless, singsongy Vietnamese.
Anglophones are blessed and cursed to speak the planet's lingua franca; wherever we go, the world indulges our ignorance. That's surely why the U.S. has such a low rate of bilingualism. The other reason is just stubborn, swollen pride, particularly among males. American men don't speak foreign languages for the same reason we don't consult road maps or dance the tango: because we're afraid of looking stupid, particularly in hostile terrain. It is a humiliating thing to be reduced to a babbling buffoon, all the while knowing that if they'd just for God's sake speak ENGLISH one would be revealed as the charming and eloquent man folks know back home.
In John Fowles's novel The Magus, the protagonist -- a British ESL instructor living in Greece -- likens teaching English to foreigners to "being a champion at tennis...condemned to play with rabbits." Whenever I travel to non-English-speaking countries, I feel rather like a rabbit forced to play tennis with Rafael Nadal -- except Nadal doesn't realize I'm actually awesome at hockey.
And there's the rub. In my native tongue I take pride in deploying words carefully. Speaking French, Farsi, Spanish, or Vietnamese, I'm all too aware that I sound like a jackass.
Other people, not so much. At a restaurant in Provence, I winced as a British tourist made a fool of himself in horrible French, ordering "cocka van" (coq au vin) and "frizzy larduns" (frisée au lardons). Yet the waiter ate it up -- and understood every word. When he arrived at our table, by contrast, I could barely get a word out, so hung up I was on proper conjugation and gender agreement.
Which prompts the question: Is it better to say a few things well, or many things badly? If you're too concerned with linguistic correctness, you wind up losing le bois pour les arbres. Perfectionism is self-defeating. The trick, I now realize, is to plow ahead undaunted, using whatever words you've got, no matter how ridiculous you sound.
Isn't that so, Niloufar?