Residing and Abiding

Finding Ourselves at Home in a Vibrant Vietnam

The Triangle Conversation

by Presley & Mary McFadden |

Image: The Triangle Conversation
"So do you speak the language okay?"

This is a question I often receive when friends here in the States or in Singapore find out I'm going back to Vietnam after having lived there before (2004-2007). The beauty of this question is that I can honestly answer it with, "Yeah, I can speak it okay", and just leave it at that. Unless...well...unless there are follow-up questions. After all, "okay" is pretty relative term. Still though, if friends just stick to asking about my SPEAKING/PRONUNCIATION ability, I can maintain some sense of pride.

So without further ado, allow me to clothe myself in humility before all and just clear things up about my Vietnamese - as well as invite some suggestions for improvement from fellow strugglers amid their own respective language learning.

When I left Hanoi in 2007, my Vietnamese SPEAKING was at best intermediate-level. I felt I was getting stronger than ever in vocabulary and flowing a lot more just as it was time for me to return to the States. My LISTENING was at best...not good (and by "not good", I mean "bad"). I would submit that describing it as elementary-level would be kind. It was a common occurrence for me to have what I call: "The Triangle Conversation". Allow me to explain.

I would initiate a conversation with a Vietnamese stranger or acquaintance and, sure enough, they would respond. Only, I wouldn't know exactly what was being said and very few times could I guess from context. A different friend (e.g. fellow REI-Colleague, Vietnamese colleague sitting next to me in the teacher's lounge) or another stranger would step in and translate what was being said to me. This often stunted any opportunity I had to have some kind of 'ah-ha! moment' on my own as there was little to no negotiation of meaning. Anyway, I would respond - often accurately. So the conversation would CONTINUE, much to my surprise/concern. And so the triangle began. Vietnamese stranger/acquaintance talks to my REI Colleague or Vietnamese friend (identifying THEM as the competent listeners) - my friend translates for me - I talk to the Vietnamese stranger/acquaintance.

Ladies and gentlemen, here we have the Triangle Conversation!

A variation of the Triangle occurred one summer day in 2006 when me and my friend from China, Meng Yao, were out at a handicraft store near my University. I said some things to the owner, she responded, and I understood. All was well. But then, as the conversation got deeper (oh, you know, about 3 questions in), I panicked and had no clue. Meng Yao, at that stage in her Vietnamese language learning, was a much better listener than me, though not as 'good' at speaking. So what transpired was - you guessed it: The Multi-Ethnic Triangle Conversation. The Vietnamese woman spoke to my Chinese friend, who translated what the Vietnamese woman said to me, who (me again!) than spoke to the Vietnamese woman.

If it were a circle, I would say "and round and round we went" - but it really was more like a triangle. So, I don't know...45 degree angle UP, 45 degree angle DOWN, horizontal line OVER, and 45 degree angle UP we go?

Finally, to round out how my Vietnamese language abilities really are, I would submit that my READING was a solid elementary and my WRITING a pre-intermediate perhaps (again, this is all at BEST). In brief, below average productive skills and poor receptive skills. To sum up, I've got a ways to go in improving my Vietnamese. Thanks for supporting me in this aspiration. If you have any suggestions for when I return, I'm all ears. As long as you're speaking in English anyway.

About the author: Presley & Mary McFadden Presley & Mary McFadden

Presley McFadden has been working with REI-VN since 2004. From 2004-2007, he lived in Vietnam and taught first-year English majors with his fellow Hanoi University colleagues and REI staff. In 2007, he facilitated meetings with Vietnamese teachers to gain further insight into how the Vietnamese perceived the English curriculum. Presley earned his English teaching certification (CELTA) through Cambridge University in 2003 and graduated from the University of Texas-Arlington (USA) with his Master's in TESOL in 2009. He and his wife, Mary, are happily married and plan to return to Vietnam as resident staff in 2011.


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