The misunderstanding of why foreigners do not speak the language of the country they live.
27.10.2013 30 °C
I am commonly asked how long I have lived in Vietnam and when I reply 2 years, the next question that follows is whether I speak Vietnamese. I usually give the simple answer, which is 'No', with a brief justification about how I teach children in English and that they are actively discouraged from speaking Vietnamese in my class.
Now, to anyone who has not lived in a foreign country, you may share the locals' negative view that I do not speak Vietnamese but I would argue that there are some very justifiable reasons that the large majority of 'foreigners' (i.e. people like me) do not learn the native language of the country they live.
Firstly, expats live and work in an English speaking world. English is the common language spoken by people wherever they come from. Listen to tourists at Ben Thanh market haggling over souvenirs, or the Japanese residents of Sky Garden ordering coffee at the Korean run cafe. They all speak English. It's not laziness on the part of native English speakers, it's just that everyone is speaking English so why wouldn't we? Even when you befriend local people they usually want to improve their English and enjoy speaking English with you. This is not to say that they won't attempt to teach you little useful words and phrases in their own language but you are never going to become a fluent speaker of Vietnamese over coffee at Trung Nguyen.
That leads me to the next point. What would it actually take for a native English speaker to become a functional speaker of a language that does not have that common European language root (i.e. French, Italian, Spanish, Greek)? As EAL teachers, we know that it takes years of study, practice and exposure to a language to become fluent in it. The most common driving force to learn a language comes from basic wants and needs. So then, if you don't need to speak Vietnamese to order food or to find a toilet, the incentive for learning how to say those things is very small. However, when you repeatedly travel by taxi but struggle to communicate your address or give directions to the driver, then the incentive to learn those things in Vietnamese is much greater.
In Taiwan, the level of English was very low and I was forced to learn a number of things in Chinese to facilitate living there. I cannot hold any kind of conversation but I can ask for my bubble tea to have less ice and sugar, I can say 'thank you', and I can understand how much something costs because I learned the numbers up to 100. These small attempts at using Chinese did placate the locals there because I was at least trying to speak Chinese even if it was badly. In Vietnamese I know much less and that is what upsets the locals here. What they don't know is that, slowly and surely I am trying to learn the sounds and how to read them in Vietnamese. I am also learning about Vietnamese sentence structure through my children's mistakes but I just don't have any vocabulary. I also don't have the time or energy to study a difficult language twice a week, with homework, after spending all day with children.
Most of the foreigners I know who started Vietnamese lessons, or in fact any language lessons in the countries I've lived, have quit because they find the languages too complex to pick up in the short time they intend to stay in the country. They could study the language intensively for two years but then they would move on, have no use for the language and then lose much of what they learned through lack of practise. That is why, three countries on, I have never signed up for language lessons.
There is also a somewhat practical and perhaps selfish factor to consider in all this. As much as I would love to profess that I had moved to Taiwan, Egypt and Vietnam to embrace the country, culture and people, the reality is that I didn't. I came because I found work in these countries. My passion lies in Spanish-speaking countries. I love the people, the language and the music. I have always wanted to live in a Spanish-speaking country and would love to be a fluent Spanish speaker. After two years of living in Vietnam I love the people, my job and the life I have here but my future is not here. So, my desire to learn Vietnamese is less.
So there you have it...an honest and practical take on why foreigners do not learn the language of the countries they live.