Between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year. I had two complete tours there and so many shorter trips that I lost count. I had long since learned to think in the three languages of the country—Vietnamese, Chinese, and French—and I spoke them constantly.
I was intrigued to come across well-to-do Vietnamese who spoke only French. They had grown up during the period of French domination and considered the Vietnamese language to be crude and coarse. And the native French still living in Vietnam had never bothered to learn Vietnamese. The many Chinese in Vietnam, I was disappointed to discover, spoke the Cantonese dialect as their native tongue—and different dialects in Chinese are not mutually intelligible. I had studied the Beijing dialect, known as 國 語 (guo yu—national language). But almost all of the Chinese in Vietnam had also learned the Beijing dialect, although they spoke it with an accent and mispronounced some of the words.
As readers of this blog know all too well, I escaped under fire as Saigon fell. I returned to the U.S. and went on working for NSA until I retired as early as I could and became a full-time writer. During my early years of retirement, it dawned on me that I had never learned the most commonly spoken foreign language in the U.S., namely Spanish. So I enrolled in classes at Howard Community College to study Spanish, my seventh foreign language.
As my hearing has declined over the years, I speak languages other than English less frequently. I discovered early on that I can lip-read English, but I can’t do the same in other languages.
One of the many benefits of knowing languages other than English is to learn the underlying logic inherent in each. The linguistic systems that undergird English and German are closely related. And French, Italian, and Spanish share a systematic basis not too distant from that of the Germanic languages. But Asian languages are based on a way of thinking unrelated to that of western languages.