Languages Come Easily (2)

Immediately after basic training, the army assigned me to the Army Language School (ALS, now known as the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey, California. I had enlisted with the proviso that I would attend ALS to study Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me. I had grown up in the San Francisco bay area, surrounded by Chinese businesses and restaurants. I was intrigued that none of the languages I knew bore any resemblance to Chinese.

But when I arrived at ALS, the army commanded me to study not Chinese but Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—in those days, we called that part of the world French Indochina, not Vietnam. I was disappointed but had to do what the army commanded.

I found myself in a new linguistic world. Vietnamese has no grammar, no parts of speech, no declensions or conjugations. Tense is often not expressed. Meaning derives from context and word order.

In the place of pronouns, Vietnamese speakers adopt family relationships so that I and the person I am speaking with use familial terms for “I” and “you.” In informal settings, the most common terms are anh for older brother, em for younger sibling, and ch for older sister. If the person I am speaking with is younger than me, I use anh for “I” and em for “you.” The person I am talking to uses em for “I” and anh for “you.” So literally translated, the conversation would read “Does younger brother [or sister] want coffee?” “No, younger brother doesn’t want coffee. Does older brother?”

Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language. Each word is a simple single sound. Words can be combined into compounds to express complex or elevated meaning. And each monosyllable is pronounced one of six tones: level, falling, rising, low rising, low glottal stop, or high “creaky”—rising in the voice with a glottal stop followed further rising.

After a year of intensive study (six hours a day in the classroom, two hours of private study each night, five days a week), I began a fourteen-year period of constant writing, reading, and speaking Vietnamese. Assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA), I worked in Vietnamese. When my army enlistment ended, NSA hired me and sent me to Vietnam. Between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year. I was there five years on PCS (permanent change of station) tours and for shorter periods, called TDYs (temporary duty, usually four to six months) so many times I lost count.

The Vietnamese language became my life.

More tomorrow.

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