I spent the entire year of 1959 in rigorous study of Vietnamese. When I graduated, top of my class of ten, at the end of the year, I expected the army to post me to Vietnam. But the army had little interest and almost no activities in Vietnam at the time, so I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C. Once I was in place and had a car, I fulfilled my dream of learning Chinese by enrolling in classes at Georgetown University in the District of Columbia. By the end of 1961, when I completed my army enlistment, I was comfortable speaking Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. NSA hired me as a civilian employee and sent me to Vietnam for the first time in 1962. For the next thirteen years, I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the states, then escaped under fire when Saigon fell in April 1975.
During those years, I spoke Vietnamese constantly, sometimes all day every day. I seized every opportunity to speak Chinese, but the large Chinese population of Vietnam didn’t speak the dialect I had learned, called Mandarin or Gwo Yu ( 國語—“national language”). And Chinese dialects are not mutually intelligible. So, as reported earlier in this blog, I visited Hong Kong every chance I got, only to discover that Gwo Yu is the Beijing dialect of Chinese. The native dialects of the Chinese living in Hong Kong varied—Cantonese was the most common, as far as I could tell—but I found no native speakers of Mandarin. They could understand my dialect, but their Mandarin was so heavily accented that I couldn’t understand them.
My failure to find a speaker of Gwo Yu did nothing to quell my enthusiasm for Chinese. It shares with Vietnamese monosyllabic structure, dependance on compounds, and lack of a grammar. Mandarin only uses four tones (other dialects have more—Cantonese has six or nine tones, depending on what one considers to be a tone), and I found it easier to learn as a spoken language than I did Vietnamese. But as a written language, it is by far the most difficult I have ever tried to learn. It uses characters.