Languages Come Easily (3)

When the army first assigned me to the National Security Agency (NSA), I discovered that the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., offered a master’s degree in Chinese. I enrolled as a part-time student. Within a few years, I was competent in all three languages of Vietnam—Vietnamese, Chinese, and French.

My study of Chinese broadened my understanding of Asian linguistic thinking. Like Vietnamese, Chinese is a monosyllabic language using tones. It, too, employs compounds. What makes it so difficult is its writing system: characters.

The Chinese character consists of two elements: the radical and the phonetic. The radical gives some hint on the meaning, the phonetic a suggestion about the pronunciation. There are 214 radicals. The number of phonetics seems infinite.

There are some 80,000 Chinese characters. And if Chinese is like other languages, new words—therefore new characters—appear every year. The Chinese spend their entire lives learning characters and still have to refresh their memory, just as we English-speakers use a dictionary to check our spelling.

The writing of characters is an art in itself. The characters are drawn, ideally, not with a pen but with a paint brush. I practiced writing characters (with a pen, not a brush) for years but never achieved even a workman’s level excellence. It is a lifetime pursuit.

The study of Chinese further broadened my understanding of how languages work and deepened my insight into modes of thinking and logic. Because I am a writer by vocation, my knowledge of other languages significantly advanced my ability to use English.

I was surprised how often others expressed admiration for my dogged determination to learn foreign languages. To most Americans, speaking a language other than English is a major achievement. In other countries, knowing more than one language is routine. It’s time we Americans changed the way we think about languages.

More next time.

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.

Languages Come Easily

As regular readers of this blog know, I had a rough childhood. Since I was left on my own and had to take care of myself, I was allowed to indulge in whatever pastimes appealed to me. One of them was learning languages.

Since I had no data for comparison, I didn’t know that Americans consider foreign languages exceptionally difficult. All I knew was that they intrigued me. So I proceeded to teach myself French and Italian. The similarities between them and their dissimilarity to English fascinated me. I began to understand that the human mind can think in a variety of different logics.

In high school, by choice, I had four years of Latin. The source of so much English vocabulary and the basis of French and Italian in Latin made me understand for the first time that languages are interdependent and regularly influence one another.

In college, I added German to my language bank. Here was a language that was not derived from Latin which was, in fact, the underlying basis of English. The complexity of German vocabulary and grammar awakened my mind to the complexity inherent in languages and greatly enhanced my understanding of English.

Through it all, I marveled at the degree to which language shapes and sometimes limits thinking. It became a habit with me to mentally express the same thought in each of the languages I had studied and note the subtle differences in meaning an idea takes on as it moved from one language to another. That habit became so ingrained that it was a regular voice in my mind going on constantly at a level somewhere below consciousness.

Up to that point, all the languages I knew were western and interrelated. When, after college and joining the army, I began to study Asian languages, I found myself in a new world.

More tomorrow.

Why I Eat Fast

Whenever I go out to dinner with a group, I’m invariably the first one finished eating. My meals at home (I live alone) are simple and quick. I read while eating, table manners ignored, and do a fast cleanup before returning to work. Over the years, many people have noted that I eat faster than anyone they’ve ever seen. Why?

I attribute my rapid eating to two factors: hunger when I was a child and little time to eat on the battlefield.

In recent posts, I’ve mentioned in passing that as a child I often didn’t get enough to eat. My mother and I, living alone (my father was in prison), were desperately poor due primarily to her alcoholism. Frequently there was no food in our apartment in the slums. I had no choice but to do without.

So when I had a chance to eat, I gobbled down my food as fast as I could, never sure where my next meal would come from.

As a young man, working for the National Security Agency (NSA) in Vietnam, my job was on the battlefield, supporting U.S. troops (both army and Marines) with signals intelligence about the North Vietnamese, our enemy. If the troops and I had time to eat at all, we considered ourselves fortunate. I learned to cram down C-rations quickly before the fighting started again.

Eating as fast as possible became an ingrained habit. As a result, I see food less as a pleasure than as a necessity. Eating is almost a waste of time. The sooner finished, the better.

As I age, I’m struck by the degree experience shapes us. As we live, so go our lives.

On My Own (3)

The last week of April 1975 in Saigon, I went without sleep or food, except for bar snacks I’d been able scrounge before I couldn’t drive thanks to the mobs of refugees who were so numerous that cars could no longer get through. I don’t remember being hungry or tired. I remember being hell-bent on assuring that none of my subordinates or their families were killed. Not only was there no one to help me, the ambassador had forbidden me to evacuate my people. Toward the end, I bought with my own money a ticket on Pan Am for one of the last of my guys and told him to go. That was the last Pan Am flight out of Vietnam.

By 27 April, I had managed to quietly evacuate all my guys and their families save two communications technicians who agreed to stay with me to the end. I succeeded in getting those two guys  safely out of the country on the afternoon of 29 April when they flew by helicopter to a ship pf the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. By then the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon. I escaped by chopper that night under fire.

Looking back, I’m thankful that my modus operandi was to rely on myself. It was up to me alone, and I did it. I’m genuinely proud.

At this point in my life, I can’t be sure how much of my pronounced self-reliance was inborn—a gift as my reader put it—and how much came from the circumstances I found myself in. Of necessity, I became a loner, determined to make it on my own.

Whatever its roots, my insistence on doing whatever had to be done without depending on others saved lives including my own. I can’t complain.

On My Own (2)

Self-reliance served me well in Vietnam during my many tours. While providing signals intelligence data to army and Marine forces on the battlefield throughout South Vietnam, I was the only American civilian within hundreds of miles. I lived with the troops, ate with them, slept by their side, used their latrines, and went into combat with them.

In 1974, after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, I headed the covert NSA operation there. The 43 men working for me, all veterans, were experts at their specialties. I didn’t have to tell them what to do or how to do it. My job was to support them, encourage them, and give them what they needed to do their job. My responsibility, in other words, was not to manage them but to lead them. And the guys outdid themselves, producing astonishing results. Thanks to them, I knew that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon. I warned the U.S. ambassador, but he didn’t believe the warning and didn’t act on it. He even forbade me to evacuate my men and their families.

The survival of my subordinates and their wives and children was my responsibility—it was up to me and me alone to get them safely out of the country. Once again, I was on my own. To avoid alarming my men, I didn’t tell them that the ambassador had ordered me not to evacuate them. Using any excuse I could think of—vacations, home leave, business travel—I got them all safely out of the country before it fell to the North Vietnamese. Only years later did I discover that they had known about the ambassador’s edict all along but pretended not to know to keep from stressing me out.

More tomorrow.