Shortly after finishing my PhD, my wife and I did a home-improvement project that involved replacing the toilet in our house. I had a greater feeling of accomplishment from that project than I felt upon completing my PhD. Why? Because a toilet is something that one can use every day.
Vietnamese class started this week. For the next 39 weeks, my full-time job will be to learn the Vietnamese language. Why 39 weeks? You ask. Good question, I answer. My wife is in class, too, as an “EFM.” “EFM” stands for “eligible family member.” Eligible for what, you ask? Good question, I answer.
Language training here at the Foreign Service Institute is intense. We are in class for five hours per day. There are about 20 students in the Vietnamese section. We will all work in the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. This week we had some classes all together, learning the basics of the sound system. Then we broke out into our small groups of three or four for in-depth work. In addition to class time, there is homework and time in the language lab. This is a full-time job.
I was a bit anxious about starting language. I haven’t learned a new language in over 20 years. I’ve spent most of my adult life working on my Chinese proficiency. So the idea of jumping head-first into learning a new language was unnerving. But more importantly, I don’t want my Chinese to suffer. My wife and I still talk in Chinese together, as we always have, so at least my everyday language will probably not erode. But I’m still worried about my reading ability.
But even with the negatives, this phase of my life is an interesting intellectual challenge. I did my PhD in linguistics, focusing on second language acquisition. I’ve been interested in adult language acquisition for a long time. Mostly, I have focused on the teaching side. I haven’t experienced the student side for a long time.
For an adult, language learning is a cognitively challenging task. An adult’s experience of learning a language is probably fundamentally different from a child’s learning a first language. There are some serious challenges to adults who try to learn a second language. While all children learn their native language perfectly, most adults who try to learn a second language fail to achieve more than basic functional ability. This is probably because our brains work differently at this stage in life. Although diplomats are intelligent and highly motivated, most of us will be disappointed with our progress in language learning.
I have some advantages over my classmates, I think. This first week we focused on the sound system. Vietnamese has some different consonants from English, and the vowel system is different from English in many ways. That’s where my advantage is. Because of my background in theoretical linguistics, I can grasp the differences a bit easier than my classmates, at least conceptually. Also, Vietnamese is a tonal language. Chinese is as well, of course, and so even though Vietnamese tones are different from Chinese tones, at least I know how to listen for tones. A few people have never learned any foreign language, let alone a tonal language. They wear worried expressions on their faces a lot.
There are several Chinese speakers in our class, including a few native speakers. When they make mistakes pronouncing tones, I usually can tell the reason for their mistakes. First language has an influence on the second language. That’s why adult non-native speakers have foreign accents. I probably make a lot of the same mistakes, but when the teacher points them out, I can correct for the mistake easier. At least at the initial stages of learning, I predict that I will have less pain and frustration.
So far, language learning has been an interesting intellectual experience. Like all “good” language learners, I am testing hypotheses about the language as I develop my “interlanguage.” I like to think that my interlanguage is more linguistically informed. I like the experience of applying the theoretical knowledge that I have about language, to the task of language learning. Time will tell how useful my linguistic background will be. In the words of the famous philosopher Han Solo, “Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.”