“Though I may speak some tongue of old”

I am a firm believer in the fact that animals can talk. We just need to learn how to listen. Understanding soon follows. And when you think about it, the language an animal uses is often hugely similar to that of humans, with grunts, screams, nudges, eye contact (or the lack of it). Animals communicate using sounds and body language just like we do. The problem in Vietnam is that I often understand the animals better than I do the people.

Thankfully science has come up with an ingenious way of making sure everyone is on the same page linguistically speaking when it comes to animals. They all have a “scientific” name in one language – Latin. This has solved a few problems for me here in Vietnam but generally, learning the Vietnamese for each animal species is a quicker, if less generic way to achieve some of the changes we are attempting at the zoo. But when I go for days at a time speaking nothing but hideously broken and badly pronounced Vietnamese I really do miss the complex beauty of the English language,

We who speak English as our native tongue should appreciate, daily, the ease and joy of knowing such a powerful language. It does not play by the rules it has set down for itself therefore making it incredibly difficult to learn and yet it can be found, in some form or another, across most of the world. Indeed in many parts graced by the throngs of tourism it is expected. Whenever I battle with another Vietnemse word or phrase I am attempting to master I sit back and consider the difficulties which English presents everyone here attempting to learn it. “Bear” and “beer” are two incredibly similar words which, when pronounced with a Vietnamese accent sound exactly the same (and you’d be surprised how often, in my current environment, this happens). But when I try to learn Vietnamese, the same problems occur. For example (and I give this example completely phonetically )I was trying to learn the phrase “very hot” because Vietnam is. I was told “noum buc” was the correct way to say it but I accidentally started pronouncing it as “num buc.” This means “hungry.” And so I have been walking around Hanoi telling everyone about my appetite instead of my opinions on the weather. And did I mention Vietnamese has 6 different pitches? That’s right – SIX!

However from our experiences around the world I have found there’s always a few useful words that are a good idea to learn where possible. It’s part of the experience, the locals will hugely appreciate it and it’s far more respectful to go to a place with an open mind, willing to a least try to learn the basics rather than demanding all exchanges be in English.

My most commonly used word here in Vietnam is “xinh dep” which means “beautiful.” It’s a good way to bring about a positive vibe almost instantly and can be a great way to offer praise as well as an obvious adjective for all the animals I am working with. However in other countries we’ve found the bread and butter of language usage to be centred around manners. Learning the words for “thank you,” “please,” “how are you?” and even “bless you” have all been useful in communicating and forming bonds with native speakers around the world.

What strikes me in Vietnam though is the desire (or sometimes lack of it) to learn English. I have heard of parents sending their babies to school to learn English before they even utter their first Vietnamese words and I have seen kids who have no desire to talk in anything other than their native tongue being hounded by parents and teachers alike to find some form of desire to practice it. Conversely there are also those who cannot speak it enough. Hoam Kiem lake is like a fishing net for locals attempting to catch a “Tay” in order to practice English with them. I’ve even been chased along a shopping mall corridor by a group of overly eager kids.

English here means power and money. If it is learnt it will mean huge opportunities for the speaker so I am not surprised at how desperate some are to become fluent. And I have to admit, as a “tay” it is a relief when you get into a taxi or face a shop keeper or have an exchange with a Vietnamese person and discover that they can speak English. For that brief period of time I know I won’t have to try and undergo an exchange in a language that is completely foreign to me. But all I can do is take my hat off to all these people who do master my language as well as their own. For all my qualifications and experience and advancement in life I have never been able to do what they have done and it is the most masterful skill in the world.



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