Real Conversations, Real People—At the Vietnamese Market

Recently, I wanted to call Vietnam to talk to my daughter’s birth family, and I got some good advice from a neighbor, who is Vietnamese: buy a phone card. I asked her where I could get a phone card anywhere near here, and she told me they’re for sale at the Vietnamese market. (The Vietnamese market? Near our neighborhood? Will wonders never cease?) She offered to pick up a phone card for me, but seeing this as an opportunity to practice my newly acquired Vietnamese language skills, I went to the market myself.

I walked in the door of the market and my nose was assailed with the smell of fish. It was, after all, the Saigon Fish Market. I saw two young women behind the counter. I was extremely nervous about talking with them in their language. What if they didn’t understand me? What if they asked me something I didn’t understand and couldn’t answer? What if they laughed at me?

But, having had many really great Rosetta Studio sessions, I was determined to try to speak with them at least.

So, I walked up to the counter and a young woman with short hair said, “Can I help you?” in English. And I said, with heart pounding and wondering if I should try it or not, “Vâng!” I half expected her to react with the same delight that I felt. She was waiting for me to continue, with one eyebrow raised, as if thinking, “Let’s see what else you’ve got, lady.”

So I very hesitantly continued, “Tôi muốn có một điện thoại . . . card.” I didn’t know the Vietnamese word for card so I had to slip into English.

The second woman behind the counter asked, “Bạn có học tiếng Việt?”

“Vâng, tôi đang học tiếng Việt,” I replied.

“Ở đâu?” the short-haired woman asked.

OK, so it was a short exchange and I couldn’t go much further. I could’ve asked her how much the card cost. But when she asked me where I was learning Vietnamese, I had to go back to English and tell her I’m learning on the computer using Rosetta Stone software. The thing that was important about this short exchange was that not only did I have the courage to try to speak in this very difficult language that feels like a rollercoaster when I speak it, but two total strangers understood me.

The other great thing was that it was a normal conversation. I realized that when the short-haired woman asked me where I was learning Vietnamese by just asking, “Where?”—rather than creating a formal sentence to express herself.

When I walked into the store my heart was pounding, and I was very nervous and ready to just speak English. But because I’ve had that same feeling many times in Rosetta Studio sessions, I was familiar with the “just jump in” feeling as well. What have you got to lose? What if those folks you’re trying to speak to don’t understand you? They’ll probably applaud your effort, and perhaps, like in my case, your short exchange will turn into a real conversation between real people.

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Radius Images, courtesy of Getty Images

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