The author of this article, a Vietnamese businessman working in Singapore, tells his own story on how his mother tongue has helped him in business and how much he loves it
In my school years, I had to learn French as a foreign language, which forced me to grapple with the riddles of French grammar—regular and irregular verbs, genders of nouns, agreement of adjectives, sequence of tenses or time, and nasal pronunciation, to name just a few.
I once dreamt that I was born a Frenchman so that I could relieve myself of such a burden. After graduation from university, I had to learn English.
Then I wanted to become a native Briton because I thought he would need to learn no other language when the whole world speaks English!
I don’t know whether you would laugh at that ridiculous thought of mine.
In fact, it was my foreign language skills, starting with French, which earned me an opportunity to work at one of Vietnam’s leading banks immediately (shortly) after my university graduation in 1990.
Thanks to my English, I fulfilled the task assigned to an overseas representative of a Vietnamese commercial bank. Using my English, I have learned other languages—for instance Chinese, Thai and Malay, was exposed to various cultures, and improved my knowledge through reading and communicating.
It was also English that gave me a chance to finish my master’s degree at one of the most prestigious universities in the region and around the world
Nowadays, on my way of being a consultant, foreign language command is one of my indispensable survival kits in Singapore where different cultures of multilingual and multiracial communities from over the world converge.
However, another potent “weapon” has helped me survive and fare well during more than a decade of living and working in a foreign country.
Many Vietnamese citizens have yet to be fully aware of the wonderful effectiveness of that weapon—the Vietnamese language itself.
I still bear in mind my first business lunch in Singapore with a senior official from the United Overseas Bank.
Following our conversations about economic and financial topics, the official posed questions on Vietnamese culture, spoken and written language, arts and cuisine.
I felt helpless and ashamed at the time as I was unable provide him satisfactorily with what he wanted to know.
It then turned out to me that my country had many wonders and intrinsic values I should be fully aware of.
My father was a teacher, but fate has brought me a business career.
I still remember my first days in business when in conversation or waiting for a consulting or translation contracts to be inked, several of my clients said they intended to learn Vietnamese.
Obsessed with the poverty suffered by a teacher’s family during the hard times after Vietnam’s reunification in 1975, I used to consider teaching a second job while nurturing bigger dreams.
Yet, as a destiny, I have become an accidental instructor of Vietnamese in addition to consultancy and trade representation.
I cannot afford to refuse the interest in the Vietnamese language and culture evinced by foreign learners in Singapore.
But my pride in being able to “export” the Vietnamese language and culture in Singapore has been much dented by many common bad practices of some Vietnamese here.
The word “Vietnam” is sometimes associated with “red-light” districts, such as Geylang and Joo Chiat.
Vietnamese women have been covered in scandalous news in both the mainstream Straits Times and the local sensational press.
A considerable number of Vietnamese students have created “jobs” for Singapore police forces and have helped Singapore reporters “enrich” their features of court cases.
In our chat, a friend told me that “Vietnam Inc.” in this island state is poor as it has suffered numerous injuries.
But I love it anyway.
We Vietnamese have a song named “Giận thì giận mà thương thì thương” (literally, “I love you although I’m disappointed in you”).
Not long ago, I watched a music show titled “Tôi yêu tiếng nước tôi” (I love my country’s tongue) organized at the National University of Singapore by Vietnamese students to raise funds for in-country disadvantaged children.
Among the guest to the show was musician Pham Duy [whose song was used for the name of the show].
Tickets were sold out and the auditorium was full.
Despite minor problems, the performance was successful given the Vietnamese spirit of “in preference to uprightness, not talent.”
As the representative for a sponsor of the program, I shook hand with the students and congratulated them on the success, expressing my thanks to them for having brought to this island state the songs, dances, smiles and national long dresses distinctively Vietnamese.
Fate was kind to me that I was born a Vietnamese and my mother tongue is Vietnamese.
Should I ever have a rebirth, I would prefer to be a Vietnamese to speak Vietnamese again.
As part of my job, I have always tried to improve my foreign languages.
However, the more I learn about them, the deeper I feel I know about my native tongue.
By Le Huu Huy