Sunday, May 08, 2005

Give me those school rolls in Vietnamese

Last year, I wrote a post on how you can write Vietnamese in Blogger. You can find other information on the net (such as the Unikey website), but they're in ... ahem, Vietnamese. They're not much for second language learners. So after a little bit of testing and reverse engineering, I wrote it up. Check it out if you are interested.

Now this post is on why I write Vietnamese in Blogger. To be precise, I write English, but I preserve the accents and tone markers in Vietnamese names. Not the language, but the names. For example, I write: "I live in Sài Gòn", not "I live in Sai Gon", nor "I live in Saigon". And as an English teacher, I reckon it is not only more informative (because you get a noggin' of how to pronounce the name), but is also perfectly decent English. But as you will see, not everybody agrees...

At the moment, work is pretty slow in the English-teaching business. It's the fallow period between Tết (the Lunar new year) and summer. The kids are doing their exams at their state-educated schools - the ones that let them go up from grade x to grade x + 1. Or university. They're cramming their maths and science and literature, and English can go hang. So the hours are tight, and so is the money. At my current school, I'm down to substitution work. I like the school, and I like the teachers, but I'm not too happy with the way that schedules have wound down for most. Neither are a lot of other teachers, I hear.

Hopefully, the trickle will turn into a deluge during summer school - June to August. It's school holidays (as far as the government is concerned) and kids have a lot more time on their hands. Why not send them to some accelerated courses in English? It gets them out of the parents' hair, and the teachers roll in the money, and the kids spend less time wasting their pocket money at Diamond Plaza. But that's in a month's time, and funds are low. So I've been chasing up ads, and even got myself work at a second school.  

I come in to prepare for my lesson. I chat with one of my managers. She shows me where everything is: computers, markers, and most importantly, the class folder. There's a schedule in there, and a class roll.  I do some preparation, and then come back to the roll. There's something funny about it.... hmm... aaa... no diacritics in the student names. No diacritics at all. Normal Vietnamese names like "Nguyễn Đức Diễm" (a made up example) would be listed as "Nguyen Duc Diem". It's common in this town, but a pain in the arse if it interferes with your job. So I go back to the manager.

"Excuse me. I've just looked at the roll. It didn't have any tone marks. Is is possible to find out what the original Vietnamese names are? Are they on computer somewhere? It would help."

"Oh. I've never thought about that. Maybe we could." Being Việt Kiều, I think she was quite sympathetic to the idea.

"That would be good. It just helps me pronounce the student's names correctly." Which I think is common courtesy to attempt, even if you don't always succeed in the attempt. The manager asked someone from the administrative side of things (a local) over for the discussion. The administrator looked a little bit confused. "Well, it is an English school, so the names are in 'English'", she said... with the unspoken assumption that do so, you have to remove all those unsightly tildes and accents and breves and whatnot. "Nguyen" is English, but "Nguyễn" is not English... even though they are really different forms of a good, honorable Vietnamese name.

"Yes, but we can have diacritics for English words. For example, naïve is sometimes written with two dots over the i. You also have accents in other words such as fiancée and fiancé."

The admin argued: "Well, if you wrote the roll in Vietnamese, it would make it harder for the teacher."

"But it happens at my other school" (which is perfectly true) "and there are no complaints." (None that I know about...) "A lot of the teachers don't know Vietnamese either, but it's pretty easy for them to ignore the diacritics. On the other hand, those that DO know the language find it quite useful to pronounce the names properly." I also mentioned another class I had a few months ago at the other school. It had two students named "Thành Nam" and a "Thanh Nam". Almost identical, but with a drop tone only on the first. Bit of a tough one to tell them apart without it. The result of all this was that the manager asked the administrator to look into writing student names with tones preserved. In the meantime, I just asked each student individually for the correct spelling of their name. They were a little bit confused: "This is English class, isn't it?" But it went down well. And I taught it in English.

The admin had that very common perception (or misperception) that you must - not can, or be able to, but must -  remove every diacritic you can from Vietnamese names. A lot of people have it, because that's those are the rules that are set in their government English textbooks. But where does the government get this "philosophy"? I guess it is because it is the way it's always been done.

It's just the convention based on what happened during the war or before... when journos came over here and were often too lazy to learn the language, and often couldn't get the local names right, and neither the Selectric typewriter nor the telex machine could allow you to write those "e"s with a tilde on top. The only technology that allowed you to write Vietnamese would be the pen, the brush, or the printing press. And since the readers didn't really care how you'd pronounce "Saigon", you might as well drop the diacritics. It's cheaper than buying special lead type for the purpose. So people would know that "Hanoi" had been bombed... unaware that it is actually spelt "Hà Nội". 

But such technical limitations are a thing of the past. Nowadays, printing uses computers, and special lead type is unnecessary; it's just a matter of buying the right fonts. And fonts (such as Arial and Time New Roman) will be able to supply the characters necessary for English, French, German, Malay, Navajo or Vietnamese. Each of these are variants of Latin, (according to the Unicode standard), and their various character are shared between different language. Accordingly, you might as well make one font handle all of the languages together. It's cheaper that way. So now it's easier for laypeople to write Vietnamese.

But I go one step further. Keeping the name as-is shows more respect for the person or object behind it. If I know someone's family name is "Nguyễn", I'm going to pronounce it as "Nguyễn", and I'm going to write it as Nguyễn, even if the surrounding language is English, French, German, Malay or Navajo. Because all of these languages - like Vietnamese - use Latin lettering. Their characters of these alphabets play well together. And that's why I write my Vietnamese characters as-is. Don't dumb it down, because no-one will thank you; preserve it, and you may get their attention. Because when you're transferring from "Diễm" to "Diem", you're just losing information, and it doesn't make it look any better.