2019 – The Year of the Pig

7th February 2019

Lunar New Year in Vietnam, the country’s biggest holiday. Shops will be closed all week, if not longer, schools closed (hooray !) and roads can be relatively empty though not necessarily safer.

For the significance of the pig in Asian astrology, this link will provide some information:

https://chinesenewyear.net/zodiac/pig/

The New Year started on Tuesday and I was lucky enough to be invited to a typical family celebration with four generations of Vietnamese. In a garden on the outskirts of HCM, I was introduced to a grand-uncle, his children and nieces & nephews, their children and grandchildren. Outside we had this spread:

The traditional banh Tet is in the centre (Tet cake made from sticky rice and beans, sometimes with meat, sometimes sweet with banana).

The family very considerately made me eggs as I’m vegetarian. After the food, I took a nap in a hammock then headed back to town.

Yesterday, I went to Nguyen Hue walking street. Every year, people go there, admire the flower displays, take photos, people watch, dress up, see and be seen. It gets busier as the sun goes down and can start to feel uncomfortably overcrowded … and just try getting a taxi home.

This photo is from 2016 (Year of the Monkey) but it is so beautiful, I thought it was worth posting. Yes – I asked permission before taking the photo.

However, it is not all wine and roses; there is a downside to Tet. That the shops are closed all week is a minor inconvenience. It is a time of partying, of drinking and some people think nothing of getting on their motorbike and driving afterwards. Crossing the road is daunting anyway, but at Tet it can be suicidal. My first experience was in 2016. I was crossing a street in District 3, a busy, one-way street. Normally, pedestrians walk slowly and the bikes swerve behind or in front of them. Not this time. One driver swerved deliberately to hit me and I had to jump to avoid being struck. That same week, a friend of mine was knocked down by a drunken rider and left with severe bruising on her leg, and was unable to walk properly for weeks.

Then we have the noise. My area is a nightmarish aural atrocity city, wedding parties and open – air karaoke prevalent seemingly all the time.

My Tet began last Saturday – no school, no need to get up at 05.50 BUT … at 06.45 the loud speakers on the street started blaring out a Vietnamese folk song which merged into the monotonous metallic muffled mumblings of the news filtered through loud-speakers and I do mean ‘loud’.

And then the karaoke began, the jolly old karaoke.

Some people in my area seem to think they are responsible for entertaining everyone by cranking up their wretched, impossibly loud, sound system, not to a ‘Spinal Tap’ 11 but to a stadium-filling 111. The … ‘singing’ then begins. Imagine the most obnoxious person you know, the big mouth, the narcissistic know-all. Imagine said person drunk and then given a microphone … welcome to my life. Karaoke isn’t a sprint … it’s a marathon, an all-dayer. One would think that after some hours the novelty would wear off, or at least the vocal chords would give out. Not a chance. The screaming and screeching continues ad nauseam.

I appreciate it’s a holiday and a chance for music and celebration but having to listen to moronic moaning is excruciating. One can forget watching a quiet film or reading a book. Studying Wittgenstein ? Good luck … it ain’t gonna happen.

Crime also rises during this period. I’ve been informed that because many leave to city (to return to their family home) swarms of undesirables come to the city and commit petty theft. Nguyen Hue is a major attraction and therefore a major pick-pocket hotspot. And some of the thieves are terrible – I had a young lady put her hand in my pocket with all the grace and delicacy of a raging hippo. I told a policeman or security guard and he merely nodded. Maybe they were under surveillance … maybe.

Like a lot of holidays, it does tend to drag on too long. However, next week, I’m off to Bangkok to meet up with an old friend, eat some scorching curries and to enjoy a week of traffic lights and road safety. And NO karaoke.

IELTS: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

28th January 2019

This quote is from the Austrian philosopher Dr Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) who analysed, among other subjects, the philosophy of language. His works are notoriously obtuse, difficult to read, but some pertinent quotes arise from the vague verbosity, and the above is entirely suitable to language learning. Students often feel frustrated by their lack of vocabulary, their inability to fully express their true feelings. As an examiner, I can sense their embarrassment or anger as they vainly search for a suitable word or phrase. It is so tempting to prompt them but … I mustn’t. Empathy but not assistance.

Tonight’s lesson will focus mainly on listening (there will be a practice test) and reading. However, we start with vocabulary, so I have some exercises aimed at expanding their repertoire, and helping them construct longer sentences.

We shall discuss the Wittgenstein quote and, with the early students, start an informal discussion about how they feel when they speak English. This leads into the first exercise, some new vocabulary and a cloze Test (gap-fill).

New vocabulary

ubiquitous everywhere, very common

naïve innocent, inexperienced

stroll a gentle walk, for exercise (collocation: take a stroll)

a bazaar (noun) a permanent, covered market 

bizarre (adjective) very strange, unusual

absent-minded extremely forgetful

sky-high, astronomical very expensive, maybe too expensive

messy untidy

laundry / laundromat dirty clothes / a place to wash clothes (collocation: do laundry)

predictable it is possible to guess the answer, people doing the same thing

hawkers

Street _______ are common in Vietnam, and they are _________ in District 1. It is nearly impossible for a westerner to take a ________ without being approached. Some claim to sell Ray Bans or designer sunglasses, but you would have to be extremely ________ to believe they are genuine ! They are all fake, probably made in China. Many people try to _____(collocation) money by selling to tourists especially around Ben Thanh Market, a kind of _______, though this is strictly for tourists as the prices are ____________ !

This will lead into a general talk (hopefully) where the students can practise some of the new words, and share their experiences.

The next task will be sentence construction. IELTS expects reasonably long and well-constructed sentences. I’ll start with some examples and then give them three themes on which to work.

Sentence building

Use adjectives to describe nouns

adverbs to describe adjectives and verbs – give more information

opinion phrases

linking words to connect positive to positive or positive to negative

reasons why an action is being done

EXAMPLE:

I like coffee

I like coffee so much because it tastes great and makes me wake up although too much will stop me from sleeping at night but, in my opinion, the benefits far out weigh the disadvantages.

Teaching

I taught a brother & sister; the sister was a bit of a handful always chatting or texting during class. In complete contrast, the brother was a really good student as well as being a young gentleman. I felt he was an ideal student.

Try these:

  • Living in HCM
  • Free time
  • Working and studying.

Finally, there will be some work on suffixes. I’ll focus on ‘ment’ and ‘ness’

‘ment’ or ‘ness’ ?

adjectives = ‘ness’ / verb = ‘ment’

1 The ……. of the court was that he serve five years. JUDGE

2 Hilary couldn’t contain her ……… EXCITE

3 I was amazed at the new iPhone’s ….. LIGHT

4 Getting 95% is a great ……… ACHIEVE

5 Fainting is like losing ………. CONSCIOUS

6 Trying to teach some students is sheer ……MAD

In general to be something = ‘ness’: to be light (in weight) = lightness. If you can just use ‘to’ + word then it will be ‘ment’ e.g. to excite = excitement.

But of course … it is not that simple, as Wittgenstein would be quick to point out. As any English – language student realises, English isn’t 100% logical. Most verbs add an -s in the third person, yet one of the most common verbs ‘to be’ is entirely different (I am, you are, he she it is…).

Most verbs (about 75%) simply add -ed to form the past tense, yet many common verbs are irregular and have to be learnt (or learned) separately. Yet, it doesn’t stop there … even with a regular -ed form, the pronunciation will differ depending on the spelling of the verb. As they say in Sai Gon, “Oi troi oi !” So, while ‘ness’ or ‘ment’ are added to adjectives or verbs, exceptions in grammar can arise.

For example, if someone’s expectations are not met, they are said to be disillusioned. Here, the word is used as an adjective but the noun form is disillusionment. Similarly, an area can be described as ‘overdeveloped‘ but again, the noun is ‘overdevelopment.’

In the last stages of the class, energy is waning so we need to close the books and find an activity. As it is soon Tet Holiday in Viet Nam, I can show some pictures and ask the students to describe what is happening.

May I wish you all chúc mừng năm mới