This is my new feature. Every Tuesday I will post something I've learned from my Vietnamese self-studies. Aside from the fact that I live in Vietnam, I'm not using any out-of-the-ordinary resources - just a pocket phrasebook and dictionary, and YouTube. I also have some Pimsleur files that I will occasionally tap into. Everything I use is for beginners. I'm hoping that after I squeeze everything I can from the beginner materials, the cultural immersion will take care of the rest.
Today I will address pronouns. Pronouns are hard. There are many of them, and they cover different age groups and combinations for speaker in relation to addressee. I'm a woman in my 40's, which means I don't have a lot of age groups above me, so it's a little simpler for me. Younger people have it tougher - they can't use the same pronoun for someone their mother's age and for a retiree, but I totally can.
There are also some little quirks, like the pronoun for one's mother, me, which you use to address your mother and which your mother uses for herself when talking to you.
To make it more complicated, North Vietnam and South Vietnam have different standards for whom each pronoun is used, and by which speaker. And different levels of forgiveness for using pronouns that are slightly off. Therefore, the tutorials each say something different about pronouns. For instance, Pimsleur uses "bá" for many of its exercises and claim that it is for a slightly older woman, up to the age of our parents. But I haven't seen much of "bá" beyond that. Foreign Language Institute loves to use "cô" for a woman about your age. My phrasebook, however, assures me that I can limit myself to "em" for anyone fairly young (not just a child) "chi" for a woman slightly younger to slightl older than me, and "anh" for a man slightly younger to slightly older than me. I'm going to go with that set.
This phrasebook also gives me a handy-dandy age-to-pronoun guide:
Youngest to oldest male: Em - Anh - Chú - Bác - Ông
Youngest to oldest female: Em - Chi - Cô - Bác - Bá
I will try to remember to use the last two, Ông and Bá, for the elderly, and to address the very young like equals in appropriate situations, like a teenage waitress.
I can also 'cheat' when greeting people by just saying "Xin chào" which is a polite "hello" that does not contain any pronouns. Most times you say hello, according to all the study guides, you greet people using their pronouns, like "Chào em" to a child or "Chào anh" to a man your age.
You are also supposed to refer to yourself using the same pronoun that a person uses for you. I, as a woman in my 40's, could be expected to use "Cô" for "I". But because I am a beginner, and because my husband and son are learning from my example, I'm going to use the generic "Tôi" to mean "I."
It seems to be all right. The phrasebook uses "Tôi" in all its examples.
But because I'm only just beginning to learn the Vietnamese culture, my sense of appropriate pronouns is still very hazy. I probably won't get familiar with pronoun usage patterns in daily life until I speak well enough to have conversations with local people and can listen to what they say. And that's going to be awhile.