I hopped on a Skype call with my father in the USA from my apartment in Saigon, Vietnam.
“Dad, how’s the connection? Can you hear me? Okay. Good.
I’ve got some exciting news. I’m going on a Vietnamese reality show!”
“Wow, what kind of show is it?” he questioned.
“I’m not really sure. But, I know it’s safe.”
“Where are you going?” He asked.
“The entire show is a secret. They don’t really tell us anything…”
He started to get skeptical, which is to be expected by a parent on the other side of the world.
“Do you get paid?”
“No. We’re not allowed to have money. But, the show covers all of our expenses.” I reassured him.
“How long does it last?”
“I’m not sure. I’m required to stay for at least three weeks, but it could be as long as a few months. I’ll get one phone call a week, but we’ll be in the mountains with no wifi, so I’ll have to call a friend who is here in Vietnam and have him e-mail an update to everyone.”
“How many other people are on the show? Will anyone else on the show speak English?” He barked.
“There’s 7 people total. I’ll be the only foreigner. I don’t know for sure, but they said to expect that no one else will speak English. But I’ll be fine, don’t worry!”
“Are you crazy!” he shouted.
Call me crazy (maybe I am), but after having this conversation, I signed some Vietnamese form I didn’t understand (generally never a good idea) and agreed to participate on a Vietnamese reality TV show.
When I committed to going on the show, my Vietnamese was not that good at all. I had been living in Vietnam for about 8 months, and I was at a beginner level.
I knew a lot of words, but my pronunciation was weak. I had a small understanding of the grammar, and I hadn’t even made an attempt to learn the alphabet or the tones.
I wasn’t at all ready. But, I don’t know if anyone is ever ready for an adventure like this one.
21 days without any contact to the outside world. One phone call a week (for only 2 minutes). No cell phone. No wifi. No spending money (except for the $5/day provided by the show). No television. No information about where we going.
The views were stunning!
Oh, and no English.
How do you prepare for such experience?
I didn’t do much preparing other than buy two dictionaries. One translated English to Vietnamese, and the other was Vietnamese to English.
I lasted 25 days. Probably the 25 longest days of my life.
It was an amazing experience. But, I’m not so sure I would do it again.
I learned so much. My aim with this post is to share the lessons I learned with you, just in case you don’t get the chance to go on a reality TV show in a second language.
I’m technically not supposed to talk about what happened since the episodes are still airing here in Vietnam (even though none of the producers on the show can read English), so I’m not going to talk much about the show itself.
Sure, it’s entertaining, but I’d rather share everything I learned from this incredible, yet challenging experience.
Lesson #1: Do not compare yourself (especially to native speakers)
“The only person you should compare yourself to is the person you were yesterday.”
When it comes to language learning, stop comparing yourself to others. Everyone goes at his or her own speed, whether it’s learning a language, practicing yoga, or reading a book.
Remember that it is not a competition and everyone is different.
While on the show, I wish I someone would have reminded me this everyday.
Everyone else had been speaking Vietnamese their entire lives. No matter how hard I tried, I could never keep up. I constantly felt lost, stupid, and discouraged. As a result, my confidence was weak and I lacked motivation.
When you’re learning a new language, you cannot allow this to happen. When you see someone else speaking your target language, you never truly know how long he/she had to work to get to that point. You see the end result of the hard work, but you don’t know what they had to go through to get there.
Everyone else on the show had been speaking Vietnamese for 20 years or more compared to my meager 8 months. Of course they’re going to be light years ahead of me!
On one of the last days on the show, my friend put things in perspective. In her broken English accent, she pointed at herself and tried to speak.
“Me. Learn English, Tell (she tried to say 12) year. Speak? No.”
She shook her head. Then she pointed at me.
“You. Vietnamese. Good,” and then she smiled and gave me a thumbs up.
I smiled. And with that, I realized how stupid and silly it was to compare.
I needed all the help I could get…
Sometimes it can be discouraging when you’re just starting out learning a new language and you talk to someone who’s far more advanced than you. That’s okay. You’ve got to stay confident. You’re not in a language learning competition. You’re not trying to be the fastest language learner in the world. What you need most is to maintain your confidence; a great way to do that is remind yourself that…
Lesson #2 Language learning is a marathon. Live in the moment.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
–Some yummy fortune cookie from my childhood.
Learning a language is a long journey, and the best way to get there is by taking baby steps.
Days on the show were LONG. Sometimes we would wake up as early at 5am and be filming until 10pm. Days fly by you are busy working, exercising, socializing with friends, etc.
But, how about when you’re stuck in a room for three hours and you can’t understand a single word? It seems like forever.
Meals were always challenging. I could never keep up, so I usually ended up overeating!
During group discussions, I could never keep up. Times like these move pretty slowly. Often times I allowed my mind to drift.
But, daydreaming in my mind didn’t improve my Vietnamese or my experience. It only made me miss my friends and family. It made me miss speaking English. It made me miss myself. It only made me lonely and depressed.
It didn’t make anything better.
Though, living in the moment and counting my small victories did.
For me, I did this by following a conversation as best as I could and listening for words I knew. If I heard one word I knew, I tried to celebrate it.
If someone was talking to me and I didn’t understand anything, I would try to pick one word that they said and then ask them what it meant.
For example, if I heard, “Blah blah bleep blob diddle doodle dum”.
I would ask, “What is doodle?”
Most of the time, I wouldn’t even understand the explanation. But, I was making progress. I was learning new words and new sounds. I was taking baby steps.
I had to stop trying to understand everything; I only tried to familiarize myself with a little bit more each time. Compared to everyone else, my Vietnamese was still awful. But, every hour, every day, I tried to make sure my Vietnamese was a little less awful than before.
Whether you are just getting started in a language, or you have been studying it for a few years, you’re goal should be simple, “improve a little bit every day.” Or, “suck a little less each day”.
For example, instead of overwhelming yourself with vocabulary, start small. Try learning one word every day. Just one word. It only takes a few minutes. Keep it up and after a year, you’ll know over 300 words. That’s a lot of words.
Improve a little bit everyday and I promise you, after a few weeks and months go by, you’ll look back and be shocked at how far you have come.
Remember, you’re also not comparing yourself to others. So, the sole fact that you are making progress is amazing.
Lesson #3 Support and accountability is crucial
I knew I couldn’t do it alone, so even the children from the local villages became my teachers.
“Imagine what you can accomplish if everyone around you refused to let you fail.”
After being on this show, I realized how valuable having support and accountability truly is.
During the show, my level of confidence was on a giant rollercoaster ride. One of the rides that makes you sign a waiver before they allow you to go on it.
At times, I felt like I could actually participate in the discussion and I knew what was going on. We’d be eating a meal and I could understand the small talk. I felt amazing!
Then, just one minute later, everyone would get up and start walking somewhere. I had no idea that it was time to go.
I didn’t know what anyone had just said, where we were going, and what we were doing. WHAT THE PHỞ!?!?
During times like these, I felt like a useless child and I often wanted to quit. I wanted to run away and go home.
But I couldn’t. The rest of the show counted on me (oh yeah, and the producers had my passport, phone, and wallet).
The other members on the show were my family. They were my teachers. They were my support, and they held me accountable. They knew what I was going through was hard, but they weren’t going to let me quit.
I take pride in being a “self-learner”. I taught myself how to play the guitar. I taught myself how to make videos. I thought I could learn Vietnamese without a teacher.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”
After the show, I realized how badly I was slowing myself down because I was trying to do it alone.
If you want learn a language at your own speed, study on your own time, practice whenever you want, then go ahead. But, without a teacher or an accountability partner (or both), I promise, you won’t get nearly as far.
Though it was a “reality” show, it was quite far from the reality of a language learner. No one on the show could speak English, so I had no option other than speaking Vietnamese.
In the real world you have the internet and apps to help you translate, but you also have distractions. You have school, work, social events, etc.
But, what kind of support system do you have? Who’s there to save you when you are about to quit? Who’s going to hold you accountable?
Having support and accountability will ensure that you go far and don’t give up.
Lesson#4: Language learning skills also apply to life.
You can re-read this article and replace, “language learning” with “life” and it still makes sense.
Life is not a competition. Constantly comparing yourself to others can be poisonous and hurt your confidence. You are unique and you move at your own pace!
Life is a marathon. If you improve a little bit everyday, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish. But, when you look too far ahead into the future, things can get scary.
In life, you can’t do everything by yourself. You are not alone. You need support and accountability in all areas of your life, not just in language learning.
It took me 25 days on a Vietnamese reality TV show to realize the importance of these things.
There was no escaping the cameras.
The video you see below is an excerpt from an episode of the TV show. It’s in Vietnamese, so it probably will be hard to follow.
I’ve got a version with English subtitles, though; just click here if you’d like to see it (the production company won’t let me upload it to YouTube publicly yet).
There was one point of the show when I thought I’d be going home soon. I spoke to my friend on the phone and I told her to tell my family that I’d be back in 2 or 3 days.
A week had gone by and no one had heard from me. They were all freaking out.
I said I would be back and I there was no sign that I was still alive. My parents were worried and assumed the worst. Each day passed and they grew more and more worried.
Even though I was perfectly fine, my mom thought I was gone for good.
I hope you all can apply these lessons to your life and your language-learning journey.
And, hopefully you can do so without leaving your parents worried sick that you have disappeared in the Vietnamese mountains!
If you’re interested in watching the show with English translations and getting language-learning videos, hop on my newsletter and I’ll send you the link with subtitles!
Jeremy Ginsburg, aka “The VietNomad”, is language learner, traveler, and a performer.
He is currently learning and teaching Vietnamese in Vietnam, where’s he’s been based since December 2013. Jeremy writes about language learning and his quest to become “VietFamous” on his blog. He also publishes weekly language learning videos on his YouTube channel.