When I teach American Sign Language, I am interested to see how people react to words that I call 'rhymes'. In ASL, there are important parts to the language- it is a language with a grammatical and syntactical structure, but so many people think it is just a bunch of hand movements or silly stuff. When I show people that ASL has many components like hand shape, hand movement, placement and orientation, people seem to take a step back. Each sign is made up of these parts and changing a sign slightly will change the meaning.
For example, if you have a "5” handshake and clap your hands with your left hand palm up and your right hand palm down, you are signing "school". But, if you shuffle the right hand across the left hand, now you are signing "paper”. If you smash the right hand back and forth on the left palm, then it is "cheese". If you move the left hand so your palm is facing the right and your right hand is facing the left, but upwards, then you are signing "movie". Each minor detail changes the meaning. I tell people that it is similar to rhyming words in English: "cat', 'bat', 'mat'. A one letter difference can change a word's meaning.
As I was spending the weekend hosting students from Vietnam, I learned the same principle applies to Vietnamese. I tried to say, "ba", which is “father” if you use a flat tone and “three” if you use a high intonation. I learned that "bo" is “father” if you use a high tone, but it is also “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” if you use a low intonation. That is not something you want to mix up. :) I spent the weekend trying so hard to learn many new words and realized I could not just learn to copy the words, but rather I had to learn to understand how the words were spelled and the intonation. One of the young ladies we hosted is named Minh -but, the /nh/ is pronounced /ng/, so her name sounds like /Ming/. All in all, it was incredible. I successfully learned to count to 3 because I took so many pictures and I could say, /Moat/, /High/, /Ba/, and learned to say "mom', "dad" and a few other words.
In summary, languages are much more complex than on the surface. Whether you are trying to master Vietnamese or American Sign Language, be sure you have a good teacher who teaches all the parts of the language and not just the words in isolation!
Allison Schley has been in the field of deaf and hard of hearing education for 20 years. She founded a nonprofit for families with hearing loss. She most recently wrote a children's book, entitled Forever Friends. This book shows the how a deaf dog and deaf boy teach the world that all kids are good and being deaf is okay.