During a taxi ride in Vietnam last November, an interesting song came on the radio. The words were in Vietnamese but it sounded like the singer was repeating the same phrase over and over again. It got me wondering how the Vietnamese write their songs given that they have 6 different tones in their language. Depending on how you say the word, ma, for example, you might be singing about your mother, a horse, or a ghost. The tonal inflection of a Vietnamese word is what gives it its meaning.

Think about songs written in English. We can draw out our words or emphasize different syllables or change the pitch to follow the tune and not change the meaning of the word. I started to ask around, interested to understand how the Vietnamese address the tonal aspect when writing their songs.

I learned that they sometimes start with a poem, but more frequently, they start with a tune. Then, they enter into the melody, words with the right tonal inflection to match the rising and falling notes. Sometimes they do drop the tones and the meaning is still conveyed because of the context. For the most part however, a prominent word with a falling tone will not be sung to a rising tune, and vice versa. I asked a friend if their lyrics make sense or if they are just a consortium of words that fit a melody. She laughed and said no, our songs have meaning and even sometimes rhyme. Wow. Talk about some talented poets.

The other day, I brought this subject up with Thuy to see what she had to say about it. It is always fun to noodle on such things with her and compare and contrast the western approach vs. the Vietnamese way. Thuy shared that some popular children’s tunes, even those have been translated into multiple languages, do not always share the same words in Vietnamese. For example, the French song Frere Jacques shares the same topic as its English cousin, Brother John. The Vietnamese version shares the same tune, but instead of talking about a man sleeping and morning bells ringing, focuses on a butterfly stretching its wings. The Vietnamese edition of Row Row Your Boat again shares the same tune but carries a different verse. Thuy has a clock in her office that plays the melody of various children’s songs as it strikes each hour. I know I will never listen to that clock in quite the same way again.

Speaking of the soundtrack of life….I shared on the Global Foundation’s Facebook page last month the story about one of our professional’s families who visited Vietnam over the December holidays. The family has two children with hearing loss, including one that was adopted from Vietnam. Their trip was the first opportunity for their Vietnamese son to see his home country. We made arrangements for them to visit the staff and students at Thuy’s center as an opportunity for them to connect on a personal level.

The family was moved by their experience at the center and the realization that their son would have had a different life had he remained in Vietnam. They made a donation towards the purchase of FM systems for the kindergarteners at the center. FM systems help people with hearing loss follow conversation better by blocking out background noise and improving the clarity of a speaker’s voice. In Vietnam, children study in noisy environments where sound reverberates in classrooms of concrete, tile, cement, and other hard surfaces. Fans whirl overhead and traffic noise is a mainstay outside open windows. FM systems do a world of good to help children with hearing loss hear and process the words of their teachers better.

Well, the FM systems have just arrived at Thuy’s center and will be set up in one of the classrooms this week. It will be exciting to watch the children start to benefit from these devices. Our auditory-verbal deaf education professionals will be at the center in a few weeks as part of our Mobile Mission to lead coaching and professional development of the teachers, including the teacher who now has a classroom of children with FM systems. Our audiology professionals will also fit these children with digital hearing aids provided by the Global Foundation. With the technology in place and the growing expertise amongst the teachers to help these children process sound and develop spoken language, these kindergarten children are on a brighter path for success.