How Difficult Is It to Learn Vietnamese?
Living in Saigon for more than two years now, I’ve been taking Vietnamese lessons from the start. A friend convinced me to go to a Vietnamese class. That was at a time when I tenaciously called every noodle soup pho and gladly paid VND 250,000 for a shoe shine on the street.
It’s been two years and God knows I am anything but fluent. (My friend, I’m afraid, has dropped his language-learning efforts long since.) When asked, I always tell people how difficult it is to learn Vietnamese. The main problem isn’t merely the language: it’s Vietnam, and me.
Problem No. 1: Can Somebody Please Make Me Speak Vietnamese?
Life in Vietnam doesn’t make you learn Vietnamese. This might seem to be a weird thing to say, but think about it: why does someone who goes to, say, Spain, inevitably learn Spanish? Because Spaniards refuse to speak any other language than their own! You want to grab a sandwich for dinner? Then you better order it in Spanish or you go to bed hungry.
Vietnamese are much less demanding. A little “cam on” is enough to make people go wild about your supreme Vietnamese skills. You try and say “merci” in Paris. Never was an effort less appreciated.
This leads to a much bigger issue: if you don’t have to learn Vietnamese, then why put any effort into it? My teacher, Bùi Quang Thục Anh, or simply ‘Annie’, is the founder of Learn Vietnamese with Annie, one of the most well-known private institutes offering Vietnamese classes in Ho Chi Minh City. She says,
“If you want to communicate in a language, you need a vocabulary of several thousand words. Most people give up before they even reach 200, and then they say: Vietnamese is so difficult.”
She estimates the rate of students quitting within the first two months at 80 percent.
Image source: hiddenhanoi.com.vn
In her view, Vietnamese is not harder than any other language to learn. But people tend to lack dedication because you can live a perfectly convenient life in Vietnam without speaking a word of the language.
Problem No. 2: The Pronunciation Is Not Only Darn Difficult, but Crucial
And without dedication, without actual practice, you can’t possibly get the part right that is surely the hardest for us Westerners when learning Vietnamese: the tones. Hands up who has heard or even said this more than three times since they arrived in Vietnam: “Oh, come on, I just said that!” Fact is, you didn’t.
Do you know how many different meanings the simple combination of letters “ban” can have in Vietnamese, disregarding diacritics and accents? 11! Now imagine you tell a taxi driver a street name with only three syllables in it, each with, say, six different meanings depending on your (wrong) pronunciation of it. That’s 216 possible outcomes!
“Often enough, Vietnamese are scared of talking to foreigners, because they are just so likely to get them wrong.”
So please, learn from my mistakes and follow these five essential rules for learning Vietnamese.
Quick and Dirty Tips to Learn Vietnamese Properly1. Start right away.
I’ve met so many expats saying they will start soon, very soon. Personally gathered statistics prove that if you don’t start within your first months here, you never will.2. Realise that you already know how to pronounce Vietnamese.
We all do use tones in our native languages, just for different purposes! Take the admittedly not very common question “Fur?” (Like a doubtful answer to somebody asking what the difference between mammals and reptiles is.) Pronounce it like Sherlock and you’ll say an almost perfect phở.3. Speak loud and clear.
Basic, I know. But if you wait for your Vietnamese level to give you confidence, you’ll wait forever. Most of the time, people quite simply can’t hear what you mumble. Speak up, even when in doubt.4. Put yourself in situations where you have to speak Vietnamese.
If life doesn’t force you, force yourself. Two to three minutes per day are enough, be it with your colleagues, your cleaning lady or that fried-bananas guy on the corner.5. Get a Vietnamese boy- or girlfriend.
It’s sad but a fact. You rarely ever meet someone who’s committed to learning Vietnamese for longer than a couple of months without a very good reason. And what better reason would there be than good ol’ love?