Mission impossible? Learning Vietnamese as a foreigner in Saigon

By: Mervin Lee

Getting employed within a week of arrival… check.
Riding a scooter on Điện Biên Phủ street at 6 pm... check.
Eating mắm tôm & balut... check!
Learning to say your eleventh word in Tiếng Việt… what?

More often than not, a foreigner attempting to speak anything more than simple food-related words and phrases in the Vietnamese language receive blank stares and utter confusion in response. Even if you happen to be somewhat understood, we’d bet that the reply was in English.

Why is it so universally agreed upon that Vietnamese is a pain in the ass to master? Pronunciation? Grammar? Vocabulary? A huge inventory of vowels, consonants and six distinct tones? Let’s be frank, plenty of tonal language speakers including Chinese people struggle to learn Vietnamese. It’s not a problem unique to European language speakers.

City Pass Guide breaks down these problems and attempts to help you learn Vietnamese in Saigon with as little linguistic jargon as possible and with some help from trusted experts.

learning vietnameseImage source: flickr.com

Vietnamese phonology, regional differences, its consequences and how to stop ruminating about it

To begin with, several Vietnamese vowels have no corresponding relatives in the English language or any other Indo-European language.

Anthony Lee, an expat living in Vung Tau city, summarised the problem in the shortest and sweetest way possible: “Foreigners take a very simplistic view of the language. They try to draw parallels in Latin spelling and pronunciation.”

Let's get down to business to fix some of these problems immediately and get ready to learn Vietnamese in Saigon.

Point 1: Stop attempting to pronounce Vietnamese consonants as English consonants.

Vietnamese consonants such as ‘T’, ‘Tr’ and ‘Ng’ require some practice. A common guide to pronouncing the Vietnamese ‘T’ involves saying the English t without aspiration (without a strong burst of breath). If you happen to be a linguistics nerd, the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) for the Vietnamese ‘T’ is /t/.

Ms Hoa Nguyen from Tieng Viet Oi shared with City Pass Guide a strategy for pronouncing the infamous consonant ‘Ng’.

“Imagine you’re pronouncing the word ‘belonging’ and remove the ‘belo-’ gradually.”

Point 2: Stop attempting to pronounce Vietnamese vowels as English vowels.

‘Sửa chữa’ means repair while ‘sữa chua’ means ‘yoghurt’. Not only do the tones differ, the vowels ‘ư’ and ‘u’, which you may have missed, are distinctly different.

To start off, simple vowels such as ‘u’ are often mispronounced by English speakers because of false friends. We’re pretty sure most expats adore and know that ‘bún’ means rice vermicelli but it’ll really help if you pronounce the vowel as oo instead of ah.

Here’s a basic example; ‘ua’ in Vietnamese is often mispronounced by foreigners as a diphthong comprising of oo and ah. Contrary to popular myth, certain vowel clusters in Vietnamese don’t just sound like a combination of stand-alone vowels. As a result, ‘ua’ is pronounced similar to a diphthong comprising of oo and uh.

Vowel length is also critical. The vowel pairs ‘a’ and ‘ă’ are usually rendered as ah but differ in the voiced duration compared to succeeding final consonant. For example, ‘cắt’ means cut and ‘cát’ means sand. Additionally, the rising tone accompanying both words are also affected by the length of the vowel. ‘Cắt’ would sound like a short high tone because of the vowel length whereas ‘cát’ would experience a more noticeable rise in pitch since the vowel length permits it.

Point 3: Dialectal differences are real but it’s not the end of the world for foreign learners

Vietnam is a beautiful nation boasting a North-South distance of 1650 kilometres. Travelling from North to South gives observers a glimpse of classic examples of dialectal continuum. Native speakers insist that both Northern and Southern ‘accents’ (we prefer to call them dialects!) of the language are mutually intelligible. I was truly unconvinced when daily experiences led me to recognize constant misunderstandings between native speakers of different dialects. The central varieties are considered even more distinct and alien.

As a non-native learner, your ears have not yet been accustomed to recognizing differences between different dialects.

Here’s a simple example for initiating beginners to these differences. The phrase that is used to call for the bill, ‘tính tiền’, is likely known by most foreigners who speak near-survival Vietnamese.

In the North, the word ‘tính tiền’ is pronounced similarly to ting tee-uhn. On the other hand, most Southern speakers would pronounce the identical word like tuhn ting. To break this down, most words ending with ‘n’ in the southern accent renders the ‘n’ as -ng instead of -n. The final consonant ‘nh’ is rendered as ‘-ing’ in Northern speech. ‘nh’ also reduces the length of preceding vowels and more than often changes the vowels slightly; best to listen to a native speaker reproduce these sounds.

How does this impact your journey to becoming, if ever, fluent in Vietnamese? The Southern dialect is agreed to be universally understood in Saigon but many colleagues and strangers you may encounter during your stay in Vietnam may not speak the southern dialect if they were not born and/or educated in the South. Beyond pronunciation, regional vocabulary from other parts of the country is also popular in Saigon regardless of one’s dialectal origin, often for impact and relief purposes.

Bottom line: While it may not be critical to speak both major dialects equally well, knowledge of the differences does play a huge part to improving your listening skills. However, since our mission is to learn Vietnamese in Saigon it is probably best to start with the Southern dialect.

Some of the best places to learn Vietnamese in Saigon

For some, learning a foreign language involves simply picking up a language naturally on the streets. But for many, this may be an overwhelming task, especially for Vietnamese. To understand the benefits of learning at a dedicated language centre with professional teachers and the common issues that students face in their learning journey, we visited two trusted Vietnamese language centres at the heart of the city to learn more strategies.

Words of Experience and Advice from Hardened Educators and Enthusiastic Learners

learning vietnameseImage source: Mervin Lee

Annie, who runs the aptly named centre, Learn Vietnamese with Annie, gave us the lowdown.

“Many students come in with a lot of hope but many don’t know how much time it takes to learn a new language. We recommend them to start a 20-hour course and advise them to continue if they like the experience.” Annie said. This may sound pessimistic, but Annie assured us that it also has to do with a student’s surroundings.

“If you live in District 1 and District 2, it’s difficult because many Vietnamese speak English in these place. There’s no motivation to improve!”

She gave us a strangely morbid yet hilarious example. “The book “Shogun” by James Clavell chronicles the adventures of an English sailor who was stranded in ancient Japan. He was forced to learn Japanese in a village and become fluent within 6 months. If he failed, everyone in the village would be killed.”

Annie also emphasised the importance of quality teaching material. An online portal for her students boasts real-life transcriptions, audio clips and dialogue relating to real-life topics including specific occupations, travel and even meditation.

learning vietnameseImage source: Mervin Lee

We also sat in with Ms Binh, director of Vietnamese Language Studies, who shared her insights.

Ms Binh began with an important point: “Vietnamese grammar looks simple but speaking naturally like a native speaker is not simple.”

“To be honest, there is no standard accent in Vietnamese. If you look on VTV (Vietnam Television), you’ll find reporters who speak the southern accent,” Ms Binh said while debunking a perpetual mythmost people in the country readily accept and understand different accents.

“Do your best to forge fluency in one accent. Get that one accent right! You can train to listen to others while doing that.”

She also shared about the importance of learning Vietnamese in Saigon from a professional teacher with good pedagogical practices.

“When we hire new teachers, they are made to attend a two-month linguistics course that covers grammar, phonetics, syntax, semantics and pedagogy. Once we identify true passion and commitment, we screen them for real teaching ability.”

“‘Living in Vietnamese’ is our slogan, [so] role-playing is a big part of our classes. [A group of] students learned to make grilled tuna wrapped in banana leaves after buying ingredients from a very local market in [Saigon’s] Chinatown. We also organised a volunteer trip for students to help less-privileged kids in Dong Nai province during the Mid-autumn festival.”

VLS also conducts a monthly Ngày 8 language event where teachers, students and members of the public are welcome to socialise over Vietnamese language and light drinks without any ‘strict codes and rules’.

City Pass Guide also sat in for classes with Tess and Sagar from the Netherlands who have benefited greatly from the programmes at VLS. The Dutch couple sold everything they owned almost four years ago to move to Asia.

learning vietnameseImage source: Mervin Lee

“We felt that it would be nice if we could order a banh mi using Vietnamese. Learning the language makes you feel like you’re part of the community,” Tess said cheerfully.

“Both of us prefer different learning styles, [so] we were split into two classes after the first few months. To me, the structure of the book is important. Some chapters may not be interesting but are also important,” Tess said while reinforcing the point that different learners are accustomed to different learning and teaching techniques.

She is a self-professed words-and-pictures person while her partner Sagar prefers learning through speaking and is able to imitate the pronunciation of his teacher effectively without eyeballing words and letters.

learning vietnameseImage source: Mervin Lee

“It’s like learning piano, you might hit a ceiling and lose interest if you’re not progressing. It’s the fourth language that I’m learning after Dutch, English and French. For Vietnamese, I had to relearn the entire language structure. Learners need to take a long-term approach.” Sagar, who has a background in art and digital marketing, gave his words of advice for learners to stay focused.

Learning Vietnamese in Saigon is the Key to Real Communication

“Ultimately, it was worth it to go through the trouble of learning Vietnamese! It’s worth the payback,” Sagar expressed enthusiastically.

“Real honest human response makes it worth it!” Tess concluded.

Beyond just receiving pronunciation advice from Ms Hoa Nguyen, we also interviewed her to understand more about the philosophy at Tieng Viet Oi. Tieng Viet Oi offers physical classes, but they also focus on online lessons and creating entertaining videos.

“We produce videos on a regular basis and post them on a regular basis on different platforms. Some of our more in-depth videos are available on our Patreon Tieng Viet Oi page.”

Patreon is a San Francisco based subscription platform, which allows fans of video producers, artists and musicians to pledge a small sum of money of their choice to receive access to new and exclusive videos.

“We realized that many people prefer self-studying and watching videos,” Hoa explained.

Video source: Tieng Viet Oi - Vietnamese Lessons

This, however, did not mean that teachers of Tieng Viet Oi ignore the fundamentals when it comes to learning Vietnamese through lessons in a fun and interactive manner.

“All of our teachers constantly create new materials to contribute to an internal resource library.”

Hoa also gave us a refreshing example: “Board games are popular in English-speaking countries but it seems that students have no chances to play board games that feature the Vietnamese language.”

“One of our teachers created a Vietnamese language game based on the popular game show Family Feud… that was great fun!”

We also had a good laugh over a common situation that happens in Ho Chi Minh City.

“For many Vietnamese people who speak English, it’s natural to switch immediately to the English speaking mode when they see a western face. They choose to respond in English even when spoken to in Vietnamese. This really annoys people!” Hoa exclaimed.

“They assume you don’t understand a reply in Vietnamese so they shut down.”

But in the very end, one could somewhat empathise with such behaviour. How many foreigners actually speak more than a few words of basic Vietnamese?

“Stop staying and start living in Vietnam. The entire point of moving to another country is to merge into its culture.”  Her message was crystal clear.

Saigon’s Vietnamese Speaking Club: a Hidden Gem for Talkative Learners

learning vietnameseImage source: Mervin Lee

Beyond self-learning and pay-per-class options, City Pass Guide also discovered a hidden gem for learners. Once a week almost always without fail, Mr Vinnie Prabhu, a software engineer who lived in Washington DC for most of his life, runs the Vietnamese Speaking Club at Highlands Coffee on Calmette street on Sunday evenings.

The event attracts a good number of enthusiastic local students and adults of all professions who are happy to converse in Vietnamese with foreigners.

Vinnie recounted his childhood experience which spurred him to learn the language of his current country-of-residence: “My parents never spoke to me in my native tongue.”

Vinnie is married to a local ex-teacher, who creates materials for newcomers at the event, who often have no pre-existing knowledge of the language.

Vinnie, who speaks excellent Vietnamese, also shared with City Pass Guide about his path to fluency.

“Vietnamese has consistent spelling, unlike English. The tones may be difficult but don’t stress too much about the pronunciation. Listening and repeating will get you there!”

When asked about his drive and relentless passion to run a weekly event, Vinnie was straight to the point.

“The creator of the event left a few years ago. My motivation was simpleI was the best person to keep it alive since I came every week.”

With an almost 1-to-1 learner-native speaker ratio at the event, his admirable enthusiasm about the language and sharing his love for it speaks volumes.

We’d say Vinnie is a great example of the mantra: if you love what you do, you’ll excel.

Where to find some of the best places to learn Vietnamese in Saigon

Tieng Viet Oi: https://www.tiengvietoi.com/ 
Learning Vietnamese with Annie: https://www.facebook.com/LearnVietnameseWithAnnie/ 
Vietnamese Language Studies: https://www.facebook.com/vlstudies/ 
Vietnamese Speaking Club: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1141127672570835/

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