Lessons in Learning Vietnamese

I’ve lived in Vietnam for exactly 11 months now, and for 8 of those months I’ve taken Vietnamese lessons. I have two tutors that teach me Vietnamese during my lunch hour every day. This is a good example of the power of “opt out” psychology. If I didn’t have a Vietnamese lesson lined up every day, it would be difficult to motivate myself to study, what with all the other things I’m busy with, plus simply being exhausted after a full day of work. But by having my lessons arranged, I have to actually call and cancel every day, which I rarely do. 

Presently, I’d call myself conversational. I can usually get what I want wherever I go, I can participate and follow basic conversations, and I can express complex ideas, though usually in some weird “walkaround” way. Since I study every day, I’ve made a ton of progress, and at this point probably speak the equivalent of what someone would after studying for 2 years in university. Maybe that’s just me stroking my own ego, I never can tell.

Anyways, Vietnamese is a really tough language. Its got five tones (flat, rising, falling, wavy, and question mark-y… don’t ask). Check out Tila Tequila speaking Vietnamese if you want to hear an example and be entertained(? not sure that’s the right word):


 Like I was saying, its a tough language. The tones are really difficult to hear, and if you don’t say them *exactly* the way you’re supposed to then noone will understand you. Seriously. See #3 in this post for an example: http://www.carpeminutam.com/2009/03/25-random-things-jess-in-vietnam.html


Coming to Vietnam, I knew I wanted to learn the language. Vietnamese is only spoken in Vietnam, Vietnamese restaurants the world over, and quite a few nail salons in the U.S., just living in the country is justification enough to study it. Most people here don’t speak English, or if they do its likely that the English they do speak is tortured and limited, so learning Vietnamese can make your life here significantly easier. 

You can order a beer without knowing Vietnamese, but if you want a cold beer without ice and a comfortable chair in the corner, you should probably know some Vietnamese. You can write down an address for a taxi without knowing Vietnamese, but if you want to chastise the driver for taking the long route and order him to stop honking the stupid horn at regular two second intervals, you should probably know some Vietnamese. You can payoff a motorist following an accident without knowing Vietnamese, but… actually in that case its better to just play the ignorant foreigner and pay up, lest they decide to really go after your wallet by threatening to involve the police.

Beyond the convenience of being able to function properly in Vietnam by knowing the language, there are other benefits to learning Vietnamese. A westerner speaking Vietnamese brings a smile to the locals’ faces, and they’ll open up to you in a way that you’d never see otherwise. Generally speaking, the Vietnamese aren’t exactly known as the nicest people on the planet. That’s not to say they can’t be friendly, but just being here and being a westerner doesn’t mean that people are going to want to help you. I attribute this to Vietnam’s history- this has been a tough place to live for decades, and I think the harsh realities of Vietnam’s war-torn past manifest themselves in people’s attitudes towards strangers. This issue is compounded by a general distaste of obnoxious backpacker types, who regularly invade the country wearing what appears to be underwear and acting as if they own the place.

Another key point is that language is a gateway to the culture. If you want to understand Vietnam, there’s no better way than to learn the culture. Not only does learning the language allow you to actually interact with people and experience the culture yourself, but the structure, vocabulary, idioms,  and usage of the language tell you about the culture in ways that are hard to grasp if you’ve never learned another language. You won’t find this information in any particular word, but taken in aggregate its an essential part of the culture. 

A quick and obvious example: there are 17 pronouns in Vietnamese, and the correct one to use is determined by your gender and relative age. Embedded in these pronouns is a core component of Confucianism, relationships. Your relationship to others determines your duties to others (e.g. student to teacher, father to son, brother to brother), and in Vietnamese you can’t say something without first establishing what that relationship is by using the correct pronoun. In my experience, typically you are either “em”, “anh”, or “chi”. “Em” is for someone younger than you, but is also used when speaking to waiters or people serving you somehow, even if they’re older. “Em oi!” (literally hey you [younger]!) can be heard at every restaurant, as people are continuously shouting at their waiters from across rooms to get their attention. “Anh” is simply an older male, and “chi” an older female.

The last benefit I’ll mention is the pure intellectual pursuit of learning another language. I hated studying languages in high school, and Spanish was my Achilles heel grade-wise: I may have gotten one non-B in Spanish through all of high school. I enjoyed learning Latin in a different way (and in fact my affection for Latin is reflected in the name of this blog), but generally speaking I found language study tedious, useless, and boring. Simply being able to apply what I was learning has made studying the language tedious, practical, and interesting. Two out of three ain’t bad.

I’ve tried a few different ways to make learning Vietnamese more interesting. One is that I type all the words I learn into a Google Doc, and then download them to my iPod Touch. I’ve got a program on there that makes flashcards out of the words, tracks which ones you get right and wrong, and then reshuffles the wrong ones over and over until you get them right. If you’ve got an iPhone or iPod Touch, download GFlash Pro, and you can make your own flashcards out of anything. Its a great way to study whatever while you’re on the go. Wish I’d had that growing up.

I also recently started a group, titled “Tieng Viet WhaWhat.” Apparently the name has caused a lot of confusion, which personally I find hilarious. As a good friend pointed out, there’s probably only a certain 5-year age span that gets that, and most of those people aren’t in Vietnam. Anyways, the idea is simple: host a bi-monthly dinner and everyone that shows up is only allowed to speak Vietnamese. You get to meet new people, hoc tieng viet (study Vietnamese), and hang out and drink beer at the same time. Its been a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to more of them.

Tieng Viet WhaWhat Meeting

Alright, I think thats enough for now on learning Vietnamese. Câm ơn và tạm biệt! . 

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  • Emw0508

    my 5 year old son is learning vietnamese and is doing very well. He can count to 100, he knows 3 songs and really seems to have a talent for languages. He had the option of learning chinese instead and I guess I am asking for your opinion. do y ou think knowing chinese instead of vietnamese will give him a better advantage?

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