How Hard is Vietnamese to Learn for English Speakers?

The Vietnamese language is truly a fascinating language to take on.

In truth, like many people, I first heard the language in the Vietnam war movies of the 80s and 90s. Admittedly, a somewhat sobering introduction. I later got to practice speaking and listening first hand around 12 years ago when I visited the country. But, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve truly been able to take a deep dive into the language.

So with that in mind, I feel able to answer the question, how hard is Vietnamese to learn?

The answer is that Vietnamese, if you are able to move past the initial difficulty of the tones, is in many ways a reasonably straight forward language to take on.

  • Vocabulary – The words in Vietnamese are often formed in a very logical manner. This makes them easy to remember. There are a lot of loan words from Chinese, French and some from English. Anyone with a background in these languages should have a significant head start.
  • Grammar – In truth the grammar is quite easy. There are no cases, no genders, no articles. Tenses are very easy to form and the word order is the same as English – SVO. There is no passive form, only active, so context really plays a significant part there. But truly, grammar really shouldn’t be the place where people become stuck.
  • Speaking/Listening – Tones are tricky. And 6 tones are even trickier. This is where people learning Vietnamese really complain. But, what at first can seem an insurmountable problem, with practice, can come naturally. There also are a few unfamiliar vowel and consonant sounds that you will also have to spend some time with and bare in mind that some vowels can team up to form new sounds. There are also 3 dialects with some significant differences to keep note of.
  • Writing/Reading – There are 29 letters in the Vietnamese alphabet. Most of which you will have seen before. This writing system shouldn’t pose too many challenges and after a couple of days practice you should be able to use it with ease.

So, after that brief overview, lets look into this in some more detail and deconstruct some of the key components of the language.

So, how hard is Vietnamese to learn really?

— Vocabulary

With Vietnamese vocabulary, words are either single syllable or formed through compounding or reduplication. Some examples of common single syllable words can be seen below.

  1. Run – chạy
  2. If – nếu
  3. Yes – vâng

Next, the following are Vietnamese compound words formed from two existing words. The combinations are somewhat logical and make forming memory mnemonics pretty straight forward.

  1. Railway – đường sắt – street+ iron
  2. Airport – sân bay – courtyard + fly
  3. Tomato – cà chua – plant + sour

Reduplication is also very common in Vietnamese. Below you can see how the same syllables are repeated, or in some cases similar sounding syllables are repeated, to form new words.

  1. Stupid – khù khờ
  2. Hasty – hấp tấp
  3. Nonsensical – vớ va vớ vẩn

Vietnamese also has borrowed a lot of loan words from other languages. Initially these loan words were Chinese as China had pretty sizeable influence over Vietnam for much of its history.

Later, French become a commonly spoken and dominant language in Vietnam, so it too introduced a lot of new words to the language. In later years still, as with many languages, English also had a significant impact. In particular, in the areas of science and technology.

Basic English or French Loan Words

  1. Cocktail – cocktail
  2. Data – đa ta
  3. Kenya – Kê-ni-a
  4. Television – ti vi
  5. Stress – xì-trét
  6. Marathon – ma-ra-tông
  7. Momentum – mô-men

— Grammar

In order to understand the grammar of a language it is necessary to deconstruct the basic sentences to observe how the language functions.

  1. The apple is red Quả táo màu đỏ — There is no use for the be verb in this type of sentence. Also, there are no articles for Vietnamese. 
  2. It is John’s apple quả táo của John — cua is used to denote possession, the word order is SVO. 
  3. I give John the appleTôi đưa cho John quả táo — Use of the preposition cho before the indirect object. Indirect and direct object order isn’t fixed.
  4. We give him the appleChúng tôi đưa anh ấy quả táo — The verb doesn’t change for subject. Very simple.
  5. He gives it to JohnAnh ấy đưa cho John — subject pronouns and object pronouns are the same.
  6. He doesn’t give it to JohnAnh ấy không đưa cho John — Simple form for creating negatives by adding không
  7. She gives it to him Cô ấy đưa cho anh ấy — He and she have separate pronouns. 
  8. I gave John the appleTôi đã đưa cho John quả táo — Use of the đã word to denote past. This means no complex verb changes. 
  9. I must give it to himTôi phải đưa cho anh ấy — Auxiliary verbs precede the main verb.
  10. I want to give it to her Tôi muốn đưa cho cô ấy

The language deconstruction method is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good base for understanding Vietnamese. It operates under the 80:20 Pareto principle, in that 80% of your languages needs are covered by 20% of the functional language.

Key Features

  • Word Order – Vietnamese grammar has a subject-verb-object word order, which is of course similar to English.
  • Articles – In Vietnamese there are no articles. In many languages there are both genders and associated articles so you not going to be slowed down having to learn these.
  • Pronouns – This is where things can get tricky. Pronouns vary by – gender, age and the social position of both the speaker and the listener. Also, take note that the pronoun for we has two forms. One for when the person spoken to is included and one for when they are not.
  • Nouns – In Vietnamese there are no cases that have to be learnt and plurals are formed by placing the word những before the noun.
  • Classifiers – When the speaker is counting things they use specific classifiers. There are classifiers for many things from bottles, to flowers to vehicles. The classifier goes between the number and the noun.
  • Prepositions – There are a whole load of prepositions to be learnt and they are placed before whichever word they are referring to.
  • Adjectives/Adverbs – Adjectives and adverbs are interchangeable and they are placed after the noun or the verb that they are describing.
  • Verbs – Verbs are pretty straight forward in Vietnamese. They do not change for subject, gender or tense. There are of course tense markers which are placed before the verb. These are easy to remember, đã (past tense), đang (present) and
    sẽ (future). You can also use time markers like yesterday or tomorrow.
  • Auxiliary verbs – They precede the main verb, this is very simple.
  • Be – The be verb, , comes after the subject. It can’t be used for location, instead a preposition is used. In sentences with adjectives the be verb is removed.
  • Have – The have verb, , is placed after the subject to indicate possession.
  • Negatives – To form a negative is pretty straight forward, you just need to place không before the verb.
  • Questions – To form a question you need to do the following. Statement + no (không), statement + right (phải) + no (không) or statement + can (được) + no (không). This is pretty straight forward. There are also question words which can be placed at the beginning or the end of the sentence.
  • Direct/indirect objects – There is no fixed order for direct objects and indirect objects

— Speaking/Listening

Vietnamese has 33 phonemes made up of 21 consonant sounds and 12 vowel sounds. There aren’t that many vowel or consonant sounds in Vietnamese that you don’t find in English, in terms of consonants some people have trouble with the ng sound. A lot of the vowel sounds combine together in Vietnamese so keep an eye on that.

Vietnamese is a tonal language, and in total there are 6 tones. This is one of the major stumbling blocks for speakers with a non tonal native language. It is difficult to both produce and detect the different tones.

Stress doesn’t play too significant a part in Vietnamese.

There are three major styles/dialects of spoken Vietnamese – northern (around the capital city of Hanoi), central (around the city of Hue) and southern (around the major southern city of Ho Chi Minh City). Each has some key differences from the other.

Consonants

  • Consonants IPA – m, k, j, w, n, t, l, s, ŋ, h, f, ɲ, ʔ, z, v, x, ɣ, c, tʰ, ɓ, ɗ.

Vowels

  • Vowels IPA – e, o, ɛ, ɔ, ɪ, ʊ, ʌ, ɤ, ɐ, a̟ː, ɯ̞, ʌ̯.

Tones

  • Level – mid level flat sound – ba – three
  • Deep – start low and fall deeper – – lady
  • Sharp – begin high and rise sharply – – governer
  • Heavy – start low, fall lower then stop – bạ – at random
  • Asking – begin low, dips a little then rise to a higher pitch – bả – poison
  • Tumbling – begin above mid level dips slightly then rise sharply –  – residue

— Writing/Reading

Vietnamese was originally an oral language which ran alongside the written language of Vietnam which was classical Chinese. The written Chinese was read with Vietnamese words. However, a lot of Chinese vocabulary made it into Vietnamese because of the use of the written language.

Around the 13th century Vietnamese began to be written in a script called Chữ-nôm. This was a type of Chinese hybrid with many new characters created by Vietnamese.

In the 17th century, with the arrival of Catholic missionaries the Vietnamese began to be written with a latin alphabet they called Quốc Ngữ. This script shares many letter from the English alphabet while at the same time adding additional letters for long and short vowels and diacritics to denote tones.

My hovercraft is full of eels – Tàu cánh ngầm của tôi đầy lươn

The red script denotes the consonant symbols, the blue script denotes the vowel symbols and the green script denotes vowel markers.

Key Features

  • The script is written from left to right.
  • There are 29 letters in Vietnamese.

  • 18 consonants and 11 vowels.
  • The letters f, j, w, z are not found in the native Vietnamese alphabet however they are used for names and loans words from other languages.

Why Learn Vietnamese?

Each person has their own motivation for taking on a language, but without a doubt i’d say there are three important reasons why people might learn Vietnamese.

  1. Vietnam has a vibrant and growing tourist industry. But this means that, of the Vietnamese who speak English, the majority are concentrated in this one sector. In truth, there are 90 million people in Vietnam and by learning the language you can better understand a more diverse bunch of people.
  2. The tones of Vietnamese pose a serious challenge. One that requires some well reasoned motivation. But, if you dedicate the time and effort to learning the 6 tones then the rewards are fantastic. Challenges build character.
  3. Culturally, Vietnam is a fascinating place. Take the food as an example, there are so many tasty dishes. And, to be honest, part of appreciating a dish is understanding how it was made, what ingredients went into it, and how these ideas were passed down the generations. You truly wouldn’t fully gain that appreciation without a good understanding of the language.

So, lets investigate this further.

Language Classification

Vietnamese is an Austroasiatic language. It is the official language of Vietnam and a minority language in ASEAN and Czechia. It is also commonly spoken in Cambodia, Laos, China, the USA, and France. It is spoken by 85  million people.

Travel, Culture, History and Economy

The country of Vietnam has a land border with China in the north, and the countries of Laos and Cambodia to the west. It has maritime borders with Thailand in the Gulf of Thailand, and the Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia in the South China Sea. The capital city is Hanoi, however the largest city is Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam, sometimes called Saigon.

Vietnam has been strongly influenced by the values of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The north of Vietnam was dominated by China for much of its history while the central and southern parts of Vietnam also have a Champa and Khmer influence. In the modern era government-controlled media has kept a strong grip on national cultural values while in recent years Southeast Asian, East Asian as well as Western culture have played a increasingly influential role. Some of the more popular cultural locations include the capital city of Hanoi, the bustling sprawling city of Saigon, and the imperial city of Hue. Natural sights include the National Park of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng, some coastal regions like Nha Trang, and the awesome caves at Hạ Long Bay.

The first dynasty of Vietnam is considered to be Hong Bang Dynasty. In 111 BC, the Han Dynasty of China added Vietnam into their empire. Vietnam continued to be part of this empire for around 1000 years. In 938 AD the Vietnamese defeated the Chinese and gained independence. In 1858 the French came to Vietnam. In 1893 the French added Vietnam to their empire of French Indochina. The French continued their rule until defeated by the communists in 1954 under the leadership Ho Chi Minh. The country was broken into two parts with Communist North Vietnam and the anti-Communist South. The USA later invaded the region with the war raging for many years with the loss of a great number of lives. The North Vietnamese eventually won and the country was united by the communists in 1975.

The Vietnamese economy is a mixed market economy. In the 80s Vietnam switched from a centralised command economy to this more mixed market economy. Vietnam has substantive agricultural, manufacturing and mining sectors. In recent years the country also attracts a lot of foreign investment and tourism also plays a big role in the economy.

Language ROI

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has put together a relative comparison of world languages including Vietnamese.

They rate Vietnamese as a category 4 language along with languages like Hebrew, Russian and Urdu. They believe it would take 44 weeks (1100 hours) to achieve a L3 proficiency in speaking and reading.

Resources

In attempting to learn anything it is best to first deconstruct the problem and then break down the learning task into manageable chunks. It is with this in mind that I recommend the following resources to help you in learning Vietnamese.

  • Fluent Forever or Anki – The Fluent Forever method details exactly how to use spaced repetition to quickly build functional vocabulary and learn common grammar rules.
  • italki.com – Italki gives you access to very cheap video chat lesson with teachers from around the world, dive straight in.
  • lang-8.com – Lang 8 allows you to input writing and have it corrected for free in a matter of hours. This community is very helpful and is a great way to practice online.

Sample of Vietnamese

Sources

  1. https://phoible.org/
  2. https://www.omniglot.com/
  3. https://glottolog.org/
  4. https://wikitongues.org/

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