Learning Vietnamese? Forget it

Education - Vietnam: Nov. 12, 2018

Giving up on to Learning Vietnamese in Saigon

Rob, an editor, former publisher and self-professed language nerd, gave up on learning Vietnamese...

I have lived in Saigon for almost five years now and gave up on learning Vietnamese. I know the basic phrases (hello, goodbye, thank you, sorry, the numbers from one-to-10, turn left, turn right, go straight) and am adept at gestures and smiles, so usually I'm OK in daily encounters. But conversing? Forget it.

I like to think I have a head for languages. I speak four European languages fluently and get by in 'holiday' Spanish and Bahasa, along with rusty Latin and classical Greek from high-school days in Holland.

My Australian wife and I spent four years in Kuala Lumpur where I carried a little two-way dictionary in my pocket and learned a new word most days. Before we moved to Saigon, I could manage fairly well in simple sentences.

learning vietnameseImage source: vlstudies.com

Bahasa is a monotonal language with a simple structure. Vietnamese, however, is highly structured with a rich literature of which they’re justifiably proud, and it’s a tonal one – Standard Northern has six tones and Standard Southern has five. Mandarin has four plus a fifth, neutral one. Check the many meanings of the Vietnamese word "nam" depending on the tone: five, south, man, year... How do you get your head around that if you haven't grown up in a tonal environment?

Incomprehension in Vietnamese

I enrolled in two Vietnamese-language courses. I bailed out of the first after one session (amateurs) and finished the second, but wasn’t much the wiser except that finally I could read the diacritical marks. You can learn a familiar-looking alphabet within a day if you put your mind to it. I can still drone out the Greek alphabet I learned decades ago, Russian less so but I can make sense of the signs.

But whenever I tried to utter a full Vietnamese sentence in my best intonation, I was met with incomprehension. Or received an answer in Saigon slang I couldn’t make sense of. And don’t get me started on the differences between South, Central and North Vietnamese. My 10-year-old daughter, who speaks some Vietnamese thanks to the language classes at her international school and has little trouble with the tones (acquiring a language without an accent gets much harder after age 12 or so), meets with benign derision up in Hanoi. They think her Southern accent is ‘cute’.

learning vietnameseImage source: freepik.com

Some expats say they learn by living with Vietnamese people in shared houses, but my path was different so that wasn’t an option. Still, why haven’t I become reasonably conversant in Vietnamese after all those years, when I enjoy languages and am keen to learn?

I could try to persist, but I find it extremely difficult and there’s little incremental improvement. Nam...

Vietnamese too difficult to learn? The Latin script is messing with you.

Interestingly, an American friend who lives in Thailand, who speaks fluent Thai and wrote several best-selling travel guidebooks to Thailand, says that the Latin script is a hindrance to learning Vietnamese. He says he knows how to pronounce the Thai character, but Vietnam’s script throws him off because it’s too familiar to his original English.

My current saviour is the Vietnamese option on Google Translate, a great tool with our temporary maid who barely speaks English (her more fluent sister who has been with us for years just had a baby).

Fortunately, Vietnamese people are very tolerant with a great sense of humour. I twice had a total stranger come up to me in the street who patted me on my tummy (it’s a bit more prominent than most) saying, “You lucky man!” And that was meant as a compliment.

Gotta love this country.

Video source: HỌC TIẾNG ANH ĐƯỜNG PHỐ

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