Vietnamese is a relatively challenging language to learn for English speakers due to its six tones and complicated pronoun system. However, speakers of tonal languages will not find Vietnamese as challenging to master.
Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. It belongs to the Austro-Asiatic language family, also known as Mon-Khmer. Vietnamese is spoken by over 95 million people worldwide. It has similar roots as Khmer in Cambodia and has been influenced by Chinese, French, Latin, and English.
I will discuss what you should expect when learning Vietnamese from here on!
Is Vietnamese Hard To Learn?
Vietnamese is considered a complicated language to learn for English speakers because of its six tones, intricate sounds, fast speech, and complicated pronoun system. On the contrary, learners who speak other tonal languages will not find it as difficult. Vietnamese grammar is relatively simple.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in the U.S. ranks Vietnamese as a category III ‘hard language’ (with level IV being the hardest), which will take an English speaker, on average, 1100 class hours to master.
While Vietnamese is mainly spoken by people living in Vietnam, it is spoken by another 3 million speakers in other countries, including the U.S., Cambodia, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, and Malaysia.
It is helpful to know Vietnamese if you plan to travel to or live there since other languages, such as English, are not widely spoken in Vietnam. We will explore possible reasons why you might find Vietnamese difficult and how you can overcome them, so keep reading!
1. Official Language of Vietnam
Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. It is spoken by more than 95 million people globally.
Chinese vocabulary and grammatical influence resulted in Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary making up about a third of the Vietnamese lexicon in the 10th century AD.
In the 15th century, the language was represented by ‘Chữ Nôm,’ a logographic writing system that uses Chinese characters (‘Chữ Hán’) to represent the Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary and some native Vietnamese words and new characters to express other words.
In 1651, Alexandre de Rhodes, an Avignonese Jesuit missionary and lexicographer, developed an early Vietnamese alphabet for his 1651 Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum.
This writing system reflected the pronunciation of the Vietnamese in Hanoi at the time and used a new Latin-script alphabet instead of the Nôm script. This marked the beginning of the Middle Vietnamese. This system became the foundation of the modern Vietnamese writing system.
After France invaded Vietnam in the late 19th century, French replaced Chinese as the official language in education and government. Vietnamese adopted many French terms.
After Vietnam gained independence, modern Standard Vietnamese was officially born.
2. Linguistic Classification
Vietnamese belongs to the Austro-Asiatic language family, which includes languages such as Khmer.
Historically, Vietnamese is a member of the Vietic branch of the Mon-Khmer family, which is descended from the Austroasiatic family tree.
Only when Vietnam became independent from France was the new Modern form of the language officially recognized as the national dialect.
Vietnamese is currently a language that is spoken in countries including the U.S., Cambodia, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, and Malaysia.
Meanwhile, the revival of the Vietnamese economy is partly responsible for the rising use of Vietnamese in neighboring nations such as Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand!
While modern Standard Vietnamese is based on the Northern dialect (spoken in and around Hanoi), two other major dialects/accents exist: Central (Hue) and Southern (Ho Chi Minh City).
3. Vietnamese is Challenging to Learn due to Tones
Vietnamese can be challenging for English speakers to master due to how significantly different it is from most American and European languages.
Vietnamese is a tonal language. Each Vietnamese syllable is pronounced with one of six tones centered on the main vowel or group of vowels.
These tones differ in duration, pitch melody, pitch height, and phonation. Tone is indicated by diacritics written above or below the vowel.
The six tones include mid-level (‘ngang’), low falling (‘huyền’), high rising (‘sắc’), mid rising (‘hỏi’), creaky high breaking-rising (‘ngã’), and creaky low falling constricted (short length) (‘nặng’).
In addition to saying these tones correctly, it is also challenging to accurately distinguish between them when listening to a fast Vietnamese speaker!
4. Category III Level of Difficulty
The Foreign Service Institute rates Vietnamese as having a Category III difficulty level.
An English speaker needs to complete roughly 44 weeks (1100 class hours) on average to master the language.
However, learners who already speak other tonal languages such as Chinese, Thai, and Punjabi will not require many hours to speak Vietnamese fluently.
Learning Vietnamese vocabulary can be tricky. There are many compounds consisting of Vietnamese words and Chinese borrowings. Some words are based on French. The language is also constantly being updated with the creation of new scientific and technical vocabulary.
5. Overview of Alphabet, Diacritics, Grammar, and Pronunciation
Start by concentrating on the alphabet, pronunciation, and phonology. The Vietnamese alphabet has 29 letters, including seven letters that have four diacritics (ă, â/ê/ô, ơ/ư, đ). There are five diacritics to designate tone (à, á, ả, ã, and ạ). Diacritics can be stacked twice on the same letter (ấ).
There are 12 vowels and 17 consonants. The alphabet is mainly derived from Portuguese with influence from French. Italian, Greek, and Latin also influence it.
The same letter may represent several different sounds depending on its location in a word. Different letters may represent the same sound. Pronunciation of the same word varies depending on the region.
There are about 46 Vietnamese diphthongs and triphthongs in the Vietnamese language. These sound significantly different in Southern Vietnam compared to the Northern region.
Vietnamese grammar is simpler than languages such as English, German or French.
Vietnamese does not use morphological marking of case, gender, number, or tense. It is an analytic language, meaning relationships between words in sentences are conveyed using helper words and word order, as opposed to using inflections (where the form of a word is changed).
The complicated pronoun system in Vietnamese can be confusing for English speakers. Vietnamese pronouns can reveal a lot more information than English pronouns.
The social relationship, age differences, attitude of the speaker toward the other person, and gender of the speaker and/or the person being referred to can all be inferred from pronouns.
6. Learning Vietnamese is Helpful for Travel and Migration
Multilingualism, in general, is beneficial for multitasking. Making more informed decisions is facilitated by thinking in multiple languages.
Learning Vietnamese will be extremely beneficial if you intend to visit or reside in Vietnam for a while. This is because few Vietnamese locals are fluent in English. Most street signages, shop fronts, and menus are written in Vietnamese.
Knowing basic Vietnamese helps you get around much easier when traveling in Vietnam. While GPS can help you navigate most of the time, being able to read the names of smaller laneways can help you avoid getting lost. It is also much easier for you to order food or bargain if you know some essential phrases.
If you are looking to stay in Vietnam for a few years, knowing Vietnamese is a must to enable you to explore this beautiful country and its wonderful culture.
7. Knowing Vietnamese can Boost Your Career Growth
Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing economies in the Southeast Asia startup ecosystem. More countries in the region are starting to recognize the importance of knowing Vietnamese.
Generally, Vietnamese speakers can interact with clients in Vietnam on a more personalized level. You can significantly improve professional relationships by showing a genuine interest in the Vietnamese language and culture!
For students learning this language, their Vietnamese skills may also be used or tested if a foreign firm accepts them for a position to work in a dynamic, multicultural corporate environment.
If your firm has job opportunities in Vietnam, not knowing the language can put you at a disadvantage compared to other candidates.
Vietnam is also in need of more English teachers. If you know both English and Vietnamese, you can easily find a job as an English teacher. You can earn above $1,000 monthly if you teach a few hours daily. Note that the average monthly salary in Vietnam is around $200 only!
8. Numerous Online Courses, Dictionaries, and Books
There are numerous sources from which you can learn Vietnamese.
You may download and stream online dictionaries at Vdict.com, The Free Vietnamese Dictionary Project, and VNEDICT.
‘Complete Vietnamese’ is an excellent book for beginners and can be purchased as an eBook for around $25. If you want to learn the Vietnamese of the Southern region instead, FSI offers a free FSI Vietnamese Basic Course.
Additionally, you can engage in beginner films with northern and southern accents at EveryDayViet.com on YouTube and Survival Phrases with free streaming.
You can also download educational software like SVFF ($14), Duolingo (free), VietnamesePod101 ($8), and Udemy (free)!
Finally, you may find the best free online materials for beginners and intermediate readers on LangHub’s Intermediate’ Vocab Lists and Sea Horse Viet!
9. Quick Tips on How to Learn Vietnamese
Choose one dialect at the beginning to master. This depends on which region you will travel to or reside in. If you want to learn Standard Vietnamese, pick the Northern dialect. If you are going to move to the Central or Southern region, you may want to learn the regional dialect instead.
Keep listening to as much Vietnamese as possible via different media, including news, movies, and music. You will master the different tones and be able to distinguish between them in no time.
A conservative pace for learning Vietnamese vocabulary is between 5 and 8 new daily words.
Practice makes perfect! You will speak more clearly, quickly, and confidently if you repeatedly review and practice your lines. Speak as much Vietnamese as possible to as many native speakers as possible.
Vietnamese might not be the easiest foreign language to learn for English speakers. However, many different resources are available for those interested in learning Vietnamese.
It can be a complex language with many rules, but it is also very rewarding when mastered. So if you are serious about learning Vietnamese, give yourself plenty of time and practice!
Ultimately, perseverance is key to success in learning any new language. If you have that, you will improve your language learning capabilities enormously!