Published: Feb 16, 2023 | By: Ngọc Anh Lo Thi
Are you planning to visit Vietnam - a blissful place with beautiful scenery, a unique culture, and famously low prices?
Or maybe you've been offered a job in Vietnam working for an English-speaking company. In that case, it's a great idea to learn Vietnamese to get insight into Vietnam and make it easier to get along with Vietnamese people.
Language, after all, is the basis of culture, and speaking a language lets you not only learn more about a country but, more importantly, the people who speak it.
One of the first questions people who want to learn a language ask is always, “is it hard to learn?” but there's no easy way to answer it. Luckily, I’ve got you covered with the following:
Is it easy or hard to learn Vietnamese?
How long does it take to learn Vietnamese?
Important facts about the Vietnamese language
Key features of the Vietnamese language
Debunking the Myth "Vietnamese is way too hard."
"A very hard-to-learn language" is what most people say about Vietnamese. Many Vietnamese think it's almost impossible for someone from another country to learn their language.
When you type phrases like "Vietnamese is hard" into Google, you get tens of thousands of results. The supposed difficulty of Vietnam's official language is a source of national pride for the country's over 90 million people, who will tell you "tiếng Việt khó!" (Vietnamese is hard) every chance they get.
There is a saying in Vietnam: "Phong ba bão táp không bằng ngữ pháp Việt Nam." which can be translated as "The hardships of struggling with a violent storm don't compare to the hardships of mastering Vietnamese grammar."
Fun fact, with only 5 Vietnamese words, you can form 23 different ways of asking!
In this article, I'll bust some myths about how hard Vietnamese actually is.
A good answer to the question "Học tiếng Việt có khó không?" would be “Học tiếng Việt không khó cũng không dễ” (It is neither hard nor easy to learn Vietnamese.)
In reality, it is more accurate to say that Vietnamese is mostly "an easy-to-learn language" rather than a "hard-to-learn language." The pronunciation of Vietnamese, on the other hand, is certainly challenging.
Most of the time, it's hard for English speakers to learn Vietnamese because its grammar, vocabulary, and even alphabet are so different from what they're used to. But fortunately, the structure of the language is straightforward, and its rules are easy to understand.
The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) put Vietnamese in the same group as Hebrew, Russian, and Urdu, which means it is a category four language as a "hard language." They saw that it took their students who spoke English about 44 weeks (1,100 hours) to learn Vietnamese well enough to use it at work.
But the research was only done with people who spoke English as their first language. People who already speak tonal languages like Thai or Chinese might need less time in class to learn Vietnamese.
Vietnamese is a language of the Austroasiatic family. It is the official language of Vietnam, and some people in ASEAN and the Czech Republic also speak it. A lot also says of people in Cambodia, Laos, China, the United States, and France. In total, about 86.5 million people speak this language.
Before the ancient Chinese (Han people) took over ancient Vietnam, the Traditional Chinese language already had an effect on the Viet-Muong language. On the other hand, the Viet-Muong language started to have three tones when ancient Chinese people moved into ancient Vietnam in the sixth century. This colonization took place for 400 years. As a result, Vietnam's government used many Chinese words and the Chinese way of writing.
Vietnam gained its freedom from the Chinese in the year 939. During this time, the official language of the whole country was still Chinese, and Chinese was used for official documents, education, and civic tests. But the Vietnamese people still used and built on the Viet-Muong language.
People in Vietnam created Chữ Nôm in the 10th century. It was based on the traditional Chinese writing system and was used to write and describe words in Vietnamese that were not in Chinese. This time, the Vietnamese vocabulary had both native Vietnamese words (tiếng thuần Việt) and words that were a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese (tiếng Hán Việt).
Under the Lý Dynasty in the 12th century, the Vietnamese language added more tones until it had a total of six, just like it does today.
In the 1600s, some Portuguese and Italian Jesuit missionaries came up with how Vietnamese is written in modern times, called Chữ Quốc Ngữ. Francisco de Pina, a Portuguese Jesuit interpreter, made the first Vietnamese writing system in Latin. He did this to help people learn the language and spread the Catholic faith. The Catholic community worked on the script and used it for 200 years.
From 1884 to 1945, the French ruled Vietnam as a colony. Chữ Quốc Ngữ was made the official language of Vietnam and was taught in schools. The official language of the country was no longer traditional Chinese.
The French colonial government tried to get Vietnamese people to speak French, but they failed. That's why Vietnamese has many words that sound like French, like ghi-ông (guidon in French, which means bike handlebar) and cát-sét (in French: la cassette, meaning cassette tape).
Chữ Quốc Ngữ became the official way to write the Vietnamese language, and it is still an essential part of the language today.
The Latin alphabet is used in the Vietnamese language, which is different from many other Southeast Asian languages. This makes it easier for many English speakers to learn.
The order of the letters in the Vietnamese alphabet is the same as the letters in the English alphabet. It has 12 vowels and 17 consonants, for a total of 29 letters.
Vowels: a - ă - â - e - ê - o - ô - ơ - u - ư - i - y
Consonants: b - c - d - đ - g - h - k - l - m - n - p - q - r - s - t - v - x
Only a few letters are missing from the English Latin alphabet, including one consonant and six vowels: đ - ă - â - ê - ô - ơ - ư
Four consonants in the English alphabet don't exist in the Vietnamese alphabet: f - j - w - z
Many Vietnamese words are put together in a way that makes intuitive sense to new learners, so it's easy to remember them. Many words were borrowed from Chinese, French, and even English. You should have a big head start if you already know these languages.
In the Vietnamese language, words are either made up of:
One syllable (Run – chạy, Yes – vâng,...)
Compound words formed from two existing words (Airport – sân bay – courtyard + fly)
Reduplication (Stupid – khù khờ, Hasty – hấp tấp)
Loan words (Marathon – ma-ra-tông)
The good news is that Vietnamese words are made up of two other words. The combinations are logical, making it easy to develop mnemonics.
The grammar in the Vietnamese language is pretty straightforward. There are no "articles," "cases," or "genders" in this language. The Vietnamese tenses are easy to use, and the order of the words is the same as in English: S(V)O. There is no passive form, so the situation and context is critical. But people should avoid getting stuck on grammar too early in the first place.
For example, The apple is red — Quả táo màu đỏ. (SVO in English, SO in Vietnamese)
There is no use for the “be verb” in this type of sentence. Also, there are no articles for Vietnamese. To understand the grammar of a language, it is necessary to deconstruct the basic sentences to observe how the language functions.
“Tones are tricky when speaking or listening.” - This is what people who are trying to learn Vietnamese complain about. But what seems like an impossible problem at first can become easy with smart practice.
You will also have to spend some time getting used to some new vowel and consonant sounds. Keep in mind that some vowels can work together to make new sounds. There are also three dialects, each of which is significantly different.
Level – mid-level flat sound: ba – three, or dad in Southern dialect
Falling – start low and fall deeper: bà – lady
Rising – begin high and rise sharply: bá – governor
Falling glottalized – start low, lose lower then stop: bạ – at random
Dipping-rising – begin low, dips a little, then advance to a higher pitch: bả – poison
Rising glottalized – start above mid-level dips slightly, then rise sharply:bã – residue
Now that we've taken a quick look at the big picture, is this language really that hard?
So if you're learning Vietnamese or thinking about it, it's likely that all you've gotten so far is discouragement! I want to show you another point of view and give you hope because learning Vietnamese is easier than you think. Everything else about the language is straightforward and much easier than you might imagine, especially compared to most European languages.
If you've ever studied French, Spanish, German, or any other Latin/Romance language, you just let out a huge sigh of relief. Vietnamese doesn't have words for "male" or "female." You can learn the word as it is without remembering anything else.
But does it matter if you say "a" or "the" thing? Most of the time, the context makes it clear which one you mean. It's much easier to eliminate them all, which is what the Vietnamese do. You don't have to worry about the difference between "a person" and "the person" when you say "người."
I've already said that "người" can mean both "people" and "person." "chó" means "dog" or "dogs," "bàn" means "table" or "tables," and so on. If you need to be more specific, you can put an extra word in front of the noun, like "một người" - "one person," "vài người" - "some people," or "tất cả mọi người" - "all people" (all the people). Easy!
The good news is that in Vietnamese, there are no inflected words, meaning that the form of a word never changes. If you know the word "nói," you can say "speak" in any situation and for any speaker. I speak, you speak, they speak, we speak, you all speak, and they speak. That is a lot of time saved compared to learning almost any European language. As a result, this will be a relief to anyone who has studied a European language.
To read Vietnamese, you don't need to learn a new alphabet as you do for Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Thai, Cambodian, Korean, Hindi, and dozens of other Asian languages. You'll be able to read Vietnamese in no time if you learn a few accent marks called "diacritics," which are mostly used to show tone.
You can say, "I ate rice yesterday" without the tense word if it's clear from the context what you mean: "Tôi ăn cơm hôm qua." This is just one example of a more significant point: Vietnamese grammar is very easy to understand. Most of the time, you can say the fewest words necessary to get your point across, and Vietnamese grammar will still be correct, even if it sounds "broken" in English.
This is why you'll often hear Vietnamese people say things like "không có" - "no have" or "đi đâu" - "where you go?" when speaking English. They use the way they would say it in Vietnamese and ignore the much more complicated rules that English has. It's a big problem for Vietnamese people who want to learn English, but if you want to learn Vietnamese, it's a big help.
Even if they don't speak Vietnamese, most foreigners in Vietnam will know that the local name for Vietnam's ubiquitous motorbike taxis, xe ôm, literally means "hug vehicle." This is a fun fact, but that's not all. A lot of Vietnamese words are made by putting two words together in a logical way, similar to Dutch. In contrast, in English, you'd have to learn a third word that sounds completely different.
For example, if I told you that "máy" means "machine" and "bay" means "flying," could you guess what máy bay means? It is máy bay: airplane. This speeds up your learning of new words by a considerable amount! As you learn more basic terms, they add up to more than the sum of their parts, and you'll be able to use them in hundreds of new ways.
Have I convinced you that learning Vietnamese might be easier than you thought?
Vietnamese words are short and easy to understand. Even the most difficult words are made up of simple words that are put together.
As an English speaker, there is nothing in your language that might remind you of the Vietnamese words you are learning. It's hard to relate to words that are so different from your own, and you'll have trouble remembering them if you rely too much on translation.
As an example, let's look at the word "house."
"Maison" is what it's called in French. And “masonry” in English, is one of the oldest building crafts in the world. Many English speakers are also familiar with the Spanish word "casa," which looks like the English word "case." It's easy to remember if you think of a house as a "case" where people live.
"dom" in Russian sounds like "domus" in Latin, which means "house" or "dome" in English, which is the shape of some houses.
Okay, that's enough. You understand.
The word for "house" in Vietnamese is "nhà."
Think about that...
In English, "Nhà" sounds a bit like "nya-uh." It doesn't make me think of anything in particular. If I had to think of something to help me remember the word, I might picture someone asking a person where his house is and that person saying, "near, uh..." But that's not true, and it doesn't consider the tone at all!
So, Vietnamese vocabulary is simple and makes sense in theory, but it takes a lot of work to learn.
So, back to our question: "Is Vietnamese hard to learn?"
And how hard is it to learn Vietnamese?
Vietnamese is not the easiest foreign language to learn for English speakers. However, it’s not the most difficult either, and there are many different resources available to 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, no matter which language you choose.
One thing is for sure, if you're serious about wanting to get to know Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese people, learning the language will take you a long way. And you certainly won't regret all of the amazing memories you make and stories you can tell after your language-learning journey starts to pay off.
Ngoc Anh has a Master's Degree in English Linguistics from the University of Languages and International Studies at the Vietnamese National University in Hanoi. She's passionate about the science of languages and language learning. She regularly writes and contributes to content about language learning for the Weaver School.