Published: Feb 25, 2023 | By: Ngọc Anh Lo Thi
Learning a new language takes a lot of hard work, no matter which language you choose. The Vietnamese language is no different.
That's why before you start your Vietnamese language learning journey you want to find out just how much work you have in store. Thus, here you are asking, "How long does it take to learn Vietnamese?"
In this post, I'll tell you how long experts say it takes to learn Vietnamese and how you can learn by yourself as either a hobby or for travel purposes.
Before answering your question, I would like to cite a paragraph from a book that is "wrecking" me.
"In Vietnamese, the word for missing someone and remembering them is the same: ‘nhớ’. Sometimes, when you ask me over the phone, ‘Có nhớ me không?’ I flinch, thinking you meant, ‘Do you remember me?’ I miss you more than I remember you." - On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" by Ocean Vuong.
This excerpt illustrates that while Vietnamese is a beautiful language full of culture and rich history, it can also be confusing, even for Vietnamese native speakers.
For instance, there are many combinations with the word "nhớ" to create different meanings:
nhớ dai: to have a good memory
nhớ đến: to think of somebody/something
nhớ đời: memorable; unforgettable
nhớ kỹ: remember in detail
nhớ lại: reminisce; to recollect; to recall
nhớ lấy: to bear/keep something in mind; to memorize
nhớ mãi: to remember forever
nhớ ơn: grateful; thankful; obliged
nhớ ra: to recollect; to recall
nhớ nhung: to have a fond remembrance
… just to point out a few. And I'm not trying to make Vietnamese sound scary, it just is!
Even though Vietnamese and English have some common linguistic features, they are more different than similar. Vietnamese is an isolated language, with no inflectional morphology and only word order to show grammatical relationships.
Vietnamese is part of the Autroasiatic language family, including Khmer and Lao.
It doesn't necessarily have to be a very hard or complicated language though. Vietnamese grammar is more straightforward than other languages, and most words have only one syllable.
When forming utterances, Vietnamese speakers use a combination of simple words instead of long words for more complex ideas, as is the case in many other languages.
The three traits that most make Vietnamese a hard-to-learn language to learn are:
The poetic trait: In a tonal language, it is crucial to get the proper pronunciation, pitch, and tone. These are the six tones: ngang (level), huyền (low falling), sắc (high rising), ngã (creaking-rising), hỏi (dipped rising), and nặng (flat constricted). The "ngang" and "huyền" belong to the "thanh bằng" (balanced tone class) category, while the remaining tones are classified as "thanh trắc" (sharp tone class). Positive, melancholy, and nostalgic feelings are associated with the flat tone class, while unpleasant, complex, or even uncomfortable feelings are associated with the sharp tone class.
The creative trait: Vietnamese is a monosyllable language and every single syllable is meaningful. Hence Vietnamese people can transmit the same or more information in fewer words and at a slower pace than speakers of other languages.
The flexible trait: Vietnamese is also an analytic language, meaning it only relies a little on inflection to express grammatical relationships between words. SVO is the standard word order, however, sentences can be rearranged to SOV to emphasize one part of a topic more.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) says that Vietnamese is in Category III of "Hard languages," which are very different from English in terms of language and culture. Fluency in Vietnamese usually takes 44 weeks or 1100 class hours.
If you study Vietnamese for 1 hour every day, seven days a week, you will be fluent after 40 months (about three years).
But you don’t start learning baseball by Googleing “How long until I can hit a homerun?” Or maybe you do, and if so, I admire your ambition!
Let’s be a bit more modest in our ambition here and just start with how long it will take you to learn the basics of Vietnamese.
If you're just getting started with Vietnamese, an excellent place to start is with Vietnamese pronunciation of individual words. Once you've completed this course, you'll be able to pronounce any Vietnamese word accurately, regardless of its meaning.
No matter how well-versed you are in Vietnamese grammar, if you don't master the sounds, especially the low tones, native Vietnamese will have difficulty understanding what you're trying to say.
And if you’re learning Vietnamese to travel there, it won’t matter how many words you learn if you can’t pronounce them in a way that native Vietnamese speakers can understand.
At the basic level, you should be able to:
Tell the difference between the Vietnamese tones.
Learn the Vietnamese alphabet: 28 initial consonants, eight ending consonants, 12 Single vowels, and diphthongs
Learn how to make some complicated Vietnamese sounds and how they affect Vietnamese pronunciation
Be able to say any Vietnamese word or phrase you encounter, even if you don't understand them.
Q: How long does it take to learn basic Vietnamese?
A: 6 - 12 hours of immersive study, or at least 3 days if you study 2 hours daily.
After you know how to pronounce the words, you can start a simple conversation and practice things like saying hello, asking for the time, discussing age, asking directions, ordering food, and giving personal information.
At this level, you should know:
Essential Vietnamese words and phrases for daily use.
How to say "hello" and "how are you?" in Vietnamese.
How to ask and answer questions about yourself.
Q: How long does it take to learn Vietnamese for travel purposes?
A: 24 - 48 hours of immersive study, at least 12 days if you study 2 hours daily.
Even at this level, this is still for beginners, but what you will learn is a bit harder. After you finish this Vietnamese for beginners level (A2 in the CEFR), you can make longer sentences and talk about things you already know, such as shopping, feelings, vacation, renting a house, hobbies, work, etc.
At this level, you should be able to:
Understand and use Vietnamese phrases and sentences.
Communicate in Vietnamese for simple and routine tasks that require a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
Explain things about your background, immediate environment, and things you need immediately.
Q: How long does it take to learn elementary-level Vietnamese?
A: 6 months to 2 years if you keep learning daily.
When you get to this level, you're ready to go to Vietnam for work because you know how to deal with most of the things that could happen there. It would go even faster if you were in Vietnam while learning the language. Now you can describe tangible things or chat about subjects relating to daily lives in rural or urban areas.
At this level, you should be able to:
Get the main points of complicated texts, such as those with technical discussions.
Communicate effortlessly to people in Vietnamese.
Write a clear, detailed text about a wide range of topics and explain your point of view on specific topics, like the pros and cons of something.
Fun fact, you can even tell the difference between
Đô: strong or huge (person)
Đố: daring someone to do something or answer a question
Đồ: the action of steaming sticky rice
Đổ: falling or pouring
Đỗ: bean (noun), parking the car (verb)
Độ: degree (noun), buff (verb)
Q: How long does it take to learn an intermediate level of Vietnamese?
A: Depending on the person, some people can learn to understand everyday speech in about a year, while others need three years.
If you learn the language and become fluent, you can use it in your career or academic pursuits. You can understand high-level Vietnamese writing and communicate effectively in a business or educational setting using standard Vietnamese grammar and vocabulary.
For instance, understanding university lectures or reading a 100% Vietnamese book in Vietnam's modern national language will no longer make you sweat!
At this level, taking the Vietnamese Language Proficiency Test (Năng lực tiếng Việt) can prove how skilled you are. This test is the gold standard for Vietnamese language proficiency in Vietnam.
If you do well, you will be awarded a Proficiency certificate from the National University Ho Chi Minh City, part of the Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City system.
Q: How long does it take to learn an intermediate level of Vietnamese?
A: 2-5 years. The critical issue: daily.
In general, with just 30 minutes a day, you can study enough to pass the 100-word, 300-word, 500-word, 1,000-word, 2,000-word, and 3,000-word mark in Vietnamese. It's possible to become proficient in the language by the end of the first year if you study every day.
You will only need two years to reach the 3,000-word benchmark.
How long it takes to learn Vietnamese takes a lot of work to answer. Even though the difficulty of learning Vietnamese is an essential factor, we also need to look at the following:
Your goals (the level you want to reach)
Your current status (if you're not a beginner)
Your experience with studying and learning foreign languages
How often you study
And most importantly, how hard you work
You speak English as your first language and are just starting to learn Vietnamese. Your goal is to become conversational and reach the B1 level. You went to college and knew how to study, but you must learn more about foreign languages. You are driven to learn and explore every day for about an hour.
With this number, many language learners have different ideas. But most of us don't want to be fast. We want to be fluent or at least be able to have regular basic conversations.
"Study Vietnamese, they said. It's easy." said Vietnamese student Jesse Peterson. Jesse is a native English speaker, and after three years of living and working in Vietnam, he realized he could speak Vietnamese at a native level. At first, understanding slang like: "Hiểu chết liền" (If I understand what are you saying, I will immediately die.) or idioms like "Nhập gia tùy tục" (When in Rome do as the Romans do) "was a shock to his mind and sense of mental stability. But now, he describes his feeling as "a cloud parting to reveal a beautiful valley" as a fluent Vietnamese speaker.
Will you have the same experience as Jesse. Maybe not, but there’s only one way to find out ;).
As I already said, there is no exact way to figure out how long it takes to learn a language like Vietnamese. There are a lot of things that affect it.
But if you think about the above, you might better understand how much time you'll need. Does it fit with what you want and what you have planned? Take an honest look at your goals for using Vietnamese and adjust your learning plans accordingly.
Consider your native language. For a native English speaker or most European language speakers, Vietnamese is a complex language to learn. Even though our grammar and vocabulary are relatively easy to understand, our system of tones is, well, difficult. You must know each tone to understand the language and be understood when you speak it.
You can also check out some of the most popular Vietnamese books, movies, and music to give yourself an idea of and feel for the language. This will help you build your cultural knowledge as well as your language skills.
There are great ways to learn Vietnamese out there if you want to. Learning the language proficiently could take up to 44 weeks, but you should be able to speak at a beginner level much sooner.
Let me tell you my story: I once asked my mom, a literature teacher, "What is the only thing that is always beautiful at any time, place, or any form in this world?". She said, "I have many answers, but the top on my list would be languages." That wonderful answer still affects my learning journey to this day.
From my point of view, Vietnamese is such a beautiful combination between Asian features and Western scripts that I only now realize it after learning other languages.
I don’t really consider myself biased, but learning a foreign language is a joyful experience that I hope everyone can have at some point in their lives. And if you’re considering Vietnamese for yourself, I wish you all the joy you can find :).
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.