Published: Aug 23, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver
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.
Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.
- Rita Mae Brown
In this post, I want to teach you the most important things you’ll need to know about the process of learning Vietnamese so that you can get an overview of what the journey might look like should you choose to make it.
Let’s start with the most important basic information about the Vietnamese language.
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 Vietnamese.
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.
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
“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
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 Vietnamese, 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 Vietnamese 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.
"A very hard-to-learn language" is what most people say about Vietnamese. Ask a native Vietnamese speaker and they will say 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."
But as a native Vietnamese speaker myself, I want to provide you some realistic encouragement here, and let you know why it might not be as hard to learn Vietnamese as you may have previously imagined.
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 and should help you progress in your speaking skills more quickly.
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 for Vietnamese learners, 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. 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 Vietnamese 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.
To have another language is to possess a second soul.
Learning a new language takes a lot of hard work, no matter which language you choose. The Vietnamese language is no different.
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.
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 home run?” 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 here, 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.
So, you've decided to learn Vietnamese, eh? Buckle up, my friend, because you are in for quite the ride. Let's start with something fairly straightforward: greetings and common expressions. This is where you'll learn the Vietnamese equivalent of 'howdy' and 'what's up' and, trust me, you're going to feel pretty cool.
Xin chào - This is the universal greeting, equivalent to 'Hello'. It's like the Swiss army knife of greetings, you can use it anywhere, anytime.
Chào buổi sáng - This translates to 'Good morning'. Used when you're bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to start the day.
Chào buổi chiều - This means 'Good afternoon'. It's what you say when the sun is high in the sky and you're ready for your second cup of coffee.
Chào buổi tối - This is 'Good evening'. Reserved for those late hours when all you can think about is dinner.
Tạm biệt - Say this when you're leaving. It translates to 'Goodbye'. It's the polite way to say 'I'm out'.
Cảm ơn - This is 'Thank you'. It's always nice to show some appreciation, right?
Không sao - This means 'No problem' or 'It's okay'. Particularly handy when you, inevitably, knock over your phở soup.
Now, remember, just like with any language, pronunciation is key. Don't be disheartened if you sound more like you're gargling than speaking at first. It's all part of the process, and pretty soon, you'll be tossing around these phrases like a pro!
If you think learning Vietnamese is like climbing Mount Everest in swim trunks, then you and I are on the same page. But let's not get our swim trunks in a twist just yet. As they say, every journey begins with a single step, and in our case, it's mastering basic conversational phrases. Not only will these phrases help you survive in Vietnam, but they will also give you a head start in understanding the language better.
First off, let's start with greetings because nothing makes you feel more at home in a new country than being able to exchange a friendly 'hello'. In Vietnamese, Xin chào is your magic word. Throw in a smile, and you've made a friend. Or at the very least, you've avoided being mistaken for a rude foreigner.
Next up, let's talk about gratitude. Cảm ơn (thank you) will make you a champion in the hearts of the locals. Remember, a thank you a day keeps frowns away!
Before you know it, you'll be throwing around phrases like Tôi không hiểu (I don't understand) and Tôi đã mất đường (I'm lost) with the confidence of a seasoned traveler. Just remember, it's all about taking baby steps, one phrase at a time.
So here's your starter pack for Vietnamese, keep practicing:
Xin chào - Hello
Cảm ơn - Thank you
Tôi không hiểu - I don't understand
Tôi đã mất đường - I'm lost
Alright, with your new phrases under your belt, you're ready to take on the Vietnamese language! Or, at the very least, you're ready to not offend an entire nation. Either way, I'd say that's a win.
One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.
- Frank Smith
I've got a secret for you - one of the first steps to mastering Vietnamese isn't about learning the language itself, but rather getting a solid grasp on Vietnamese cultural norms and practices. Now, it's not that you'll be expected to perform a traditional dragon dance or anything. But having some understanding of the culture will help you make sense of the language as it's used on the streets of Hanoi or Saigon.
Vietnamese culture is heavily based on respect and politeness, and this is reflected in their language. There's a strong emphasis on addressing people properly. To make things even more interesting, they have different ways of saying 'you' depending on the age and gender of the person you're talking to. So, be prepared to keep track of pronouns like a Sherlock Holmes of linguistics.
Vietnamese has different levels of formality, just like many other languages. You've got the formal 'you', the informal 'you', and situations where you can drop pronouns altogether. But don't worry, it's not like you'll be thrown into a linguistic labyrinth without a map. Remember, you're learning a new language, not trying to escape the Minotaur.
Family holds a central role in Vietnamese society, and this is reflected in the language too. Vietnamese uses specific terms to address family members depending on their age, gender, and relation to you. So, you might have one word for an older brother, another for a younger sister, and so on. It's a bit like building a linguistic family tree.
You know the saying, "Talk is cheap"? Well, in Vietnam, sometimes it's not even necessary.
Non-verbal communication plays a huge role in Vietnamese culture. So, when you're practicing Vietnamese, don't forget to work on your body language too. Trust me, a respectful bow or a timely nod can go a long way.
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
"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 ;).
Now, let's talk about apps. I mean, hey, if you're on your phone all day anyway, you might as well use a language app to learn Vietnamese.
There's a whole smorgasbord of them out there: Ling, Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, and plenty more. The beauty of these apps? You can practice Vietnamese while in line at the grocery store, during your morning commute, or even while waiting to board your flight to Vietnam ;).
Courses are a more traditional route, but they're like a good pair of jeans - they never really go out of style. If you're serious about learning Vietnamese, and I mean serious, then signing up for a course might be the way to go. You'll have a structured syllabus, a teacher to guide you, and classmates to practice with.
You can find courses these days with interactive lessons or video lessons, and even some online classes with live Vietnamese teachers and other classmates.
Books, my friends, shouldn't be overlooked for their usefulness in language learning. They might not have the flash of apps or the glamour of courses, but there's a reason they've been around for centuries.
From textbooks to dictionaries to phrasebooks, there's a Vietnamese language book out there for every learner. And let's not underestimate the joy of flipping through a physical book, smelling that fresh paper scent, and highlighting relevant phrases. (Or is that just me?)
YouTube channels are the new kids on the block when it comes to language learning resources. They're like the cool, hip cousins of apps, courses, and books. With YouTube, you not only get to learn Vietnamese, but you also get to witness it in action.
From pronunciation tips to cultural insights, there are free videos for everything. Plus, there's no better way to procrastinate than by convincing yourself that you're "learning" while watching a video about Vietnamese street food.
A wise man once said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Well, in our case, a journey to master Vietnamese starts with finding the right tutor or school. And trust me, it's not as grueling as it sounds!
There are essentially two routes you can take: online Vietnamese tutors or local language schools. It's like choosing between cake and ice cream. Both are sweet, both end in smiles, but they offer different experiences. Let's break it down, shall we?
Online tutors are the superheroes of language learning in the digital age. An experienced Vietnamese teacher can swoop in to save the day (or your language skills) with their flexible schedules and one-on-one sessions.
It's like having your own personal Vietnamese sensei at your disposal. Here's what you can expect:
Convenience: Learn Vietnamese from the comfort of your own home, or anywhere with an Internet connection. No need to battle traffic or brave the elements.
Flexibility: Online tutors often have flexible schedules. So if you're a night owl or an early bird, you can find a tutor to match your rhythm.
Personalized Learning: One-on-one sessions allow for a tailored learning plan, focusing on your strengths and improving your weaknesses. It's like a custom-made suit, but for your brain.
Teaching correct pronunciation: A live teacher can help you to make sure you're pronouncing words correctly and forming good habits from the beginning. Something that will come in handy later.
Helping you with tones: As you now know, Vietnamese is a tonal language, and using these tones correctly is mandatory, not optional. It might take you some extra effort to get comfortable with these, and a tutor can help.
On the other hand, local language schools teach Vietnamese using a more traditional route to Vietnamese fluency. Picture this: classrooms buzzing with the melody of foreign tongues, friendly competition with peers, and a structured curriculum. Here's the scoop:
Social Interaction: Unlike online tutors, language schools give you the opportunity to interact face-to-face with teachers and fellow students. It's the perfect setting to practice conversation skills and make new friends.
Structured Curriculum: Most language schools follow a set curriculum, providing consistency and a clear path for progression.
Extra-Curricular Activities: Many schools also offer cultural activities to complement your language studies. Think Vietnamese cooking classes, city tours, and more. It's quite literally the 'fun' in 'fundamentals'.
No matter which method you eventually choose to learn Vietnamese, let's go through a quick list of tips and tricks that will help you succeed.
The 'speak and repeat' method is as old as language itself, and it's the first method I recommend when learning Vietnamese.
No, you're not going to sound like a native speaker right off the bat. In fact, I guarantee you'll butcher the pronunciation at first, and that's okay! Remember, we're all perfectly imperfect language learners.
Here are a few steps you should consider:
No, we aren't setting you up for a preschool playdate. Remember those good old days when 'A' was for apple, 'B' was for ball? Well, surprise, surprise, in Vietnamese 'A' could be for "ăn" (eat) and 'B' could be for "bơ" (avocado). Trust me, you'll have a lot of fun. And the best part is that Vietnamese uses a Latin-based alphabet just like English, so no strange symbols to crack your head over.
Tip: Don't just learn the letters. Pay attention to the accents. Those little symbols can change the meaning of a word completely. Imagine calling your mother-in-law a monster by mistake! Yikes!
Vietnamese is a tonal language. And no, that doesn't mean you need to sing every sentence (but hey, feel free if you're in the mood). It means that the way you say a word can change its meaning. So make sure you practice those tones until they're as second nature as ordering a coffee at Starbucks.
Start small. You don't need to be a walking dictionary to get by. Learn the common phrases and words first. Greetings, introductions, asking for directions - you know, basic survival skills. Then move on to more complex topics.
Ah, the dreaded G-word. But fear not, grammar is not the monster under the bed. In fact, Vietnamese grammar is quite logical and straightforward. So grab your superhero cape and dive in!
And finally, USE the language. Practice with native speakers, try out language exchange programs, or maybe even take a trip to Vietnam (once it's safe to do so, of course). Remember: the more you use it, the better you'll get.
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 :).
Is Vietnamese Hard to Learn?
Vietnamese has a reputation for being challenging due to its tones, but many aspects of the language, such as grammar and vocabulary, are quite logical and straightforward. With proper guidance and practice, learners can master Vietnamese.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Vietnamese?
According to the US Foreign Service Institute, learning Vietnamese proficiently could take up to 44 weeks of dedicated study. However, reaching a beginner level can be achieved much sooner.
Which Dialect of Vietnamese Should I Learn?
Vietnamese has three main dialects: Northern, Central, and Southern. The choice depends on your location, preference, and the community you'll be interacting with. Many learners start with the Northern dialect as it's considered the "standard."
Can I Learn Vietnamese Online?
Yes, there are various online platforms, apps, and courses that offer Vietnamese lessons. These tools can be a convenient way to learn at your own pace and connect with native speakers.
What Are the Best Resources for Learning Vietnamese?
The best resources depend on your learning style and goals. Online courses, language apps, books, podcasts, and community groups can all be valuable. Personalized tutoring can also be highly effective.
Do I Need to Learn the Vietnamese Script?
While it's possible to learn spoken Vietnamese without mastering the script, learning to read and write will provide a deeper understanding of the language and open more opportunities for communication.
How Can I Practice Speaking Vietnamese?
Engaging with native speakers, joining language meetups, and utilizing language exchange platforms are great ways to practice speaking. Consistent practice and immersion are key to fluency.
Is Vietnamese Similar to Other Asian Languages?
Vietnamese is a unique language, but it has been influenced by Chinese and French. Some vocabulary and cultural aspects may be familiar to those who have studied other Asian languages.
Can I Learn Vietnamese for Travel or Business?
Absolutely! Learning Vietnamese can enhance travel experiences and provide valuable insights into Vietnamese culture and business etiquette. Even basic conversational skills can make a significant difference.
What's the Best Way to Start Learning Vietnamese?
Starting with understanding the tones, basic phrases, and cultural norms is a good foundation. Utilizing a combination of resources, setting clear goals, and staying committed to regular practice will lead to success.
What's the best way to learn Vietnamese?
There's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to learning languages. You've got to find what works for you. Some prefer a traditional language course, others learn better with language apps, and some even learn by immersing themselves in the culture and speaking with locals. It's all about exploration and I promise, it's part of the fun.
How long does it take to learn Vietnamese?
The time it takes to learn Vietnamese varies from person to person. Some pick up languages like they're collecting stamps, while others might take a wee bit longer. On average, it might take anywhere from 6 months to a few years to become fluent. The key is consistency. Put in a little effort every day and you'll see progress before you know it.
Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.