Published: May 5, 2023 | By: Ngọc Anh Lo Thi
The challenge of learning a new language is compounded when the target language is as intricate and subtle as Vietnamese. As an English speaker, there are many things that make Vietnamese unique that might seem challenging to you.
But fear not, there are a few things about Vietnamese that you will find comforting, and if you put in the time and effort and maintain your language learning, you can certainly learn to use Vietnamese fluently.
Before we dive into this topic fully, let me answer the question, “Can you get by in Vietnam if you only use English?” Yes, of course, you can.
The more extended version of the answer is that yes, it is possible, although it varies depending on where you go in Vietnam. And you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing most tourists that come to Vietnam know nothing of the Vietnamese language beyond "Xin chào" (Hello) and "Cảm ơn" (Thank you). And this might be all you need for a two-week vacation to Vietnam.
After Vietnamese, English is the most widely spoken language in Vietnam, and younger city dwellers may often respond to you in English even if you speak to them in Vietnamese. However, nothing compares to the richness and warmth that you experience when speaking a difficult language like Vietnamese in a place like Vietnam.
The way people interact with you changes, and their appreciation of your hard work in learning Vietnamese might even feel a bit addicting. And once you experience it, you’ll never want to miss out on it again.
The good news, if you want to experience that feeling for yourself, is that there are some factors that make Vietnamese easier to learn for English speakers. But the bad news is there are even more factors making it difficult. But that’s life, so let me explain what I’m talking about.
Vietnamese can be simpler than some other languages, such as French or German. One of the reasons for this is that Vietnamese does not have verb conjugation, meaning that the verb does not change depending on the subject.
Plus, Vietnamese does not have grammatical gender, a feature that many languages such as Spanish, French, or German have, where words are masculine or feminine. This can make it easier for English speakers like you who are not used to dealing with grammatical gender.
Another aspect that makes Vietnamese easier to learn for English speakers is its fixed word order. Vietnamese follows a subject-verb-object (SVO) word order similar to English and Spanish, which can make it easier for learners to construct sentences.
Additionally, yes-no questions are formed using positive-negative tags, and wh-questions are expressed in situ, like in Spanish. This can make it easier for English speakers familiar with these structures.
There are several reasons why Vietnamese may be difficult for English speakers to learn.
On top of all the new Vietnamese vocabulary you will have to learn, one of the hardest things about Vietnamese is that it has a complicated system of words called "particles" that are used to show the tense and aspect of verbs. If you use them sparingly, these parts of speech can be easy to understand. But in more complicated uses, they can be one of the sticking points in Vietnamese grammar.
If you've learned other Asian languages, such as Korean, you might already be familiar with particles and this might not be so difficult. However, if English or a European language is all you know, then this will be a challenge for English speakers.
Also, there are no definite or indefinite articles in Vietnamese, which can make it hard for English speakers to learn. Plurals also may or may not be apparent, making things complicated.
Another important thing to know is that Vietnamese has six tones. The pitch of a Vietnamese word can change what it means, which can be hard for people who speak English and don't usually pay attention to changes in pitch and tone.
Lastly, Vietnamese is hard for people who speak English because it is generally difficult to pronounce. Some sounds in Vietnamese aren't in English, and the use of diacritical marks in the Vietnamese alphabet can make it hard to say words the right way, unlike in the Latin Alphabet, which has its own set of challenges.
While having some aspects that make it a bit easier, the Vietnamese language is still significantly different enough from English in ways that can be hard for English speakers to get used to. English speakers can learn to use Vietnamese if they are patient, persistent, and dedicated.
Knowing the language can help you do things like befriend locals and learn more about their culture. And at the same time, a few things can go wrong if you don’t speak Vietnamese.
For one, it can be hard to communicate with the people who live here, making it hard to shop, order food, and get around. You may also find expressing your ideas and needs more challenging if you take a break from the bustling cities and tourist traps.
Learning even a little Vietnamese will save you a lot of time and effort, but body language is still effective, and can help you when you get into trouble, and the good news is, the vast majority of Vietnamese people are kind and helpful, regardless of whether they speak English or not.
In short, learning Vietnamese is optional to live in Vietnam, although there are many benefits to doing so. Also, learning Vietnamese will allow you to participate more completely in Vietnamese culture, which can be quite enriching on many levels.
One important fact you need to know: Vietnamese dialects are on a whole other level, and it isn't obvious!
Vietnam is a country that is over 1,000 miles long, stretching from north to south. This geography has contributed to the development of regional dialects in the Vietnamese language. The country's geography has made it difficult for people in different regions to communicate with each other, leading to the development of distinct dialects.
In addition to geography and history, our culture has also played a role in the development of regional dialects. Vietnamese culture is diverse, with each region having unique customs, traditions, and ways of life. This diversity is reflected in the language as well, with each region having its own distinct vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.
The northern dialect is often considered more formal and conservative, with a slower and clearer pronunciation. The central dialect is known for its strong and vibrant intonation, while the southern dialect is often considered more casual and relaxed.
While the differences between dialects can present a challenge for English speakers, they also add to the richness and complexity of the language. By understanding the regional variations, English speakers who want to learn Vietnamese can gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Vietnamese language and culture.
There are several steps that English speakers can take to make learning Vietnamese less “confusing”.
Vietnamese is a tonal language, meaning a word's pitch can change its meaning. Focus on getting the tones right from the beginning, and you'll have an easier time communicating with native speakers.
Like any language, practice is key in learning Vietnamese. Listen to Vietnamese music, watch Vietnamese movies, and practice speaking with native speakers whenever possible.
The more you immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture, the easier it will be to learn the language. Try reading Vietnamese literature, watching TV shows, and attending Vietnamese cultural events.
A structured learning program can help you stay organized and focused as you learn Vietnamese. Look for a program that includes grammar lessons, vocabulary practice, and opportunities to practice speaking and listening.
Finding a native Vietnamese speaker to be your language partner can be a great way to practice speaking and get feedback on your pronunciation and grammar.
By following these tips, English speakers can make learning Vietnamese more manageable and enjoyable.
It can take a long time and a lot of work to become fluent in Vietnamese. How long it takes depends on many things, such as how motivated you are, and many other factors. You can find the entire answer to that question in our blog post about how long it takes to learn Vietnamese.
Let's face it, learning Vietnamese is not exactly a piece of cake. Its tonal aspect, complex system of particles, and unique grammar can be challenging. But, as they say, the best things in life are worth working hard for, and learning Vietnamese is no exception.
Sure, you might need help with the six tones of the language or clarification on particles that convey verb tenses and aspects. But don't worry, you're not alone. Many learners have been in your shoes and have come out on the other side speaking Vietnamese like a native.
All things considered, Vietnamese is a difficult language to learn. It takes patience, perseverance, and a willingness to learn. You might have to practice your pronunciation for hours, listen to Vietnamese music on repeat, or immerse yourself in the language and culture. But with the right mindset and approach, you'll be well on your way to speaking Vietnamese like a pro.
And if all else fails, there's always the classic "smile and nod" technique.
In the end, learning Vietnamese might be challenging, but it's worth it. By mastering the language, you'll be able to communicate more effectively with locals and gain a deeper appreciation for the culture and open up new job opportunities. So, feel free to take on the challenge, and remember that every step counts in the path towards fluency.
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.