Millo's Musings

Thoughts on the Vietnamese Language

06 April 2014

I’ve been in Vietnam for just over two months now. A lot of stuff has happened in that time, and most of it has happened in English. There’s a tight-knit and growing expat community here and I’ve been spending most of my time in it.

Of course, that community isn’t completely insular, and I’ve been hanging out with plenty of English-speaking Vietnamese too. Add that to the fact that most of Saigon’s 7 million inhabitants speak no English whatsoever, and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to practice the Vietnamese language.

Well, I’ve had the opportunity, I just haven’t been taking much of it.

I’ve made some effort though. While Vietnamese has many interesting features that (unsurprisingly) are radically different from anything European, I like to think I’ve got a decent grasp of the basics.

Vietnamese 101

Everyone LOVES to talk about how hard Vietnamese is (usually just to make excuses for their own failure to learn it), but I actually think Vietnamese has a lot of aspects that are very easy! There are no irregulars, no genders, the spelling is highly phonetic, the tenses are extremely simple, and it’s one of the few languages in the region for which you don’t have to learn an entirely new alphabet. (Compare Vietnamese’s tôi là người Anh to Thai’s “ฉันมาจากอังกฤษ”!)

Of course, like all languages, Vietnamese has hard aspects. By far the most intimidating of those is the pronunciation, which is VERY difficult for a European to master or even understand.

Try and say j’ai vingt-deux ans after hearing it once, and a French person will probably understand you, even if he cringes so hard at your pronunciation that he spills cigarette ash all over his baguette and starts drawing up terms of surrender.

On the other hand, if you attempt to say tôi hai mười hai tuổi without practice and coaching, you’ve got about as much chance as a Laotian rice farmer against an unexploded landmine.

Then again, it works both ways… so far I’ve met maybe 3 Vietnamese people who can pronounce anything reasonably close to “George”. “Chosh”, “Jaw” and “Jog” are popular alternatives. I’ve long since given up trying to correct people.

Lost in Translation

Vietnamese has 6 tones, meaning that ma can mean “mother”, “ghost”, “tomb”, “horse”, “but” or “rice seedling” depending on the pitch of voice you say it in. I find this fascinating – to a native speaker of a tonal language,  and mạ are COMPLETELY different words – as far apart as “meet”, “might”, “mate” and “moat” would sound to an English speaker. Screw up your tones, and people will have no idea what you’re trying to say.

The other day I tried to say to someone “do you speak Vietnamese?”, butchered the tones, and what they heard was “is your grandma having a contest?” That was a confusing ten seconds. Tones are hard.

Probably the most bizarre feature of Vietnamese is that it has no word for “you”. Instead, you address people by kinship terms such as “brother”, “uncle” and “friend”, depending on their age and gender. It can be confusing at first, but it doesn’t take too long to get used too, and it’s an interesting insight into Vietnamese culture.

Vietnamese also has BIG regional variations. Even I can generally hear the difference between the Hanoi and Saigon accent, and that’s without understanding a word being said. This has actually been a frustration, because almost all the teaching materials you can find online teach NORTHERN Vietnamese, which isn’t what I wanted to learn as it’s not where I live. (The Southern dialect has more speakers, but North Vietnam won the war and Hanoi Vietnamese is considered “official”.)

And tons of Vietnamese have told me that even they, as native speakers, can’t understand people from the central city of Huế. It’s Vietnam’s Liverpool.

The Most Challenging Aspect of Vietnamese

From all of the above, you might think that I know a lot about the Vietnamese language. Don’t be fooled.

While I can get by in simple situations like ordering food or introducing myself, my level of the language is still very low. My pronunciation is appalling, and my listening comprehension is even worse. It’s a rare day when people understand me on the first try. For two months in the country, my Vietnamese could be a lot better.

And sadly to report, it’s probably not going to improve much further. At the time of writing, I’ve made virtually no effort with Vietnamese in nearly three weeks, and I can’t see myself picking up the pace again any time soon. I’ve simply lost my interest.

See, my biggest problem with Vietnamese hasn’t been tones, pronunciation or pronouns, but motivation. Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint, and try as I might, I can’t find a strong enough reason to keep me going on this one.

Six months ago, I had no idea I’d be in Vietnam right now, and Vietnamese was NOT a language I ever thought I’d study. Unlike, say, German, which I’ve known for a long time I want to tackle eventually, Vietnamese just doesn’t ignite enough of a spark in me to justify the effort required for fluency. I was enthusiastic at first, but the thrill of the new can only take you so far.

Living in the country isn’t enough. It’s VERY easy to get by here on English alone, and the vast majority of expats do just that. I thought I’d be different, but I’ve fallen right into the same trap as everyone else.

I’m not trying to make excuses – I could easily have structured my life in an English-minimising way if I’d really wanted to. There are plenty of ways I could seek extra motivation - I could make a bet, sign up for an exam, drop money on a language course – but it’s not going to happen.

(The other common recommendation is to get a Vietnamese girlfriend, which hasn’t happened yet, but I know expats who’ve done just that and still can’t even say “my name is”, so I have my doubts about its effectiveness. Whatever the case, if you see me retracting this post and dusting off my phrasebook, you’ll can probably write it off as another case of yellow fever.)

All is not lost!

Don’t get me wrong – even if I never spoke a word of Vietnamese again from today, I wouldn’t regret the effort I’ve made so far.

Languages aren’t an all-or-nothing thing, and even my current shitty level has had a lot of positives. I’ve had some cool experiences I wouldn’t otherwise had had and made friends I wouldn’t otherwise have met.

Even being able to haggle prices without using English (actually they usually don’t speak English so you have to write down and cross out numbers until you reach agreement), understand basic signage, and exchange pleasantries with shopkeepers has enriched my time here in a small but enjoyable way that’s definitely been worth it. I don’t know why anyone would want to spend more than a few weeks in a country without making at least that small effort.

This has confirmed for me that travelling without learning the local language is EXTREMELY limiting. I don’t plan on doing much more of it.

Vietnamese might not have stoked my fires, but my passion for languages overall has definitely increased. I know for sure they’re going to be a big focus of mine over the next few years, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Hẹn gặp lại các bạn.

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