It is said that it only takes 24 weeks to become an expert in Spanish and Italian languages. But as for the Vietnamese language, students usually need 44 weeks to become proficient. It’s considered to be one of the most challenging languages to learn.
But what makes Vietnamese so tough to grasp that you have to spend 20 more weeks than other languages to learn it?
Firstly, seven of the letters contain diacritics in the letters’ standard form. These letters appear and sound exactly how the glyphs are placed in each. Here are the vowels: ă, â, ê, ô, ư, ơ. And the seventh is Ð, which denotes a more rounded sound than the standard ‘d’ we’re used to.
The second is with Vietnamese being such a tonal language; diacritics are used to denote inflection. For instance, the word Ma (with mid-level tone, no diacritics) means ghost, but Má (with high rising tone) means mother.
In the same way that even if you meant to tell your Grab driver to go to chợ (market) if you mispronounce it and utter chó, that becomes a problem because chó is an insult that directly translates to dog. The same word spelled with two different diacritics results in two different meanings.
Don’t feel bad if you consider the Vietnamese language difficult. They know it’s difficult. In fact, they have a saying that goes, “The hardships of struggling with a violent storm don’t compare to the hardships of mastering Vietnamese grammar.” So fret not.
Though the language’s reputation is usually ‘difficult to learn,’ it’s always relative and depends on what drives you past the diacritics. The most important thing to remember is respect — if the market is your destination, make sure you say it correctly, or else you’ll offend the locals.
Reasons expats learn the language
When Marie and her husband, both secondary school teachers, arrived in Vietnam from the Philippines seven years ago, their daughter was only a year and a few months old. Marie admitted they “only know the basics” in Vietnamese and didn’t undergo formal training to learn the language. To them, as long as they can command the class and “get their attention in Vietnamese,” all is well.
“Our daughter is now eight years old, she speaks Filipino as well as English, but her Vietnamese is way better than ours,” Marie said.
“When she was nearly six, we hired a Vietnamese teacher for her, and they spent at least three hours per week, which helped build the foundation of the language.”
However, even with the long hours of learning speech and written Vietnamese, Marie believes the most valuable part is being able to apply it on a daily basis. “Her friends are mostly Vietnamese and South Koreans, so she can apply what she learned from the lessons during actual conversations with the locals.”
When asked why they spent money and time for their daughter to learn the Vietnamese language, they said it’s “just right.”
“Although she was not born in Vietnam, she’s already spent most of her life here, and as her parents, it’s our responsibility to make life easier for our daughter. We are convinced learning the language is the first step to that.”
Ben, an American national who arrived in Vietnam weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic forced Ho Chi Minh City to enforce a lockdown, now speaks Vietnamese almost like a local.
“I was lucky to land a job before my arrival and fortunate still to keep it amidst the lockdown in the city,” Ben said. “However, I am a social person, and staying at home was challenging, so I took the time to learn Vietnamese.”
At first, Ben settled with online apps to get familiar with the local language, but he soon realized he was not getting anywhere. After two weeks of self-learning, “I took it to the next level and enrolled in an online class where I talk with a Vietnamese teacher an hour per day,” the senior data analyst said.
When the city eased the safety restrictions, he continued the Vietnamese classes and went to group and longer sessions. That’s when he hit the advanced level. “I have to be honest, it started as a hobby and a way to kill my boredom, but now, I’m in love with the language and, ultimately, with Vietnam even more.”
American expats are most willing to learn Vietnamese
There are over 7000 languages spoken worldwide, and some are more spoken than others, depending on the statistical variable you choose to focus on.
According to the document translation agency Translate Day, Vietnamese is this year’s 10th most spoken language in the world. Approximately 85 million speakers speak the language in Vietnam. They could also be heard in the United Kingdom, France, China, Canada, Vanuatu, Cambodia, and Taiwan, where it’s the second most popular language.
In 2021, Ivy League universities Princeton and Brown started offering beginner and intermediate Vietnamese for the first time in their history. As for the Viet Kieu worldwide, the Vietnamese government recently set September 8 as the day for honoring the Vietnamese language in Vietnamese communities abroad. The celebration is about teaching the young generation of Viet Kieu, who may have never visited Vietnam yet, to learn more about their homeland.
In Vietnam, where you can never get enough English schools, Vietnamese language schools continue to thrive.
Celebrating its 28th year of “teaching Vietnamese language and culture to students from all around the world,” Vietnamese Language Studies (VLS) receives an average of 73 new students at a time. Founded by Dr. Vo Xuan Trang, VLS offers 659 online and in-person courses.
When asked about the nationalities of their students, VLS revealed they’re mostly Americans (22%), South Koreans (13%), British (9%), Japanese (7%), French (6%), and Singaporeans (4%), among others. Australians, Canadians, and Germans each account for 3% of the student population.
“Many of them are expatriates, so they learn Vietnamese for work purposes,” Duyen from VLS marketing team said. “Others are students, and speaking Vietnamese fluently is a requirement.”
In the same way as Marie and Ben, many VLS students want to be able to communicate with the locals and build that connection to the Vietnamese community.
While the length of the program varies, Duyen said most of their students complete their courses on time and usually upgrade to reach a higher proficiency level.
Learn Vietnamese in Saigon is another language school that’s popular among expats. They’re based in Binh Thanh district and have 52 students currently enrolled at their center.
“The times that they study vary from a few months to four years,” a school representative said. “The majority is between nine months to two years. On average, we have three new students monthly.”
At Learn Vietnamese in Saigon, Americans (30%) are still dominating the student population, followed by English (10%), French (10%), other Europeans like Germans, Swiss, Russians, Belgians (20%), Thais, Korean, Japanese (10%) and South Americans (10%).
According to the school, one-third of the students learn the language because they have Vietnamese partners or parents. “The remaining students study Vietnamese for multiple casual reasons such as feeling bad because of being here for a while without understanding others, or just daily communication,” the official added.
In today’s increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, whether you’re learning the Vietnamese language to have a better way of life while in the country or get a better perspective of the culture and its people, it remains a vital skill that allows you to engage with the world in a more immediate and meaningful way.