Learning Vietnamese isn’t easy. It’s one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever done. I have some tips for learning vietnamese. Nothing is more infuriating than spending several hours trying to master a phrase, only to use it on the locals and you hear them ask “Anh ấy đang nói tiếng Tây Ban Nha hay tiếng Pháp?” (Is he speaking Spanish or French?)
Before my most recent attempt learning Vietnamese that began in September (and is still going strong), I’d started and gave up learning Vietnamese well over a handful of times.
It’s Not the Locals, It’s You – Tips for learning vietnamese
It is 100% normal to feel sad or angry when the locals don’t understand your Vietnamese. It’s especially disheartening when your Vietnamese friend understood what you said, but the stranger you’re talking to didn’t.
Often, locals simply aren’t expecting you to speak Vietnamese. When you do… it’s completely out of their reality. Most have never heard a foreigner speak Vietnamese. And thus, most Vietnamese people have never heard Vietnamese that isn’t 100% perfect.
You and I have lots of experience listening to non-native speakers speak English poorly. The same isn’t true for Vietnamese people listening to you butcher their language.
I don’t care what locals say. It is 100% true that unwillingness, inability, or laziness in listening to a foreigner speak Vietnamese will sometimes be a problem. I am confident that whatever level of Vietnamese you reach, there will always be some small percentage of Vietnamese people you simply can’t reach.
With that being said, the locals being a problem is an exception, not the rule. Generally (80-90% of the time), if you’re not being understood it’s because of your word choice/grammar/pronunciation, NOT because of the locals.
P.S. If you’re speaking Vietnamese to someone for the first time, it can be helpful to begin your conversation with the Vietnamese equivalent of “Hello I am speaking Vietnamese with you” (making sure you adjust the pronouns you use based on your age and the other person’s age).” It’s a tip for learning Vietnamese.
Don’t Let the Locals Speak English
When you’re at a low level of Vietnamese, it can be difficult to practice speaking. This is because whenever you try to speak Vietnamese, you find that the locals immediately switch to speaking English. Look, they’re not doing that to try to ruin your practice efforts.
The people you’re talking to are simply trying to make your conversation more efficient. There’s a natural inertia in conversing that results in the person with superior language skills speaking in the language that is most easily understood by the person with weaker language skills.
If the locals English is better or comparable to your Vietnamese, they’re probably going to speak English to you. Don’t worry though. This isn’t an unsolvable problem. In fact, the solution is quite easy.
If you want to be completely immersed in the Vietnamese language, you need to reach a level of Vietnamese that is superior to the locals’ level of English. If the locals English abilities are a 3 out of 10, your Vietnamese needs to be at least at level 4 or 5.
Of course, getting to that point is a long-term play. In the short-term, it can be useful to simply pretend you don’t speak English. When Vietnamese people speak English to me, I often reply in Spanish, and then quickly explain in Vietnamese that I don’t speak English.
The other solution? Just pay someone to practice having basic conversations with you. Local university students would be happy to have a tutoring job helping you learn the language and at even $3/hour you’re paying them signficantly more than they’d get elsewhere.
Don’t Learn Vietnamese Like It’s a European Language
Vietnamese is not Spanish or German, or Italian, or whatever other European language you learned in school. Studying a textbook and using flashcards for studying are waaaay more effective in learning Romance languages than in learning Vietnamese.
For learning Vietnamese, you really need to focus on having conversations with Vietnamese people. In fact, I’d say at least 50% of your practice time learning Vietnamese should be spend in actual conversations.
If your level of Vietnamese is low and it’s difficult to get reliable practice, you’re going to have to pay someone to speak to you. If you’re at a higher level, you may be able to just go on dates or hang out with friends for immersion in the language.
Learn to Write – tips for learning vietnamese
TONES ARE KEY. TONES ARE KEY. That’s something you need to drill in your head if you want to be successful in learning Vietnamese. To us as Westerners, the tones seem unimportant. “Why don’t the locals just try harder to understand?”
I’ve heard foreigners ask that far too often. In fact, I once wondered that myself. The reality it that “tap” and “tape” are as different to you as Vietnamese words pronounced with the wrong tone are to Vietnamese people.
Although it seems counterintuitive, I’ve found the best way to learn tones isn’t to merely spend a lot of time speaking and being corrected. That’s only half of the battle.
If you’re serious about learning to pronounce Vietnamese effectively, you learn to learn to write. Your pronounciation will improve almost immediately after you learn to read and write.
This is because you’ll see exactly which words have which vowels and which tones. This can help you discern differences that you’d be unlikely to spot while merely listening.
Repeated exposures to the tones in words via reading and writing will also help you memorize and internalize which words have which tones. Then, when you actually have to pronounce a word, using the right tone will be almost natural.
You Will Get Frustrated
Vietnamese has a steep learning curve. You are going to get frustrated. Again. And again. And again.
Is it worth learning Vietnamese? For most people I’d say no, especially if you’re not living in Vietnam. Then again, you aren’t most people now are you? Whether learning Vietnamese is worth it is something you’ll have to think about and decide for yourself.
What I will say, however, is that it learning Vietnamese isn’t magic. I used to look at people like Jeremy Ginsburg or Dan Hauer in awe because they somehow learned Vietnamese.
These days, however, I realize they’re not so special. Learning Vietnamese is 100% doable. The people that actually learned the language, however, were too busy actually practicing to make post complaining about how hard the language is on Facebook.
Just put in the time, and you’ll be amazed how quickly you can learn Vietnamese.