So you're asking how to learn Vietnamese? Well, first, let's look at the challenge ahead of you:
Vietnamese (or Tiếng Việt) is a language of about 90 million people in the world. It is related to Kmer and has a lot of loan words from Chinese. But compared to English and other western languages, it is very different!
The Vietnamese language is easy in so many ways. The grammar is delightfully simple. You won't have to learn articles, plural forms of words, and conjugations. Vietnamese is extremely approachable that way. There's also no masculine or feminine versions of words, like in many other languages.
Then there's the fact that Vietnamese is written with the Latin script. Except for a few extra letters and some accent marks and diacritics, you won't have to learn a new Alphabet like with Korean or Bengali. Vietnamese actually used to be written with the notorious Chinese characters. This would have made learning to read Vietnamese quite a lot more difficult!
For a brief introduction to the Vietnamese letters, have a look at this video:
An introduction to the letters used in Vietnamese and how they're pronounced. No stress! You don't have to learn this now! This is purely informative at the moment!
Then there's the fact that Vietnamese is monosyllabic. This means that all words in the language are composed of only one syllable, which makes learning vocabulary even simpler. For more complicated concepts, more words are used to describe it. Like the word for "hair-dryer" "máy sấy tóc". Máy means machine, sấy is drying and tóc means hair. So a hair-dryer is "machine-dries-hair".
The Hard Part: Pronunciation In Vietnamese
So you just watched the above video. Vietnamese pronunciation doesn't seem that bad does it? Well..
Pronunciation in Vietnamese is not only about making the correct sound for each letter. Where the real challenge lies is in the tones. Vietnamese has 6 tones. The tones are different ways to stress a sound. On the diagram below, you can see an illustration, were a word is formed with the two letters "ma". With the six different tones applied, however, the two letters can be six completely different words.
An example of how the 6 stresses or tones can be applied to the syllable "ma" and make it in to 6 different words.
ma: ghost má: mother or cheek mà which, that mả a tomb mã horse or code
mạ rice seedling Diagram by Yu Inoue from Japan
Tones are crucial to mastering Vietnamese. Actually, you really need to get them down even to have a very simple conversation. If you don't use the tones correctly, you will not be understood, except if something is very obvious from the context. But even so, your speech will be perceived very strange.
Diacritical marks for tones in Vietnamese
A video illustrating the pronunciation of the 6 tones.
As you saw in the above video, the diacritical marks used to indicate the tones in Vietnamese are rather simple. If the diacritical mark is a line that goes downward, the word is pronounced with a descending pitch. When it goes up, you pronounce it with an ascending pitch. If the mark looks like a question mark, you pronounce it like you were asking a question, and so on.
So the symbols used are quite intuitive. Adding to that, spelling in Vietnamese is very consistent. You won't run into huge differences between spelling and pronunciation like you see in English or Danish. Each syllable word is also pronounced individually, so it's easy to distinguish where one word ends and the next one begins. In English, if you say "happy birthday" you're actually saying "happybirthday" without making a noticeable pause in between words. This can make it difficult for an English learner to understand spoken English, but luckily, this isn't the case with Vietnamese.
Okay, that's enough of an introduction. How do you go about learning Vietnamese?
Getting started with learning Vietnamese
Taking your first baby steps in Vietnamese might be the most difficult part of learning the language. In the beginning, the language is completely foreign and very exotic. While the grammar and vocabulary are quite approachable, the pronunciation and the tones will demand a lot of focus. This is why I recommend that you start out slow with a pronunciation-focused audio-course like Pimsleur Vietnamese.
Pimsleur is a slow paced and very thorough course that forces you to study your first few vocabulary words and grammar items in depth. An English-speaking instructor will explain some key concepts and cue you to pronounce your first words in Vietnamese. The slow progression of the course helps you build a solid and fundamental base in Vietnamese pronunciation, and it's worth working with it for a while.
I don't recommend that you buy the complete course, though. As soon as you've got a grasp of the tones, you're better off moving on to another course. Pimsleur is simply a course that's too slow-moving to get a lot out of it except in the very beginning.
Picking up one of two beginner's coursebooks in Vietnamese
Vietnamese is not the most studied language in the world. This becomes apparent when one goes shopping for learning materials. There simply aren't a lot of them out there, and this is yet another challenge to answering how to learn Vietnamese. One course I do recommend is Teach Yourself Vietnamese. This books comes with audio and teaches you Vietnamese through dialogues which are gradually evolving in complexity from lesson to lesson. The dialect that is taught is mainly the Northern Vietnamese dialect - which is also considered the official dialect of Vietnam.
I suggest that you work your way through the book by doing about one lesson per day. Make a habit out of studying each morning or each evening and to do a lot of repetitions. First read the English version of the dialogue, so you can get an idea about what's going on. Then listen to the dialogue in Vietnamese, following along the text. Afterwards, play the audio again, but try repeating each sentence out loud several times while checking with the audio.
It's crucial that you focus on getting the tones right, so don't rush it! Then read through the grammar explanations and the drills and exercises. If you want to, go ahead and do these. The main strength of the course is on the dialogues, however, so don't stress too much about the exercises. And don't worry if you don't feel that you're really internalizing the stuff - it'll come.
For each time you sit down to study Vietnamese in your Teach Yourself book, make a point out of going through 5-10 of the previous lessons. Listen to the audio and try to repeat out loud.
Do another beginner's course in parallel
When you study a foreign language, you should always try to keep your approach varied. When you study Vietnamese with one book, you'll be dealing with the language from one perspective only. It helps if there are different people in the audio recordings. If you do a lot of reviews and repetitions, you'll keep your brain soaked in the same material, which is helpful. But it's nothing is like seeing a word or a concept that you've recently studied in a whole other context!
Why is this? Imagine that you've covered some material and continued on to other things. You studied the vocabulary in question, but your memory of the words isn't particularly strong. This is the kind of word you'll struggle to remember the next time you'll need it. Then imagine that you come upon the same idea, but in another book. You suddenly feel like you recognize something. Oh, I know that! And bam! Your brain has tied an experience to the word. It's now a word you learned, then consolidated because you had some kind of afterthought about recognizing it. Your brain will weave stronger bonds around that piece of information now, because you've been working with it from several perspectives.
Assimil for Vietnamese
So which other course should you pick to study in parallel with Teach Yourself? One course I always recommend is Assimil. Assimil is one of my favorite courses for the beginner's stage. It has great dialogues and great audio and it's generally enjoyable to study with. Another thing that I like about Assimil is that it is rather light on grammar explanations.
There's one problem with the Assimil series, however: They don't offer Vietnamese. At least not for English speakers. If you understand French or German, however I do recommend that you pick up the Vietnamese Assimil for either French or German speakers.
As mentioned, there's a scarcity on good resources for Vietnamese. There's an older course that's worth having a look at however. It has the advantage of being completely free! The Foreign Service institute is the US government institution in charge of teaching foreign languages, including Vietnamese to American diplomats. They have a ton of experience in language education in general and they've designed their own courses that you can download for free right here: Vietnamese course. The book is a scan and the audio might seem a little dated, but the course covers a lot of ground.
As with Teach Yourself, I recommend that you fit FSI Vietnamese into your daily routine. If you study one in the morning, do the other one in the evening. Be sure to repeat after the speaker and do a lot of revisions.
Improve your spoken comprehension, grammar and tones with Glossika
When you've done approximately 30 percent of the lessons of Teach Yourself and FSI, it's time to add another approach to your daily routine. Glossika is a language learning system especially good for improving tones, pronunciation, grammar and speaking comprehension. The idea is that you study the language through sentences. The program has several thousand Vietnamese sentences along with their recordings and English translations. Rather than dissecting the language and analyzing its inner workings, Glossika helps you learn these complicated aspects by habituation.
In a way, Glossika's approach resembles the way you've learned the grammar of your native language. You probably never studied its grammar. Yet you instantly recognize when people make mistakes. It just hurts your ears! This is a skill that you've learned from hearing correct uses of the language over and over again, and the same can be done with Vietnamese.
While all of this seems fairly complex, using Glossika is extremely simple. I recommend that you study 5-20 new sentences every day with Glossika. As you're doing them you'll probably want to do more, because it seems doable. I advice you to not overdo it, though. Glossika will reschedule the sentences for later review several times, so if you do too much in the beginning, you'll create a huge workload for revisions later on.
How to study Vietnamese with Glossika
Glossika Vienamese's study screen
When you start a study session with Glossika, you'll be faced with the text in English and the text in Vietnamese. You'll hear the English sentence in an audio recording, followed by the Vietnamese versions two times.
After hearing the English for the first time, read out loud the Vietnamese sentence, trying to pronounce as correctly and clearly as possible. After the Vietnamese sentence has been played, try repeating after the speaker, mimicking the tone and rhythm as well as you can. It is important that you follow the pace of the recording at this point. Even though you have the option to slow down the sound, I recommend that you get used to hearing and speaking Vietnamese as it's spoken from the get-go. This will save you some troubles later on.
You will probably be struggling in the beginning, and you might find that you'll be mumbling despite the best of your efforts. Don't worry about this. You'll improve with the repetitions.
As you add more and more new sentences you'll gradually cover more and more grammar and vocabulary. The sentenced are organized in such a way that each new sentence is related to the one preceding it in terms of grammar and vocabulary. This is, in itself, a sort of built in review process. Even though you're moving on to new material, you're still working with related material.
Doing reps with Glossika Vietnamese
When you've done your first 5-20 sentences with Glossika, you've finished your study session. After 12-24 hours, however, you'll see that the sentences you've studied will be scheduled for review. Make sure to review these before adding new sentences. Glossika schedules reviews based on an algorithm that mathematically tries to predict when you'll be forgetting the sentences you just studied. The system is based on what is called the forgetting curve. Glossika then schedules the sentence for review just before you're predicted to forget it, bringing it back to your attention.
For each time you review a sentence, it'll be scheduled further and further into the future. If you find the word especially difficult, you can tag it in the study screen to let the system know. The tagged sentence will now be scheduled with a slightly shorter delay. If the sentence is easy, you can tag it in the same way, so Glossika will wait a little longer between reviews.
If you keep doing your daily repetitions with Glossika and keep adding new sentences, it can take you a long way.
Start reading in Vietnamese to learn more vocabulary
When you've just about finished with FSI and Teach Yourself Vietnamese and you've done a few thousand repetitions with Glossika, it's time to start taking reading more seriously.
When studying a foreign language, reading is a an invaluable tool. Reading helps you expand your vocabulary, improve your comprehension of the grammar and generally make you more at ease with Vietnamese. One problem is, however, that at this stage, you probably have a lower intermediary command of Vietnamese. How then to find the right content to read? Should you read only children's stories? Well, no. Not unless you want to - and it can actually be enjoyable. But reading texts at a higher level can be made possible through various reading techniques.
The most obvious approach might be to look every unknown word up in a Vietnamese dictionary. I do not recommend this. Since you're going to come upon a lot of words you don't understand, you'll constantly need to look up things. If the text is already difficult to follow, imagine those constant interruptions of searching through a dictionary. You'll find that you've forgot the context of the word before you even find it in the dictionary. As soon as you're on to the next unknown word, you'll have forgotten what the last lookup meant. Constant dictionary look ups make for a frustrating reading experience and that can be demotivating.
Reading Vietnamese with an instant lookup dictionary tool
With Google Dictionary you can instantly look up any word on the internet, simply by clicking it.
Try having a look at the Chrome browser extension Google Dictionary This extension lets you look up any word on the internet by just one click. You'll get an instant translation simply by clicking on it. In the example above, I've found an interesting recipe for the infamous Vietnamese noodle soup "phở" but you can read anything you want.
When you look for articles to study online, simply run your search term through Google Translate. Read anything that you're interested in, as long as you enjoy reading it. Generally I'd advise against "heavy" subjects in the beginning, however. If something is hard to read in English - not because of vocabulary, but because of the complicated concepts the text describes, don't bother reading them in Vietnamese at this point. But if you're into gardening, pets, cooking, fishing or anything like that, go have a look on the net!
Reading Vietnamese texts in parallel with English texts
Another great way to make Vietnamese texts approachable is to read them side by side with their English translations. First read a part in English. I could be anything from a sentence to a chapter - see what works for you. Then read the same thing in Vietnamese. Having just read it in English, you now know what the text is supposed to say. You won't be lost from not understanding the plot or what goes on "between the lines". But this isn't a method to somehow magically learn all the words you were struggling with in the Vietnamese text. Instead, knowing what's going on lets you safely ignore vocabulary that's above your level, without missing out on the story.
A scarcity of Vietnamese literature available
Vietnamese books are exceptionally difficult to find in outside of Vietnam. I normally recommend going for easy young-adult or fantasy books in translation, but most of these seem to be out of print in Vietnamese. Most libraries have a collection of foreign language books, however, so try visiting your local library and shuffle through their Vietnamese titles. The idea here is, that you should look for books either written in Vietnamese with English translations available - or vice-versa.
Among the few titles I've found are these. A young girl's story of her family's escape from Vietnam. Or perhaps you'd be interested in reading about Vietnamese history in the book "Vietnam my country" (Vietnamese edition)
It's difficult to find a lot of books of value for the Vietnamese self-student. Another strategy could be to shuffle through a bookstore when you're in Vietnam as a tourist, or ask a friend to bring back books if he or she goes to the country.
The safest bet, however, is to keep reading articles online with Google Dictionary. Make sure to do this every day. If you can fit some reading in a couple of times per day, it'll help you make great progress in Vietnamese.
Start speaking and writing Vietnamese with a tutor
When you've finished your beginner's courses and you've made a habit out of routinely doing your Glossika lessons every day as well as reading online, it's time to start speaking.
Actually beginning to speak Vietnamese seems intimidating when you're learning the language. You've been studying the language for a while, but can you use it to actually communicate? I bet you'll be surprised once you get started!
I recommend that go go find a good Vietnamese tutor. Italki can help making the connection between you and a great language tutor. Have a look at their list of Vietnamese tutors and pick one out that you think you'll be able to work with.
Before you start a tutoring session, discuss with your tutor how you'd like to plan your studies together. I recommend that you take charge of your tutoring sessions and make sure to take it the direction you want to go. You'll be paying for it after all! I suggest that you agree on a topic beforehand, and that you book sessions of 30-45 minutes in which you converse. Speak with your tutor about the subject, and ask him or her to keep corrections at a minimum. If you want, your tutor can make a write-up on some important things you should focus on afterwards. But unless it's really important at the moment, try keeping your conversations as fluent and interruption-free as possible.
Many tutors offer their own exercises and language programs. Make clear to your tutor how you want to go about it! And never hesitate to switch to another Vietnamese tutor if you feel that you're not able to work with the first one.
Write short texts in Vietnamese and have them corrected
After each conversation with your tutor, sit down and write a short essay on the topic that you just discussed. In the beginning you can make it 100-300 words, but as you improve, you might want to write longer texts. Send the essay to your tutor and have him or her correct it. And make sure to read through all the corrections afterwards and take note of them!
Do this kind of tutoring session about 2-3 times per week and it'll take you a long way!
Hiring a tutor can be expensive, of course. There are alternatives out there that you might try, if you're looking for other options.
Finding a Vietnamese language partner
Language exchange is one possibility. You find a Vietnamese language partner and you agree to be each other's tutor in turn. Even though this can work great, I've found that this has its problems. First of all, finding a language partner who has the same ambitions and dedication as you is a must. You also need to believe in the same study approach. Secondly, each person needs to take the tutoring role very seriously. If you expect your language partner to converse with you in Vietnamese for two or three hours per week, correct your writing and be consistent with it, you need to do the same for him or her! That's a lot of valuable time spent on tutoring English rather than conversing in Vietnamese. And finding the time for your studies can be difficult enough as it is!
Whatever method or approach you choose, if you keep it up, regular tutoring sessions and writing will help you enormously.
If you've followed through with all of my suggestions above, Vietnamese will be well within your grasp, and you'll be on your way to fluency!
And on a related note: Go read my article answering the question of "How long does it take to learn Vietnamese?"