Vietnam is a country of close to 90 million inhabitants, making it the 15th most populous country in the world. The wide majority of these people speak the Vietnamese language and even those who speak other languages as their mother tongue, mostly speak Vietnamese as a second language.
But even though Vietnamese is the dominant language in Vietnam, there are over 100 languages and dialects spoken by various groups in the country, making it very diverse.
In this article, I'm going to go through some of the major languages of Vietnam and touch on what their specific characteristics are.
The Vietnamese Language, or Tiếng Việt
Vietnamese is the language if the majority of the population of Vietnam. the Vietnamese language is known to have been influenced by a number of other languages throughout history, namely Chinese, Thai and Khmer. This diversity in influences makes it difficult to trace back the real roots of the Vietnamese language, but generally, it's considered to be an Austro-Asiatic language. The Austro-Asiatic language family, which is sometimes referred to as Mon-Khmer.
While Vietnamese and Khmer are the only two widely spoken Austro-Asiatic languages today, smaller communities speak languages of the same origin as far away as India and Bangladesh. It is thought that the Austro-Asiatic languages were in fact the original tongues of these regions before the arrival of Indo-Aryan languages.
As mentioned, Vietnamese has been strongly influenced by other languages throughout history, which is why a lot of Chinese vocabulary, but also French, Thai and English loanwords and borrowings are to be found in the language today.
Vietnamese was actually written with the Chinese characters in the past. What we recognize as the Vietnamese territory today was ruled by China in the first millennium AD. In the 13th century, the Chinese writing system was replaced with another script more adapted for the Vietnamese language called Chữ nôm.
With the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in the 17th century, the bible was translated into Vietnamese, and for this end, the missionaries invented an adapted version of the Latin script to write the Vietnamese language. (The Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes is said to be the man behind this new Vietnamese alphabet)
This new Vietnamese alphabet, (or Chữ Quốc Ngữ) proved easier to learn, and literacy rates rose quickly. Upon French colonization of Indo-China, or what we call Vietnam today, the Latin script was made the standard writing system in Vietnam and it has remained so even after the decolonization of the country
Vietnamese has many dialects, but the more distinct are Northern, Central and Southern Vietnamese.
To hear an example of Vietnamese, watch this video:
The Northern dialect of Vietnamese spoken by a native speaker from Hanoi.
The Tày language. A Vietnamese language related to Thai
The Tày language belong to the Tai language family, which is the same as Thai, the language of Thailand. There are around 1,7 million speakers of Tày in Vietnam. It is spoken in the North-Eastern part of Vietnam in the region of Cao Bằng, close to the borders of China and there exists about 5 different dialects of the Language. Like Vietnamese and Thai, it's a Tonal language, and it's written in a modified version of the Vietnamese alphabet.
The Tày language, or variants of it is equally spoken in Laos, Cambodia, India, Myanmar (Burma) and In China in the regions just north of Vietnam.
While I haven't been able to find a good sample of the Tày language, I have found this Tày news-program that you can try and give a listen.
Nùng (Another language from the Tai-family)
Like the before mentioned Tày, Nùng, or Nung-Tày is a language related to Thai. It's of the Tai-Kadai language family and spoken in the North of Vietnam by a little under 1 million people. Tày and Nùng seem to be spoken in some of the same regions of Northern Vietnam, but I haven't been able to find a comparison between the two languages. I would assume that they're very similar.
I haven't been able to find any examples of the Nùng language online.
The Cham language,
Cham, unlike Vietnamese, is a Austronesian language. It belongs more precisely to the Malayo-Polynesian branch, which means that it's linguistically closer to languages such as Indonesian, Malay, Tagalog and Hawaiian, while being unrelated to Vietnamese.
Cham used to be the language of the historical kingdom of Champa which spanned from eastern Cambodia to Southern Vietnam from the 2nd century AD to 1832, when it became part of Vietnam. Today, a little over 300.000 speakers of the language remain in Cambodia and Vietnam. The language is divided into an Eastern and a Western dialect and together, they total around 100.000 native speakers in Vietnam.
Another language, called Rade, which is closely related to Cham is also present in Vietnam and has around 180.000 native speakers.
For an example of what Cham sounds like, listen to this video.
Khmer Krom, the Khmer language in Vietnam
The Khmer empire once stretched to Kampuchea Krom, a South-Western region of Vietnam. Since the early 18th century, the region has been part of Vietnam, however, and even though the Khmer community in the region has kept their language, it has been strongly influenced by Vietnamese.
Khmer in itself has been influenced by the Sanskrit and Pali languages that brought the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism to Cambodia and Vietnam. This sets the Khmer language apart from Vietnamese, with which it shares the Austroasiatic language family. The Khmer variant that is spoken in Vietnam, however, Khmer Krom, has been strongly influenced by Vietnamese since the Kampuchea Krom region became part of Vietnam.
To some extent, Khmer Krom has adopted some of the monosyllabic features of Vietnamese, which sets it apart from other Dialects of Khmer and its native speakers speak it with a Vietnamese accent.
It's difficult to find good examples of the Khmer Krom dialect online, but try listening to this video.
Mường, a language closely related to Vietnamese
Muong is an Austroasiatic language of the "Vietic" subcategory, meaning that it's closely related to Vietnamese. One of the main differences might be a less important influence from the Chinese language. Like Vietnamese, Muong uses tones like Vietnamese, but where Vietnamese has 6 tones, some dialects of Muong only use 5, and while the dialects aren't characterized as separate languages, they are quite different, and not always mutually intelligible. Muong is spoken in the mountainous regions in the North of Vietnam by over a million Vietnamese.
Here's a short animated film in Muong.
H’Mông - A Language Unrelated To The Others
Hmong is a special language in that it doesn't seem to be related to neither the Austroasiatic languages like Vietnamese or the Austronesian languages like Cham. Hmong is of the Hmong-Mien language family and spoken in various dialects in Laos, Thailand, Southern China and Northern Vietnam.
In Vietnam Hmong is spoken in the Northern Mountainous regions bordering to China by about one million Vietnamese. The Vietnamese dialects of Hmong are Hmong Do and Hmong Don, but while many dialects exist, they're said to be largely intelligible.
Depending on the dialect, Hmong has 7 or sometimes 8 tones.
To hear a sample of the Hmong language, watch this video:
The Chinese Hoa Minority In Vietnam
Since Vietnam has been under Chinese dominance for a significant part of Vietnamese history, the Chinese language and culture has left an important imprint in Vietnam. While the Chinese influence on Vietnamese is significant, there are also still minority groups of Chinese present in Vietnam.
These are referred to as the Hoa people and they make up around 800.000 people mostly in Southern Vietnam. Today, however, a large part of the Hoa people are gradually assimilating to the Vietnamese culture due to intermarriage, and many of the Hoa minority no longer speak Chinese.
Foreign Languages In Vietnam
Vietnam has recieved a lot of input from other countries throughout history. From Chinese domination to French colonization to the Russian of the Soviet Union and finally - to an influx of tourists from around the world of which many speak English.
In other words - foreign languages have always been important in Vietnam, but today they may be more important than ever. Because of this, English classes are compulsory in Vietnamese schools. Today, a little over 50% of Vietnamese speak English, but these are mostly concentrated in the more populous cities and in the tourist-sector.
The French language is also relatively common in Vietnam, but mostly among the older generation. When the French colonized Vietnam, they left a significant imprint on the country, and to this day Vietnam remains part of the Francophonie despite the gradually decreasing number of French speakers in the country. Today, only about 1% of the Vietnamese population speak French.
Languages such as Russian, Czech, Polish and even German are spoken in a very low degree in Vietnam because of ancestral ties to the Soviet Union.
Lastly, languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Korean and Japanese seem to be on the rise in Vietnam due to trade and new commercial interests with these languages' respective countries.
If you're interested in learning the Vietnamese language, I recommend that you read my article called "How To Learn The Vietnamese Language By Yourself".