The Vietnamese language is a language spoken by over 90 million people, almost all of whom learned the language to fluency while growing up.
Not a lot of adults learn Vietnamese, though. It’s considered a difficult language by many, and the few who want to challenge themselves with an “exotic Asian language” mostly just opt for languages that are more “well-known” in Western culture, such as Japanese, Chinese or Korean.
Vietnamese is both a fascinating, beautiful and a challenging language to learn, though, and there are many opportunities and advantages for people who learn Vietnamese today.
But you came here with one question in mind: Is it hard to learn the Vietnamese language?
Vietnamese can be a challenging language to study for an English speaker because it’s so very different from the kind of languages most Americans and Europeans are used to hearing. The grammar, although very simple, is very different from what we’re used to, and even though Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet, it’s strongly modified and uses many accent marks and diacritics. The fact that the language is tonal makes the pitch of your pronunciation essential to being understood, and the vocabulary won’t remind you of European languages at all.
All in all, learning Vietnamese might take a long time, but putting in the time is actually the biggest challenge. All the other difficulties are simply a question of keeping at it and being patient. There are 90 million people who learned Vietnamese as babies after all. You’re smarter than a baby (I can tell) but do you have as much time?
Anyway. In the following I’ll try and have a closer look at some of the things that make Vietnamese a challenging (and time-consuming) language to learn, as well as some of the aspects that you might find a little easier.
The Difficulty Of The Vietnamese Language
Some of the aspects of the Vietnamese language are actually very simple and straight-forward. The alphabet is the same as we use in English, although with a few additions, the grammar is extremely simple, when compared to English and much of the vocabulary is relatively logic.
But in reality, even the aspects of Vietnamese that are simple or easy have their difficult parts. Add to that that Vietnamese has a lot of other complicated things going on, which makes it quite a stretch to get away with calling Vietnamese an easy language. (As much as I want to).
The Vietnamese Alphabet: Pretty Easy
Yup, there I said it. The Vietnamese alphabet, in itself, shouldn’t be considered much of an obstacle when learning the language.
Vietnamese is written in the Latin script. It was first introduced to Vietnam by the Portuguese in the 17th century and it gradually replaced the Chinese characters which were used as a writing system for Vietnamese before that.
Learning to read and write Vietnamese in the Latin script is much easier than it would be with Chinese characters. This is not only because you can rely on an alphabet that you already know (albeit with a lot of additions) but because the Latin script has a letter for each sound instead of a symbol for each morpheme.
In other words – instead of having to learn thousands of characters along with their meanings and pronunciation, you just need 29 letters (and some diacritics) and you can construct all the syllables and morphemes you need from those.
The Chinese characters represent sound and meaning, but in the Latin script, a letter only has a sound, and the meaning only comes when the letters are combined into syllables and words.
Behind the easy alphabet, however, a monster is hidden.
It’s called “the Vietnamese pronunciation-monster”.
Vietnamese Pronunciation Is Hard
Vietnamese is a mono-syllabic language, meaning that all words consist of single-syllable words. (More complicated things are simply descried with multiple words).
This means, however, that you need to cram a lot of information into a syllable in order to precisely distinguish between different words – or you’d simply not have enough syllables for all the words you need.
The way that syllable,s made from similar letter-combinations are turned into different words is by using tones.
Tones can be described as the pitch with which you pronounce a syllable. In English, we use the pitch to change the meaning of sentences that are otherwise similar. Think of the difference between “I’m sorry” and “I’m sorry?”. When you say “I’m sorry?” with a rising pitch, or tone at the end, it can mean a lot of different things, whereas simply saying “I’m sorry” just means what it says.
That’s not a correct way of describing tones, however. Whereas in English, pitch is used to change the emphasis and intention of already known words and phrases, in Vietnamese tones it changes the word entirely.
A common example if the base-word “ma” which has 6 different meaning depending on the tone:
- ma = ghost
- mà = nevertheless
- mả = tomb
- mã = code
- má = mother
- mạ = rice seedlings
For a good walk-through of the above pronunciations (as well as the Vietnamese alphabet) watch the below video.
The problem with Vietnamese pronunciation isn’t that each individual sound is difficult to make. It’s the fact that you need to be extremely precise. In English it doesn’t matter a lot what kind of pitch you pronounce a syllable with, but in Vietnamese, very subtle pronunciation differences make for completely different words.
Grammar In Vietnamese
While Vietnamese pronunciation is pretty hard to learn, grammar-wise, Vietnamese is beyond easy. Sort of.
Vietnamese is a so-called “analytic” language, which means that instead of relying on inflection, like verb-conjugation and declension of nouns, Vietnamese uses “helper-words” to structure sentences.
As an example, let’s look at the different tenses of the verb “ask” in Vietnamese:
|I ask||Tôi xin||I + “ask“|
|I will ask||Tôi sẽ xin||I + “shall” + ask|
|I asked||Tôi đã xin||I + “already” + ask|
|I am asking||Tôi đang xin||I + “in-the-process-of” + ask|
|I was asking||Tôi đã đang xin||I + “already” + “in-the-process-of” + ask|
|I will be asking||Tôi đang sẽ xin||I + “in-the-process-of” + “shall” + ask|
As you can see, the word “xin” (ask) remains the same in all the tenses, and only the helper words change. The “I” can be changed with you, he, she, it, them, we and so on without it having any impact of the sentence whatsoever. This means that instead of learning several inflections of each word, (live, lives, lived, etc) you just need one form and a generic helper-word. Isn’t that easy?
Other grammatical principles of Vietnamese are equally simple.
For example, Vietnamese has:
- no articles like “the” and “a”
- no gender (like English, but unlike most languages)
- no plurals of nouns (just like it’s the case for the word “fish” in English)
- no verb conjugation and tenses (as exemplified above)
So Vietnamese grammar is easy. Does that make learning the language easy?
Well – sort of. But you have to keep in mind that despite the simplicity of the grammar, it is very different from English.
The system isn’t complicated, but it’s a whole different way of thinking. Just to compare it to something else: Driving a car isn’t hard, but it’s very different from ringing a bicycle, so if you’ve only ever ridden a bicycle, you still need to learn a new skill from scratch if you’re going to drive a car.
Learning Vietnamese Vocabulary
Vietnamese vocabulary is both difficult and easy.
What’s easy about Vietnamese words is that the words are short and generally only one syllable long. More complicated concepts will be expressed with a combination of two or more simple words rather than a single complicated word like it’s often the case in European languages like English.
For example, an airplane in Vietnamese is “máy bay”. It consists of the two word “máy” which means machine, and “bay” which means “fly”. Simple, right?
Similarly, a computer is “máy vi tính”, or “machine for figuring-out” and a “carpenter” is a “thợ mộc”, a “wood-worker”.
So Vietnamese words are short, simple and the more complicated words are built up of simple words in combinations.
But learning Vietnamese vocabulary remains hard.
The words are simply extremely different. This is basically the same argument for why all other aspects of Vietnamese can be challenging, but it’s true.
As an English speaker, there’s simply nothing in the language you already know that might remind you the least bit of the Vietnamese words you’re learning. It’s hard to relate to vocabulary this foreign, and you’ll find that you’ll have a hard time remembering words.
If we take the word “house” for an example. In Danish, it’s “hus”, in German “Haus” and in Dutch it’s “huis”. But those are all languages closely related to English, so what about other, more distantly related languages?
Well in French, it’s “maison”. That’s a word that many English-speakers know, and it reminds us of the word “masonry”. The Spanish “casa” equally is well-known to many English speakers and looks a little like the English word “case” – and you can easily remembering it by telling yourself that a house is a “case” in which people live.
In Russian, you say “дом” (dom) which sounds like the Latin “domus” (meaning “house”) or the English “dome” which is the shape of some houses.
Okay, enough examples. You get the point.
In Vietnamese, the word for “house” is “nhà ở“.
Let that sink in…
“Nhà ở” sounds a little like “nya-uh” in English. It doesn’t really remind me of anything. If I had to come up with some kind of association that could help me remember the word, though, I might think of someone asking a person where his house is, and him responding “near, uh…” But that’s kind of a stretch – and it doesn’t take the tones into consideration at all!
So Vietnamese vocabulary is simple and logical in principle but extremely difficult to learn!
The Availability Of Study Materials, Courses And Vietnamese Speakers
So we’ve covered some different aspects of the Vietnamese language and how difficult it is to learn, but another important point you need to consider is the availability of good study material, teachers, tutors and so on.
While Vietnamese is an important language in the world spoken by almost 100 million people, it’s not a language that a lot of people study. This means that there aren’t that many courses, books, podcasts, apps and classes available for the people who want to learn it.
This is a really big problem for someone who wants to seriously learn Vietnamese.
My favorite beginner’s course for language learning is Assimil, but they’ve only got their Vietnamese course available for French speakers.
Similarly, my favorite tool for reading, LingQ isn’t available for Vietnamese, and Vietnamese literature and especially audio-books are difficult to find outside of Vietnam.
I do, however, have a few tips and recommendations for studying Vietnamese in my article “How To Learn Vietnamese By Yourself” that I recommend that you check out.
But one thing that’s not as bad when learning Vietnamese, is finding a good conversation partner. There are Vietnamese communities all over the wold, and chances are that you can easily find someone and make friends where you live. Most Vietnamese are outgoing and very friendly, and when they hear that you’re learning their language they’ll most likely be happy to help you!
And if you’re lucky you might get a chance to try out some Vietnamese rice-cakes or some delicious food in good company, but let’s keep it about language!
Even if you can’t find a Vietnamese speaker in your area, you’ll easily find someone on the internet and you might even be able to help someone get better at speaking English in the process!
Conclusion: Is Vietnamese Hard?
So is the Vietnamese language hard to learn?
You bet it is!
But it’s not too difficult for a child to be able to learn it, and if a child can learn Vietnamese, so can you.
You need to be patient, persistent, diligent and consistent but if you keep it up, you will eventually get there! So stop making excuses!
If you want to lay out a plan for your Vietnamese studies, go check out my study time calculator to get an idea about how long it will take you to learn Vietnamese.