It is difficult to understand Vietnamese. I had an easier time learning Chinese, in fact! My issue is not the process itself, but rather the response of the individuals. Well, is there any excuse for giving up? To find out why you should not give up studying Vietnamese, read on.
Word magazine published an article recently with the bottom line:
“It’s not worth your time studying Vietnamese.”
For me, this post reminded me that I actually gave up learning Vietnamese a long time ago, but it also brought to my attention that I should actually start learning the language again.
1. Why did I give up studying Vietnamese and why?
I recall the day I left Hanoi airport and, for the first time, set foot on Vietnamese soil. I’ve been eager to learn more about the language of Vietnam. Not that I was always planning on remaining in Vietnam, mind. Which happened much later to me. But I came into contact with tonal languages before I was in China, and it was an incredible experience.
I have been asking more language-related questions during my very short stay in Hanoi and Ninh Binh than you can write down on a cow’s hide, even though you use small letters. And I have learned a great deal about the culture which goes hand in hand with the language. As the waitress of a typical Vietnamese restaurant was my conversation partner, the language was mainly related to food, which suits me well because I’m a foodie anyway.
As I left the North and went to Da Nang, however, I tried to use my newly learned vocabulary and encountered only blank faces. Language has not worked. The tones are different in Vietnamese than in Chinese, of course, but that couldn’t be the problem, could it be?
I began again and asked questions. And I discovered there that the Center’s dialect varies from the dialect they use in northern Vietnam. It was almost difficult for people to understand by babbling together with my inexperienced voice.
It was difficult enough to make myself half understood in the language spoken in Da Nang, and I moved to Saigon further south.
The Saigonese are pretty nice now, so the first few times I ordered Vietnamese food, the waitress smiled and nodded, and I thought yes! Progress is there, they understand!
I noticed that there was completely zero improvement when they kept smiling and nodding without any movement towards the kitchen, and people didn’t even know that I was trying to speak their language. I repeatedly tried to learn a few basic phrases over nearly two years in Ho Chi Minh City, every time I was met with blank faces or smile-nodding. I’ve had joyful laughter a few times as a reaction, without any movement to correct my spelling.
But I surrendered.
I speak many languages, two of them fluent, and people were helpful in correcting my countless errors whenever I tried to communicate in a new language. I managed fundamental discussions with the locals after five weeks in China, such as name, age and country of origin, asking for the price and so on.
I have to repeat a single word in Vietnam four times before it is understood. And after two years, that’s all happening.
I do, however, comprehend a lot. So recently, when this guy from Xe Om thought of himself as unbelievably funny, he called himself “Heo, heo, heo!” I had the option of calling him names in exchange or just ignoring him instead of “Hello” to get my attention.
Heo means swine. And I decided to ignore the odd man.
However, if I go and try to buy small items, like a normal banh mi at a stall that only sells banh mi, the most irritating thing is. I ‘m going there and I’m going to order a banh mi at the banh mi stall, and the banh mi lady has no idea what I want.
Of course, I want delicately steamed lobster tails with a coating of alba truffle cream on saffron-scented basmati rice. That is why I went to the stall at Banh Mi. I mean, she ‘s got banh mi and nothing else, so what do I want to buy there, then?
If it is simply easier to communicate in body language than the local language, then it is a complete waste of time to learn the Vietnamese language quicker to act out a scenario than trying to speak.
Yes, telling a whole country, a whole community, that their language is useless in an international context is extremely rude.
You can justify learning Mandarin Chinese for economic purposes, by getting your fix of hiragana, katakana, and if you are particularly nuts, some kanji, you can class yourself as Otaku and dive into Japanese pop culture.
Vietnamese, though? Come on, this ability is as useless as stone skipping as soon as you cross the boundary.
2. Is studying so pointless indeed?
Well … things have changed, and from the look of it, I’m going to spend a lot of my time in Vietnam. Living here without the ability to communicate in Vietnamese could work in the District One of Saigon or the Hoan Kiem region of Hanoi, where you would expect someone with whom you want to have some kind of business to speak at least rudimentary English
Returning to the article “Learning Vietnamese is not worth your time” in Word magazine, I would suggest that there are many things we have to learn in our lives that are not even worth our time.
I studied Latin back in school, but I have never traveled so far to ancient Pompeii without a working time machine.
I studied infinitesimal calculus, and if you are not an astrophysicist, it is so useless in everyday life that the hour I received my diploma, I actually forgot it. In Ultima Online, I learned how to beat Barracoon the Piper alone, a talent that is so ultimately pointless, it makes no sense to even mention it here.
I think it’s always a good idea to spend time learning a language, particularly if it opens a communication channel to about 90 million people.
3. However, why should I resume studying Vietnamese?
But what about the outer districts or the countryside as well? The places where a Westerner is still an unusual object of interest, something that the old people curiously gaze at and the kids crowd around, happy to brag about the next day at school for an experience?
Language in the Vietnamese countryside
Nobody speaks English in these places, so if you do not speak at least the basics of the Vietnamese language, you are probably pretty lonely.
Culture is the other explanation for studying Vietnamese. When you remember how the language outlines cultural patterns, anyone who has spent any time in a foreign country and tried to learn the local language understands this amazing lightbulb moment. Usually, you wouldn’t have noticed the specifics, but now you start to understand and everything becomes clearer.
Any of these enlightening moments I still recall from the time I was studying Chinese. In their linguistic sense, so many strange customs seemed simpler than without them. For the Vietnamese language, the same thing is true. How people address each other in Vietnam, such as Em, Anh, Chi, and so on, teaches you a lot about how Vietnamese society works. The secret to comprehension is language.
The biggest surprise, however, is that people in remote areas seem to understand my speaking attempts much better than those used by visitors.
4. How will it be possible?
Ok, I think my accent has to be so odd that a lot of people just take it as some odd, crazy language, some weird English version. And they expect me to project that. However, people who only speak Vietnamese are more likely to expect that my mumbo-jumbo is, after all, supposed to be Vietnamese. They get their ears perked up and give me a chance.
Yes, without saying a word in the Vietnamese language , people will spend their lives in Vietnam. It is not an important survival skill to understand vintage poetry and ancient idioms, but I believe that each word you learn greatly helps to understand the culture of Vietnam.
So maybe there’s hope for me to learn the Vietnamese language after all, and for the rest of my life, I don’t have to be a mute.
Looks like, after all, I won’t give up studying Vietnamese.
SVFF is a group of Vietnamese Language Teachers, all of which have at least 2 years of teaching, a BA in Language Teaching. We are motivated and ambitious. We are passionate about helping Vietnamese learners to be able to communicate well in Vietnamese and understand people culture.