Learning Vietnamese: The Struggle

So I’ve heard that if you know Mandarin and Cantonese then you’ll know about 60% of Vietnamese. I speak both Cantonese and Mandarin, and while Vietnamese might be easier for me to learn than someone who hasn’t encountered a tonal language, I can tell you now that I do not know 60% of Vietnamese. At least not yet.

About Vietnamese

Vietnamese is a tonal language like Chinese. Mandarin has 4 tones, while Cantonese and Vietnamese has 6 tones. Vietnamese has borrowings from Chinese vocabulary as a result of 1,000 years of Chinese rule. Vietnamese used to use a modified set of Chinese characters until it adopted the latin alphabet with diacritics to denote pronunciation and tone. Vietnamese also has some borrowings from French as a result of French occupation. Vietnamese, like Chinese, is a monosyllabic language which means words mostly consist of a single syllable. The Vietnamese language also differs from north and south. I grew up hearing my dad’s family speaking northern Vietnamese and have noticed different pronunciations and different vocabulary living in the Mekong Delta. A friend told me that northern Vietnamese is like British English while southern Vietnamese is like American English.

My language background

Cantonese was my first language and I only learned it on a conversational basis since I only spoke it with my own family members. It wasn’t until I started studying Mandarin in college that I learned the Chinese writing system. I’ll say that learning how to read and write in Chinese is like learning how to read and write for the first time. Except harder. I’ve heard that it’s easier going from Cantonese to Mandarin rather than the other way around since Cantonese has more tones and is a more colloquial language. It definitely made it a lot easier learning Mandarin having a knowledge of Cantonese already. The grammar is the same and some of the vocabulary sound the same. Since I didn’t learn Cantonese in an academic capacity, my knowledge of Cantonese is merely conversational and my vocabulary is pretty limited. (Maybe a reason why I don’t already know 60% of Vietnamese vocabulary.) I also couldn’t tell you what the tones in Cantonese sound like. I just know what the words are supposed to sound like instinctively since it was my first language. I studied Mandarin for 4 years in college and at one point, my Mandarin was pretty darn good, but having been out of school for several years not using Mandarin on a regular basis, my Mandarin is pretty terrible right now. I’m sure if I lived in China I would be able to pick it up pretty quickly but recalling vocabulary and being able to write would be a struggle for me right now. Again, another reason why I probably am unable to recognize more Vietnamese vocabulary words that are borrowed from Chinese. In any case, I hear once you know a couple languages, it will be easier to learn more. I’ve got English, Cantonese, and Mandarin under my belt. We’ll see how learning Vietnamese goes.

Learning another language

I’ve only been studying Vietnamese now for over a month and I would say it’s a REALLY hard language to learn. While some of the vocabulary that I’ve learned so far in Vietnamese is similar to certain words in Cantonese and Mandarin, being able to pronounce Vietnamese correctly has been my biggest struggle. That and learning all the sounds that the Vietnamese alphabet makes. Vietnamese has a writing system that I can recognize but at the same time, certain letters of Vietnamese language don’t make the sounds I think they’ll make. The tones too are hard for me to distinguish from one another. I think Mandarin’s tones are much more straightforward. I wish I could recognize tones in Cantonese to compare to Vietnamese but it’s definitely different and harder for me to make the correct sounds with my voice than it was for me when I learned Mandarin.

As for the alphabet, in Vietnamese…

C’s make the G sound and so do K’s but Kh’s make the K sound

D’s make the Y sound

Đ’s make the D sound

G’s make the Z sound in the north but sometimes make the Y sound in the south

I’s make the EE sound

Q’s make the W sound

S’s make the Sh sound

T’s make the Th sound

Th’s make the T sound

Tr’s make the Zh sound

U’s make the OO sound

V’s in this city sometimes sound like Y’s

X’s make the S sound

Y’s make the EE sound

And those are just the letters without the diacritics that indicate additional sounds and tones. It definitely makes things a bit confusing when you’re used to the English alphabet. At least in Vietnamese the letters always make the same sounds, unlike English where the spelling sometimes doesn’t make any sense. I’m still learning my letters at this point and slowly learning vocabulary terms. I can say simple phrases, order food, and ask for the bill but that’s about it at this point. I’m hoping that I’ll have a moment like I did when I was studying Chinese in Beijing when things just started clicking and all of a sudden I understood conversations on the street and was able to understand most things that I read and heard. Back then though, I was studying Mandarin about 20 hours a week. Here, I only have 4 hours a week of lessons so I have to do a lot more independent study if I want to learn.

Getting a better understanding of the Vietnamese language though has been great for me to understand the difficulties that my students encounter when speaking English. There are certain sounds in English that don’t exist in Vietnamese so my students have a hard time with certain pronunciations. Also in Vietnamese, people don’t say their ending sounds. For example, the word không, which means no, is pronounced like khom or hom depending on where the person is from so the -ng sound is not pronounced like how it would be in English. Therefore, my students often have a hard time differentiating their pronunciation with singular and plural terms as well as the t, d, -ing, y sounds at the end of words.

I think language and culture go hand in hand and learning the language of a country or place helps give you a better understanding of the people and culture around you. I think it’s a crucial cultural component and it’s important for me to learn, if not to gain a better understanding of where I’m living, than for self-sufficiency reasons. I don’t want to always have to rely on body language and gestures for everything or ask for help to get simple things accomplished. It’d also be nice to be able to have conversations with non-English speakers from time to time.


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