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What to know about learning Vietnamese

A bemused smile flickered across the waiter’s face as he stifled a giggle.  I was lucky I hadn’t made the mistake in the open market near my house; the fruit sellers would have cackled loudly to each other, “The white lady wants to buy a kilo of penises!”

What I actually wanted was a pomelo salad from Highway 4 restaurant.  What I said was, “I’d like a penis salad.”  The six tones of Vietnamese are tricky.  At best, you’ll be misunderstood for using an incorrect tone.  At worst, you’ll insult someone.  It has taken almost a year for me to learn to hear the tones; I still cannot produce them all. 

I am not fluent in Vietnamese. I have lived in Hanoi for a year and am still struggling to learn the language.  Here is what I wish I had known before I started:

  1. Language is not rocket science.  Language is basic communication.  It is much easier to start learning a language if you approach it from this angle than if you think that learning a language is impossible.  Of course, I would say that; I’m an English teacher.  But as an English teacher, I have seen students go from being incapable of writing a sentence to writing whole paragraphs in a matter of months.  If I approached my job thinking my students could not learn, they would not learn.  Likewise, if you assume that you cannot learn Vietnamese, you probably won’t. 
  2. Learning Vietnamese is difficult. Not to discourage you but, while learning Vietnamese may not be rocket science, it is slightly more difficult than counting to three.  Unless you have studied a tonal language before, you will probably find learning to hear and produce the six tones of Vietnamese a challenge.  It took me nine months to be able to hear them properly and I still struggle to produce the sounds properly.  As a native English speaker, I am used to long, multi-syllabic words.  The longest word in Vietnamese, my students tell me, has seven letters.  Additionally, each word means something entirely different depending on the tone used.  No wonder I ask for genitals instead of grapefruit. 
  3. Set goals.  Learn one new thing at a time.  Learn to say, “Hello” and “Goodbye” one day.  Learn to count to five the next day.  Start simple, with the most basic functions of language.  Learn numbers first so you can bargain for fruit, vegetables and motorbike taxis.  You will be less likely to be ripped off if you learn numbers and you can participate in the drinking cheer, “Mot hai ba, yo! One two three, drink!” at bia hoi.  By setting goals, you prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed by the task of learning the language. 
  4. Communicate non-verbally.  I know a woman who, in trying to obtain the Morning-After Pill in a pharmacy, mimed giving birth.  I have acted for take-away food, cutting open coconuts, boats, bicycles, walking, running, eating, shoe shining, using chopsticks, drinking and driving a motorbike.  Charades is usually met with laughter, often confusion, and, if you are lucky, understanding.  Facial expressions work well.  The Vietnamese use their faces, rather than their hands, as a means of non-verbal communication. Shock, awe, anger, glee, disappointment, curiosity, incredulity are all communicated facially.  Because of its tones, Vietnamese does not allow for much vocal expression so the speaker’s face communicates meaning.
  5. Have fun. The Vietnamese generally appreciate it when foreigners try to communicate in their language.  Be patient with them as they try to make sense of what you are saying and be patient with yourself as you try.  Losing patience will only make the listener impatient and unwilling to listen.  Whether you are traveling or living in Vietnam, learning Vietnamese is an adventure.  

I have days on which not one person understands what I am trying to say.  I have other days on which I can charm the whole country.  Ultimately, though, learning Vietnamese is empowering.  Having the ability to ask for things myself, understand what is being asked of me and be able to cobble together a conversation with my neighbors helps me bridge an often challenging cultural divide. 

By Hannah Baldwin