Vietnamese is, by far, the hardest language to pronounce, of any language I have ever studied.
At the time of this writing, I have been living in Hanoi for seven weeks and studying Vietnamese for six weeks with private tutors. I have an hour and a half of lessons per day, six days per week. Outside of class, I do as much listening as possible, working with a number of commercially available and proprietary listening materials.
Before coming to Vietnam, I had made the assumption that the language was related to Chinese. The two countries had been closely linked until less than a thousand years ago, when Vietnam won its complete and final independence from China. Traditionally, the Vietnamese follow Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. And, until the 19th century, they still wrote their language, nearly exclusively, with Chinese characters. For these, and many other reasons, I thought that being a speaker of Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese would be easier for me to pick up.
Saying one thing is easier than another, or easier for one person than for another person is always a loaded statement, fraught with opinions and based on a comparison of the known with the unknown. The short answer is, there is nothing easy about learning Vietnamese.
Vietnamese is an Austroasiatic/Mon-Khmer language. Many of the regional languages in Southeast Asia fall into this category. The two most widely spoken, the only two which are official languages of a country, are Khmer, the national language of Cambodia, and Vietnamese. Number three would be Mon, a language spoken by tribal groups in Burma and Thailand, but the total number of native speakers is less than one million.
Vietnamese grammar is much more complex than Chinese grammar, which is fairly simple for westerners. The Vietnamese language also has elements of registers of speech, with countless forms of address, depending upon the speaker and or the listeners status and age. Additionally, Vietnamese is tonal, like Chinese, Thai, Lao, Burmese and many of the regional languages. But, where many of the other tonal languages only have four or five tones, Vietnamese has six. Tones are hard for most westerners, but a difference of four or six is not the Waterloo in learning Vietnamese. The next hurdle, after the tones, is the sounds. Vietnamese is riddled with sounds that don’t exist in most western languages. So, the pronunciation is extremely difficult. And, as with all tonal languages, if you miss pronounce something, even by the slightest bit, a listener will not understand you. By the same token, unless you really dominate the language, you won’t understand most of what is being said to you.
Readers who are familiar with my research and study in the field of ALG (Automatic Language Growth) will know that I am strongly against learning words and phrases. To truly speak a language, you must learn the language, the communication, not a set of words and phrases. When you go shopping, you don’t recite a pre-rehearsed dialogue. You have to accept and be aware of the fact that native speakers can, and will, say things to you that don’t match the script in your head. To communicate, you will have to be able to deal with the fact that Mr. Hai who cuts your hair, didn’t read the chapter in your phrase book called, “At the Barber Shop.”
Another tenet of ALG is that native-like pronunciation only comes from extensive hours of listening. There is no way to learn pronunciation from a book. With Vietnamese, if your pronunciation is not close to perfect, NO ONE will understand you.
The Vietnamese language is more closely related to Khmer, than it is to Chinese. And like Khmer, it has a large number of sounds. Counting diphthongs, and long and short vowels, Khmer has well over a hundred vowel sounds. A slight change in a vowel changes the word completely. Vietnamese has all of the complexity of Khmer, but with the addition of trip-thongs and tones. Khmer is nearly the only regional language which is not tonal.
Speaking Khmer is only slightly helpful in learning Vietnamese. Speaking Chinese will help a bit with vocabulary. Although Chinese and Vietnamese are from completely different language families, with unrelated origins, Vietnam historicaly falls into the area of Chinese influence countries, and as a result, a lot of Vietnamese vocabulary comes from Chinese. These Chinese loan words were once written with Chinese characters and are generally monosyllabic words or compound words, such as the Vietnamese “Dai hoc” which means university. Interestingly, however, the Chinese loan words often don’t match up with modern, spoken Mandarin. These words entered the Vietnamese language so long ago, that they came from Manchurian dialect. Today, there are only a handful of native speakers of Manchurian still living.
If you have ever studied Korea, you would find that 60 – 80% of the Korean language vocabulary comes from Manchurian, Chinese dialect, although the Korean and Chinese languages bear no similarity in structure or origin. The Vietnamese word “Dai hoc” is very close to the Korean “De Hak” because they both come from the same Manchurian root.
Occasionally, knowing Chinese does help. For example, the names of countries, particularly western countries, are often Vietnamese transliterations of Chinese names for those countries. A British friend, who is also studying in Hanoi, told me that he learned the Vietnamese word for Portugal is Bồ Đào Nha. He asked his teacher what the words literally meant. She couldn’t answer him, but I knew that the three syllables each represented a Chinese character, which, in Manchurian dialect, was the closest they could come up with to sound like “Portugal.”
My explanation of the origin of the word for “Portugal” may have been an interesting tidbit of linguistic trivia, but in practical terms, will it really help me learn Vietnamese faster or better? ALG says “NO.” ALG would also say, “don’t get hung up on words and phrases. Learn the communication.”
In short, having a few words and phrases of Vietnamese is completely useless. I see foreigners all of the time trying to “get close to the people” or “Be sensitive to another culture.” They mix Vietnamese phrases in with their English, thinking this somehow facilitates communication. When a foreigner says “xin loi” or “excuse me” without pronouncing the inflection and tone markers, there is a chance that a Vietnamese person would turn around or look at them. So, the foreigner thinks his communication was understood. Actually, the native speaker had no idea what the foreigner had said, only that he had said something. Other phrases or names of things that foreigners use in their regular shops or with their regular friend “appear” to be understood, but actually the native speaker may not even realize these foreigners are speaking Vietnamese. They just think, “My friend Francoise always says “café sua” when he wants coffee with milk.” But it doesn’t mean that Francoise is saying it correctly. Often when Francoise goes to a new coffee shop, where he has never been before, he comes back with a story. “The people in that shop are so stupid. I gave them my order in Vietnamese, as I do in my regular coffee shop. But they didn’t understand me.”
Across Asia I have seen couples completely inventing their own quasi-Asian language, where they understand each other, but no one else can understand them. Many foreigners are sadly encouraged by the ability of their spouse or significant other to understand them, and their estimation of their own linguistic ability is inflated.
An American engineer living in Taiwan once told me. “I have learned to speak Chinese well, but I can’t understand when a native speaker is speaking.” For me, coming from an ALG background, this is not possible. I don’t believe that you can learn production without learning passive skills first. Not only do I not believe it, but I am willing to get in a boxing ring with anyone who disagrees with me. You learn from listening, not speaking. If you can’t understand when people are speaking to you, then this means the language is not in your head in the first place.