Monday, April 1, 2013

The frustrations of learning Vietnamese

Over the last 5 years, at various points I have tried to learn Vietnamese so that I can integrate better with my family in-law and experience more of Vietnamese culture.  However, I have found it an incredibly hard language to master, and I am sure many of you have experienced similar feelings when learning English or another language.

For me, the most difficult aspect of learning Vietnamese is mastering the different tones and sounds that Vietnamese has, that English doesn’t.  The best example is the ng sound.  In English, this sound is always in the middle or end of words, and it’s very difficult for me to make this sound at the beginning of words where it’s found in Vietnamese.  This is particularly problematic for me when trying to say names correctly.  Being a teacher, it’s embarrassing when I can’t say Ngan correctly, especially as that's my sister in-laws name.

In addition, the tones are incredibly hard for a foreigner to master.  In English, if we call someone’s name, we naturally go up at the end of the name.  However, when saying a Vietnamese name, this could be a huge problem as it might change the meaning of the word.  In fact, I’ve had several occasions where I’ve said a name with the wrong tone, and it has changed a student’s name to an offensive word.  Of course I didn’t mean to do this, and luckily the students have taken my mistake in good spirits.  However, I’m always worried that by saying the wrong name, someone might get very upset or even confrontational because I’ve got the intonation wrong.

Another thing that’s very difficult is to grasp that many words have the same spelling but different meanings depending on their intonation.  Native English speakers are generally able to figure out the meaning of foreigners when they say words incorrectly.  This is probably because we’ve had a lot of exposure to people trying to speak English and know the common errors that people make.  However, the Vietnamese seem to have a big problem in trying to understand words that foreigners say incorrectly.  This is probably because it’s only quite recently (15 years or so) when foreigners started living here and before then, there was very little reason for foreigners to learn Vietnamese.  Even so, it is very frustrating for me when I try to speak Vietnamese but no-one can understand anything I say.    

To finish I had an amusing conversation with my Xe om driver a week ago.  I said ‘Can you take me to district 7?’ in Vietnamese.  He said ‘Sorry I don’t speak English’.  I said again, in Vietnamese ‘Can you take me to district 7.'  He said ‘No speak English’.  Then I said ‘Do you speak Vietnamese?’ in Vietnamese.  He said ‘yes’.  Then I said ‘Listen.  I’m speaking in Vietnamese.  Can you take me to district 7?’  He replied ‘Ah district 7!  I know it!’.  Why have I told you this story?  Well that’s a good question.  Usually when Vietnamese people see a foreigner, they expect them not to know Vietnamese and to speak in English.  Therefore, when a foreigner speaks in Vietnamese, the local thinks they’re talking in English, when in fact they are speaking in Vietnamese.  Obviously this will result in a mis-communication which is actually quite frustrating for someone who is learning another language.

As I said before, I’m sure many of you have shared similar experiences when trying to learn English, but believe me, I (and many other foreigners in Vietnam) have gone through exactly the same in learning your language.  Please sympathise with us when we try to use your language as it’s very difficult for us to learn!


  1. Hey Mark!
    I'm a Vietnamese teacher and I really enjoyed this article!!!
    Many students have complained to me that Vietnamese people around them don't understand what they say. And I think the reason you have given is right: we don't expect a foreigner to speak Vietnamese. This sometimes happens to me too, even though I have many chances to talk and teach foreigners. One time a French guy came to me and spoke Vietnamese and I just realized that after 5 seconds (Oh he's speaking Vietnamese!) What a shame!
    However, I have a German student and we have discussed quite a lot about this. I once told her that we are not prepared for hearing a foreigner speaking Vietnamese. She said, but the situation is far different in Thailand. Small country, a tonal language, not so many reasons to learn the language but they understand everything foreigners say to them. And when they realize a foreigner is speaking Thai, they are so welcome and always try to speak more slowly or simply. That is something missing here in Vietnam.
    Anyway, I liked your article so much! Cảm ơn anh Mark! :)

  2. Interesting comments. I have been living in Vietnam over a year, and studying the language. I speak a number of languages, including Thai and Chinese, and I have never encountered so much trouble being understood as I am here in Vietnam. I can vouch for what the German student said; Thai seem to have no problem understanding me. I have come to only two conclusions that seem to explain this: Vietnamese don't expect foreigners to speak Vietnamese, so they "refuse to recognize it" when they hear it. Frankly, in a way I find it annoying - they're looking at my face and stereotyping me immediately. But to be honest, I think there is another reason that Vietnamese have a problem understanding foreigners when they speak Vietnamese: the sound system, particularly the vowel system, is very unforgiving for the slightest variation from standard. Tones can be a problem too, but probably not so much as foreigners think it is.

  3. Congratulations on learning as much Vietnamese as you have! My wife is Vietnamese and so I have also tried learning some of the language and I cannot get beyond the simplest phrases. I have studied Spanish, French, and German, but nothing compares to the difficulty of VN.

  4. is working on a project to provide Conversational Vietnamese lessons for free. Take a minute to watch the video
    Also if you are a Vietnamese speaker check out this free language resource

  5. Vietnamese natives seem to react to foreigners attempting to speak their language in a range of confusing ways but unfortunately very few reactions are conducive towards language learning.
    At one end of the scale, and admittedly only very rarely, I would encounter extreme rudeness which would come in the form of being laughed at to my face or simply ushered away. At the other extreme I would be applauded for the simplest of utterances, people would record me with their phones and beckon those around them to come and view the spectacle of a white man speaking Vietnamese.
    If I was successful in overcoming this first hurdle of reception, the language in which the response took presented a greater obstacle. Unsurprisingly, the most common response was in broken English. I understand the desire to capitalise on chance encounters with foreigners for extra English speaking practice. This was usually shown by frantic shouts from a street vendor to summon her 6 year old to bark ‘hello how are you!’ at me. But once I explained that I taught English all day and wanted the chance to practice Vietnamese, the conversation usually fizzled out.
    On the rare occasion that I overcame these first two hurdles and actually found a Vietnamese person willing to speak Vietnamese with me there were still more problems. I was either viewed as being 100% versed in their mother tongue or had the language proficiency of a chimp. Once, after conversing for about 5 minutes, my new Vietnamese barber friend, he excitedly announced that he was going to teach me Vietnamese. He pulled out a pen and paper and decided to start with the numbers 1-10 … yes.. I managed to learn the expression for “short back and sides with a bit of a fringe” but somehow 1-10 must have passed me by! On other occasions I was blitzed by a bewildering array of idioms and local slang which flew over my head and when I made the mistake of asking the speaker to slow down, they just mumbled to their friend, “he doesn’t speak Vietnamese”.
    After months of frustration and dampened spirits I started to reflect on why this might be happening. Admittedly, my pronunciation wasn’t sparkling and my language proficiency was still only mid-range (B1 – B2) however that didn’t really account for how I was able to interact so fluently with a handful of people and so poorly with others. Predictably, those that could understand me were not only accustomed to talking to foreigners but specifically to expats, and even more precisely to expats who had expressed an interest in learning Vietnamese. Even from this cherry picked group, few were accomplished in understanding broken Vietnamese.
    My kneejerk reaction was to assume a lack of effort from the listener. At times it seemed like there was literally no attempt being made to meet me half way. I was never asked to repeat myself, shown a more attentive ear or even spoken to more slowly. The tones of the language make it very susceptible to simple errors in pronunciation but, having witnessed how my girlfriend’s 2 year old niece, interacted with its family, making countless mistakes which were easily understood and corrected by the family, I sulked with jealousy having never been afforded the same curtesy. The idea that Vietnamese people make little effort to understand foreigners bumbling through a Vietnamese sentence accounts for an uncomfortably large amount of miscommunication but a deeper culprit for this problem seemed to lie a little bit closer to home. The cultural divide between natives and foreigners seems solidly embedded in the collective psyche of the Vietnamese, and I don’t blame them for that… most foreigners make little to no effort to show any real interest in the culture that delves any deeper than a selfie with a bowl of noodles.