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