Learning any language is not an easy task, and especially not Vietnamese. With it’s numerous inflections, similar vowel sounds and variety of accents, Vietnamese is one of the hardest languages in the world to master. But the good news is that it is not impossible.
I have been passively absorbing the language for over a year now, and can speak quite well. I will admit I was too lazy to make a study of it, but instead I began to take these steps towards learning to speak, listen, read and write.
For me, progress became far quicker when I stopped using text books! I stopped studying for periods of time and focusing on internalisation, and just relaxed into being in the vibrant city of Saigon.
But the good news is that it is not impossible.
But its one thing to relax into your context, and quite another to make the connection between said relaxation and learning an incredibly dense language. How did I do it? Well to be honest it happened by accident, but looking back I can give you 7 pieces of invaluable advice.
7 tips and you’ll be pretty much local…
1`. Learn the alphabet:
Ok, so a tiny bit of study is involved… Since Vietnamese has weird vowels and tones it is almost impossible to read a word without knowing the sounds it is comprised of before hand. It’s not at all like English, even though some words may seem to be! “No” for example sounds like “nor” and “dung” is ‘youm”.
Before you can expect to remember any vocabulary you must spend some time studying the alphabet, both so that you can read new words for yourself and to help you remember them! For me it is so much easier to remember a word if I can visualise it.
2. Talk to yourself:
Invest in a straight jacket, stop brushing your hair and spend time chatting with yourself in your favourite rocking chair….
No. But seriously, when you are walking or driving somewhere of even when you are at home, try describing what you see for yourself in Vietnamese. You will need words that you don’t know, which will prompt interest to find out what they are! And if you walk past the same things every day you will end up remembering those words because you’ll keep wishing you knew them.
7 tips and you’ll be pretty much local…
Ideally, have a dictionary on your phone (I use the TFlat one from the app store) where you can look the word up at the time you need it and save it for future reference. But not all of us are that diligent, and I usually tend to save all the words I want to know in a mental “to research” list so that I can look up a big bunch of them later.
3. Talk to everyone else:
Don’t be scared to try communicating in Vietnamese. About 6 months into living here I started to go to the local market to buy my groceries and meats as opposed to the supermarket because everything was fresher and greener and cheaper. And unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you see it) all the market holders are Vietnamese. No English spoken at all, except “hello” which really doesn’t count.
I remember using my few broken words to order the vegetables I needed, interspersed with a few violent head shakes and gestures towards certain products, and though it was scary at first I began to get used to it. Now I see my daily market trips as the perfect chance to practise speaking without having to deviate from my normal daily routine, and I can speak a lot now!
4. Keep a diary:
If you can be bothered, keeping a diary in Vietnamese is a great way to remember new vocab and to practise spelling. I don’t keep a daily diary as such, but I do regularly write in a notebook whenever I feel like it, and it tends to happen at least 5 times per week.
Don’t be scared to try communicating in Vietnamese.
Other options include writing Facebook statuses in Vietnamese, kidnapping a Vietnamese friend to chat with, or writing secret messages in Vietnamese and taking pleasure when your foreigner mates have no idea what is happening.
5. Less is More:
I used to set myself such unreasonable goals and I think that’s why I failed to improve. Don’t try to learn 7 words a day, or even 7 words a week! Try 5 words a week, totally learnt, regularly used and completely understood. No need to pour over the books obsessively!
Just ingest a reasonable amount of knowledge, and if possible do so as a part of every day. You drink coffee every morning – how do you say that in Vietnamese? You love wearing the colour green – what is green in Vietnamese? And so on.
It’s better to know fewer words but speak them well, not forget them and know how to use them in a sentence, than to know many words one week and then forget them all the week after.
6. Yin and Yang:
It’s also important to remember grammar! I know someone who seems to know ALL the words, but finds it hard to speak because he doesn’t know how to use them. Pointless! Get a balance.
Try 5 words a week
7. One Paragraph a Night:
If possible, read a small paragraph os Vietnamese text every day. Also if possible, have a local friend on hand to tell you when your pronunciation is violently off. Don’t read heaps, but make a habit of reading a few sentences every day. It will get easier! Most importantly, use what you’ve learnt and get outside.