Vietnamese is not as hard as you’d think

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Is learning Vietnamese a big challenge for you?

As a child, my favorite animated movie was “Treasure Planet”. Adapted from the famous novel “Treasure Island”, the movie told the story of Jim Hawkins, a young boy living in a fictional world where humans and different alien races lived together in outer space, travelling between planets special ships. It was by no means among Disney’s top list of masterpieces, but it captivated me. I was born and grew up in a small Vietnamese city, so the idea of going to brand new planets and seeing brand new things immediately appealed to me.

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Image: Poster of Treasure Planet, featuring Jim Hawkins

But at the same time, new things can be scary. Not everyone of us is Jim Hawkins, who can just jump on a ship and go off to another planet in who-knows-where. Having studied a second language myself (and having watched Treasure Planet like 10 times), I can confidently say that learning a new language can be just as intimidating and difficult as going on an adventure to an alien world. But today, I’d like to try and convince you that when it comes to learning Vietnamese, the adventure is not so “dangerous”. Next we will guide you through reasons for it. 

Vietnamese is not one of the world’s easiest languages to learn; however, it’s not all thorns.

One of the Vietnamese language’s best traits is the way we name our months. Have you wondered how months received their English names? The Ancient Romans take credits for that. They named the first four months after their gods and goddesses; after that, they simply called the months by their ordinal number. For example, “December” means “the 10th month” in Latin. So why on Earth is December the 12th month of the year now? You can thank Julius Caesar for that! To reform the original Roman calendar, Caesar added two extra months before December; while it remained the last month of the year, its name is no longer “accurate”. If you find that frustrating, be assured that you won’t have this problem in Vietnamese. Our months’ names make perfect sense!

Great minds do think alike; similar to Ancient Romans, we Vietnamese simply say “tháng” (meaning “month”) and add the corresponding number behind it. January is “tháng một”, which translates literally to “month one”. And unlike in English, December is aptly called “tháng mười hai”, meaning “month twelve”. The same goes for every other month in the year, and the best thing is, Vietnamese number will not force you to do mental math calculations like in French either! 

The same goes for days in a week in Vietnamese, although slightly more complicated. We have this word, “thứ”, which indicates order of things. The Vietnamese names for days of the week is just the order in which they occur in the week. The first day in Vietnamese week is actually Sunday, the only day that has a special name “Chủ Nhật”; from then on, Monday is “thứ hai” (which means “second day”), Tuesday is “thứ ba” (“third day”), Wednesday is “thứ tư” (“fourth day”), Thursday is “thứ năm” (“fiffth day”), Friday is “thứ sáu” (“sixth day”), and Saturday is “thứ bảy” (“seventh day”). Once you’ve learned our numbers, you’ve also learned how to say days of a week and months! The Vietnamese are simple people; we like to name things in a straightforward way. Is learning Vietnamese simple now?

Latin Alphabet

If you already speak a language that uses the Latin alphabet, you’ve already taken that first step in learning Vietnamese! Despite being an Austroasiatic language, Vietnamese no longer uses its traditional scripts, but instead a Latin script nearly identical to that of English.

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Image: On the left is a poem written in Nom, the traditional script of Vietnamese. On the right is the poem’s translation into modern Vietnamese alphabet

However, the Vietnamese language does not have certain letters from the English alphabet (f, j, w, z), and add a few vowels and consonants to the mix. Instead of just “a”, we also have “â, ă”, “e” gains a sibling named “ê”, “o” has “ô, ơ”, and “u” comes with “ư”. 

As for consonants, our “d” has a twin “đ”. These extra letters require slightly different pronunciations, but certainly will not be as challenging as learning an entirely different writing system. 

Short Words

Another “advantage” to the learning Vietnamese language is that each word is often very short, with the longest word possible only comprising of 6 letters; “thường”, which means “common” is as long as a Vietnamese word can get. It’s also not possible to merge words together in order to create a new one; in order words, there will never be a Vietnamese version of “Wirtschaftswissenschaft” (which means “economics” in German), or “Hyppytyynytyydytys” (“bouncing cushion satisfaction” in Finnish) for you to learn. Reassuring, isn’t it?

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Image: Excerpt from a Vietnamese textbook. As you can see, all words are very short!

Easy and Simple Grammar

First off, despite the very heavy influence from France in our cuisine and architecture, we never took after the way they assign genders to objects. Secondly, regardless of verb tense, our words never change. Technically, Vietnamese also has nearly all the verb tenses that English does; however, to indicate tense, we simply add a “helper” word in front of the verb, rather than transforming the verbs themselves. Even better, in spoken language, and occasionally in written form, we have the option to drop the helper words too, relying only on context to figure out which tense it is. Similarly, there is no singular and plural case. Conjugation is just not required in our language. As mentioned above, we Vietnamese are simple people.

Image: Vietnamese children smiling happily because they don’t need to conjugate words when they talk

There is so much, much more to Vietnamese than what was covered above, but my ramblings have gone on for long enough. Learning Vietnamese is certainly no walk in a park, but hopefully, I have managed to ease some of your fears about the journey ahead, should you decide to start learning my mother tongue. You have one hell of an adventure ahead, that I can assure you. 

If you would like to begin that adventure now, BiziVietnam can help you reach your desired destination! We offer 3-month Vietnamese courses for adults at beginner’s level, and each new student can enjoy one trial lesson for free.

And as we say in Vietnamese, “Tạm biệt”, which means “A temporary separation”, or “Hẹn gặp lại”, “Until we meet again”. 

Hao Le

About BiziVietnam
BiziVietnam is the first ever non-profit organisation in Finland dedicated to empowering cultural connections and strengthening the Vietnamese cultural footprint in locals, internationals and Vietnamese people in Finland; along with promoting cooperation opportunities between Finland and Vietnam. Follow us on Social Media for the latest news and upcoming events.