Asia, Vietnam

Learning Vietnamese

People often say learning a language helps you understand a culture. I always thought this just meant you could communicate with people, but it’s a lot more than that. Learning a language means more than learning words. It means learning how to think like the people. Our language exposes a bit of us, how we perceive the world around us and our place in society.

Vietnamese Language
Sometimes things get lost in translation

Vietnamese is a surprisingly simple language. To be clear, simple doesn’t mean easy to learn. Once Damian and I committed to staying in Saigon for two months, we signed up for Vietnamese classes with a language school called, “Learn Vietnamese with Annie.” We bought a package for 24 hours of classes for a 2-month period. I never take group classes anymore, so we opted for a private class split between the two of us. Our classroom was very small, just big enough for a table, two chairs, and a whiteboard. No other classrooms, no waiting area, no reception, just a space smaller than a dorm room.

Learn Vietnamese
Vietnamese Class

So, what is Vietnamese like?

Grammar

When I say ‘simple,’ I mean the grammar is quite straightforward, the pronunciation is regular (unlike English), and it doesn’t require any crazy conjugations like in Spanish or crazy irregular plurals like in Arabic.

Verbs

*Remember, a verb is something you do; it’s an action: jump, eat, drink, want.

Most English verbs in the simple present are quite easy:
I eat
You eat
They eat
We eat.
We get a bit crazy with he and she but it’s not so bad:
He eats

Compare that to verbs in Spanish:
Yo como
Tu comes
El/ella come
Nosotros comemos
Usteds comen
Ellos/ellas comen

Then you need to remember the different ends for –er –ir and –ar verbs. Not to mention all the irregulars. And that’s just the present tense. Once you need to quickly conjugate in the past, past perfect, future, conditional, and subjunctive, it gets exhausting.

In Vietnamese, present-tense verbs aren’t conjugated. You just need to learn one word.
ăn – eat. (It doesn’t matter who is eating, you just need this one word.)
tắm— bathe.
đi ngủ— go to bed. It doesn’t matter who, I, you, a group of 6 girls, we all just use “đi ngủ” when we want to snooze.

Learning Vietnamese
After all these classes, I can mostly just order food

Vocabulary

This is where I love Vietnamese. The vocabulary never got fancy. It was all really straightforward. Honestly, once you get enough vocabulary, you can just start guessing new words.

We already establish ăn is “to eat.” It also means “food.” Now, look at these combinations—
ăn tối— dinner. Tối means “night.”
ăn trưa— lunch. Trưa means “afternoon.”
ăn sáng— breakfast. Yep, sáng means “morning.”

It’s like this for everything. The numbers are:
1—một
2— hai
3— ba
4— bốn
5— năm
6— sáu
7— bảy

The days of the week are:
Monday— Thứ hai
Tuesday— Thứ ba
Wednesday— Thứ tư
Thursday— Thứ năm
Friday— Thứ sáu
Saturday— Thứ bảy
Sunday—  Chủ nhật

One day we went to the zoo and I saw a sign for hồng hạc (flamingo). This literally means “pink crane.” “Airplane” is máy bay or literally “fly machine” and “phone” is điện thoại or literally “electric speech.”

Vietnam

Pronouns

While logical, I never felt 100% comfortable with the pronouns. In English (and every language I have studied including French, Spanish, Arabic, and a tiny bit of Hindi if you want to count it), our pronouns are fixed:

I— the person speaking. Everyone always uses this to speak about themselves.
You— the person they are speaking to.
He/She— another person being talked about.

In Vietnamese, gender plays a role, but so does age.

Anh— a man, older than the speaker
Chị—  a woman, older than the speaker
Em—  a man or woman, younger than the speaker

So this meant my teacher, 23, always referred to me as chị and Damian as anh and I had to refer to her as em. However, talking to my older sister, I would stop referring to myself as chị  and start using em  as “I.”

  • To tell my older sister I want her to give me a coffee, I need to say:
    Cho em một ly cà phê.
  • To tell my teacher I want a coffee, I need to say:
    Cho chị một ly cà phê.
  • Since Damian is younger than me, technically I can tell him to give me a coffee by saying:
    Cho chị một ly cà phê.
  • But our teacher told us it’s more romantic if I call him “anh” and he calls me “em” so I need to use em with Damian.
    Cho em một ly cà phê.
  • But if we break up, I will have to say:
    Cho chị một ly cà phê.

Phew… 

If it ended there, I might be able to deal with it, but it didn’t. There was also:

Cô– a woman of an older generation
Con— a person of a younger generation

And a bunch of others I never committed to memory.

This was somewhat possible to keep straight in class, but it got complicated outside the classroom.  Unless someone is a child or clearly older, I have no idea if they are older or not. Plus, there were a ton we never practiced.

Vietnamese coffee
cho em hai cà phê sữa đá

Tones

This is where Vietnamese killed me. It’s tonal. This means the inflection of a word is really important. For example, we can say hello as a question, “hello?” and the end of the word goes up. Or, if you are really sad and want to speak like Eeyore, you can say “hello” and let the end of that word fall.

In Vietnamese,  how you say the word is important. Take, for example, the word “mau.” Saying this without inflection means “fast.” If you say it falling, it means “color.” If you say it with a rising intonation, it means “blood.”

Even knowing how I was supposed to say the tones, I never did it very well.

Conclusion

My Vietnamese is only good enough to order food and give directions and say some basic things, but it was a fun experience to share with Damian and dig deeper into Vietnam culture. Most likely, I’ll forget all my Vietnamese in a few months after leaving South East Asia but I know learning some of the language has helped me build a deeper connection here.

3 Comments

  1. Mom

    The tonal part would be really hard for me! What if I was in a grumpy mood and need to inflect “up” or in a happy mood & needed to speak like Eyeore? Would cause a lot of mood swings! 🙂

    Reply

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