Vietnamese: Chào!

Oh, Vietnamese, how you fooled me.

How foolish of me to be nervous. Here I was thinking that I would just watch a few videos and yet dismiss you altogether, as I had done with the tonal languages in the past. But now my interest has actually been ignited.

SUMMARY: Vietnamese is a widely spoken Austroasiatic language in South Asia. Its heaviest influence is Chinese, as Vietnam’s neighbor to the north ruled Vietnam for nearly 1,000 years. After being colonized in the later 1800s, the language is also sprinkled with French influences. The Vietnamese alphabet uses Quốc Ngữ, a Romanized script that was developed in part by Portuguese missionaries in the 1600s.

Like a ton of the languages spoken in South and East Asia, Vietnamese is a tonal language, which means words can differ depending on how syllables are stressed. There are six tones in Vietnamese, in which diacritics are placed over the language’s 12 vowels. Most of the consonants resemble the English alphabet but several are distinctive (a key example are the glottal stops). To add on to this, the language also has four dialects, most prominently the Northern and Southern dialects, which are for the most part mutually intelligible but have several consonants that are pronounced differently.

FINAL IMPRESSION: To an average American, Vietnamese sounds like a bunch of throaty pitches and sounds. The tonal aspect threw me for a loop, but after reviewing several videos, it’s not as hard to grasp as one thinks. If you consider how we tend to raise syllables when asking a question, then it is definitely plausible to learn. Bud Brown, an American linguist who specializes Vietnamese, breaks it down in a really easy way.

Apart from this, the only other hard thing are the pronouns. In Vietnamese, formality, gender and age define which pronoun to use.

Pronouns are also used in pairs. The pronoun he, for example, can be Em (boy) Anh (older man or formal for a young man) and OÂng (older man or very formal for male of high status). This means if you are a male, you have to select the appropriate pronoun depending on which one is used and depending on your status and age. This site provides an excellent chart of the most used pronouns, along with sound clips. This one gives an example of how to use them.

If you can look past the tones and pronouns, which are the real hurdles for English speakers (or let’s just say non-Vietnamese speakers, shall we?), you are rewarded with a simple syntax and grammar structure. There is virtually no conjugation for verbs and like English, Vietnamese uses a subject-verb-object order which is reversed for interrogative sentences. Adjectives don’t change forms either. Another thing that helped me is that the language is very monosyllabic and there are very few words that are more than two syllables. This could prove helpful for memorizing vocabulary.

Still, not sure if it’s enough for me to continue learning. But you never know.


Intelligibility: 2
Complexity: 3
Resonance: 3
Continuation: 3

COMING UP: Norwegian

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