First Impressions of Vietnamese:


One week into my Vietnamese study.  So far it has been a lot of fun although I haven’t attempted to speak with anyone yet (excluding myself, of course!).  I would say from my brief foray into this exotic tongue that Vietnamese is at least as difficult as Mandarin.  Sharp, monosyllables are shot at you like a machine-gun in Vietnamese and the six tones are really tough for me to recognize at this point.  At least I have that Latin script to fall back on.

I mentioned before about the two main dialects of Vietnamese.  While there are certainly differences in vocabulary between them, the main differences seem to be in pronunciation.  The Northern dialect (the one in my Assimil course) uses a “z” sound for the letters gi and r whereas the Southern dialect uses a “y” sound. So, in the North one would say “Ông, tên là gì (What is your name?) ?” “ung ten ZEE” but in the South it would sound like “ung tenYII” . “Bây giờ mấy giờ rồi (what time is it now)? would be “bayzuh, mayzuh zoi” in the North and “bayyuh mayyuh roi” in the South.  I am trying to get some exposure to both dialects so I’m not totally lost if I come into contact with a Tiếng Nam (southern) speaker.  I have been listening to some podcasts to try and pick out which dialect the speaker is using.  Interestingly, the news podcasts I downloaded are all tiếng-Bắc (northern), even VOA’s!  The Southern California online stations, however are all Tiếng Nam; go figure!


The dialects are tricky but when it comes to forms of address, I’m completely lost! In English, we have “you” and if one wants to split hairs I suppose we also have “thou”.  In Vietnamese there are dozens of ways to address someone depending on the relationships between the speaker and addressee.  This is a partial list of potential ways to address another in Vietnamese that I took from Wikipedia’s Vietnamese Grammar page:

Term Reciprocal Literal meaning Non-kinship usage Note
cha con father a priest Many other terms are used, depending on the dialect: babốtíathầy
mẹ con mother   mẹ is the Northern form,  is used in the South. Many other terms are used, depending on the dialect: u,bầmmạ
anh em older brother an older man of the same generation; the man in a romantic relationship; a man (formal use) Can be used to address any male regardless of status. e.g. By military personnel to those of lower ranks.
chị em older sister an older woman of the same generation; a woman (formal use)  
em anh or chị younger sibling or cousin of the same generation a younger person of the same generation; a child; the woman in a romantic relationship  
con cha, mẹ, bà, etc. one’s child a young child; a person at least one generation younger  
cháu ông, bà, bác, chú, etc. grandchild; niece; nephew; cousin of junior generations a young child; a person at least one generation younger  
ông cháu or con grandfather a middle-aged man paternal and maternal grandfathers are differentiated as ông nội (“internal grandfather”) and ông ngoại(“external grandfather”), respectively
cháu or con grandmother a middle-aged (married) woman paternal and maternal grandmothers are differentiated as bà nội (“internal grandmother”) and bà ngoại(“external grandmother”), respectively
cháu father’s sister a female teacher, an older woman as old as one’s father, a young (usually unmarried) woman (formal) in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to father’s younger sister
chú cháu father’s younger brother an older man as old as one’s father, a slightly younger man (formal) in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to father’s younger brother
thím cháu chú’s wife    
bác cháu a parent’s older sibling a person older than one’s parents in some dialects, can also refer to father’s elder brother or sister as well as mother’s elder brother or sister
cháu mother’s sister, stepmother a woman as old as one’s mother, in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to mother’s younger sister
cậu cháu mother’s brother a man as old as one’s mother, a close friend (Northern variety) in some dialects, literal meaning is restricted to mother’s younger brother
mợ cháu cậu’s wife   in some dialects, used by the husband to refer to his wife, children to refer to mother, or parents-in-law to refer to a daughter-in-law
dượng cháu the husband of  or , stepfather    
cụ/cố cháu great-grandparent a very old person  
cháu great-great-grandparent    
họ   clan they third person plural for a group of people
Using the correct pronoun is extremely important as using the wrong one apparently can cause serious offense!  Hopefully they cut foreigners a little slack!I am on Unit 6 of Assimil and so far this is what I can say so far in Vietnamese:
Do you know her?
of course I know her!
Who is she?
She is my friend’s older sister.
Who is your friend?
My friend is Mr. Ho, husband of Mrs. Hoa.
What is her name?
Her name is Lan.
She is young and very pretty!

Ong có biết chị ấy không?
Tôi biết chu!
Cô ấy là ai?
Cô là chị gái của bạn tôi.
Ong bạn là ai?
Bạn tôi là ông Hồ, chồng bà Hòa.
Tên chị là gì?
Chị ấy tên là Lan.
chị ấy trẻ và đẹp qua!

Mr. What is your name?
My name is Ho.
What is your family- name?
My surname is Pham.
What is your work?
I am a journalist.
What about that woman? What is her name?
Her name is Tran Thin Lan.
She is also a journalist, isn’t she?
No She is a teacher.  

Ông tên là gì?
Tên tôi là Hồ.
Ông họ là gì?
Họ là Phạm.
Ông việc của là gì?
Tôi là nhà báo.
Ve cô ấy ? Tên cô ấy là gì?
Tên cô ấy là Trần Thìn Lan.
Cô cũng là nhà báo, không phải?
Không ,cô ấy là giáo viên.



Mainlymagyar’s Next Challenge; Vietnamese!

It has been a while since I have attempted a “6 Week Challenge” to teach myself a foreign language. I must admit, Georgian ( my last 6 week challenge) did not work out so well as life’s commitments got in the way of my language learning pursuits.  Nevertheless I did learn a fair amount of Georgian should I ever need to continue forth with it at any point. I also learned how to read the Georgian script which is something I have always wanted to do.This summer, I have been brushing up on my Russian. My Russian had gotten incredibly rusty and was in dire need of a tune-up.  To anyone learning (or relearning) Russian, I enthusiastically recommend The New Penguin Russian Course. This small book explains the monster that is Russian grammar better than any text I have encountered.  I also would highly recommend the podcast Russian Pod 101. I went through an “intermediate” season of this podcast and found it very useful.  It teaches Russian as it is actually “spoken” , not as one would find it taught in most textbooks.Anyhow, a new 6 week challenge just started this August. ( see details at I really enjoy using these challenges as an excuse to try to intensively learn new languages. This time, I was thinking of something more practical than Georgian and something slightly easier than Mandarin ( my last two challenges).  On somewhat of a whim, I decided to tackle a new language, in a new language family (for me anyway), Vietnamese!  The advantages of learning Vietnamese are many, eg: There are many speakers here in the Pacific Northwest, there is an abundance of didactic material available (compared to Georgian) , it is written in a modified Latin script which makes reading an option from the beginning, there are many Vietnamese restaurants in my town which hopefully I can use as an excuse not only to practice Vietnamese, but also to get to know Vietnamese food and culture as well.

Vietnamese is spoken by 80+million people not only in Vietnam, but also throughout the world due to the extensive Vietnamese diaspora. It is member of the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austro-Asiatic language family. It is related to Cambodian or Khmer and although the two languages are not mutually intelligible and have different scripts, a Vietnamese acquaintance of mine says he can “get the gist” of a Khmer conversation if he listens very carefully!  It is said that 60% of Vietnamese words are borrowed from Chinese but unless one is a Sinitic linguist, it seems this link is pretty obscure! The only one so far I could pick out was “chay” for tea, and possibly trong/zhong for “middle”.  There are also a handful of French words in Vietnamese carried over from the French colonialization  ( ca phe/cafe, sabon/soap etc…).

Vietnamese was traditionally written in Chữ Nôm, phonetic characters derived from Classical Chinese.  Luckily for us Westerners, in the 1600s, a Jesuit missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes created a Latin based alphabet for Vietnamese which is called Quốc Ngữ. Quốc Ngữ was officially adopted in the early 20th Century, thus, written Vietnamese is arguably the most accessible Asian language to westerners.  with Vietnamese there is no need to learn a new, complex script in order to read it. Thanks, Alexandre.

Not to say that Vietnamese is easy by any means!  Like most Asian languages, Vietnamese is a tonal language.  However, while Chinese has 4 tones to contend with, Vietnamese has 6!

A Diagram of the 6 Tones of Vietnamese. From Nguyễn, Văn Lợi; & Edmondson, Jerold A. (1998). Tones and voice quality in modern northern Vietnamese: Instrumental case studies. Mon-Khmer Studies28, 1-18.
Several accomplished polyglots have confessed to me that Vietnamese is the hardest language they have attempted to tackle!  In addition, Vietnamese has 3 separate dialects; Northern, Central and Southern.  The Central dialect is said to be so divergent from the others that it is no longer mutually intelligible with Northern or Southern Vietnamese.  The Northern and Southern, on the other hand are (more or less) mutually intelligible. It has been described to me as an English speaker from Southern California trying to understand a Highland Scotsman; possible but challenging!   The issue for neophyte Vietnamese scholars is that the majority of Vietnamese abroad speak the southern dialect while the “official dialect” of Vietnam proper is the Northern dialect. Thus, half of the courses are taught in the Northern dialect and the other half are taught in the Southern!  Which one should one learn?!?! Aarrrgghh!  (nobody said being an amateur linguist was easy).After reviewing several methods I chose to use Assimil’s Le Vietnamien Sans Peine as my primary course. It uses the Northern dialect (I suppose I would have preferred the Southern, it sounds much “softer” to the ear ) but the recordings were the clearest of the bunch.  I also can abide by the “little bit every day” approach of Assimil.
I will try to make a video after a month or two like I did with Mandarin.  Wish me luck!
Hẹn gặp lại sau!   Tạm biệt!   Chúc may mắn!