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!

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