What is the Vietnamese language?

To keep it short, the Vietnamese language is an Austro-Asian language (Southeast Asian language) influenced by the Chinese language, and they have many characteristics in common.

Vietnamese is a tonal language

A tonal language is a language where syllables are subject to tones. The majority of the world’s languages are tonal. Chinese for example has 5 tones and Vietnamese has 6 (“only” 5 for South Vietnamese). This is the main difficulty for Westerners, but with some practice, anyone could master the tones.

Tone Marker Example Translation
Level tone (unmarked) ma Ghost
Rising tone  ́́ Mother
Falling tone  ̀̀ Which
Falling rising tone  ̉̉̉ mả Tomb
High rising tone  ̃ Horse
Low constricted tone  ̣ mạ Rice Seedling

The 6 Vietnamese tones

Some people will tell you that you should not pay attention to tone when you start learning Vietnamese. Big mistake ! It may take you several weeks or months to master the tones, but I think it’s absolutely necessary to do it right from the start.

Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language

A monosyllabic language is a language in which each word is composed of a single syllable. In fact, Vietnamese has a “monosyllabic tendency”, which means that unlike a strict monosyllabic language, there are words that consist of two syllables (or three, but very few). Many Vietnamese words are composed of two simple words, and it’s a lot of fun to learn. For example :

  • máy (machine) + giặt (to wash) = máy giặt (washing machine)
  • máy (machine) + bay (fly) = máy bay (plane)
  • máy (machine) + lạnh (cold) = máy lạnh (air conditioner and not fridge!)

There are thousands of words that follow this very simple rule.

Vietnamese is an insulative language

An isolating language is a language in which all words remain invariable. Great ! That means no irregular verbs, no masculine / feminine, no articles, and a very simple grammar.

Facilities and difficulties of the Vietnamese language

 Here is a chart that explains the main facilities and difficulties for westerners who want to learn Vietnamese:

Facilities Difficulties
Writing

The quốc ngữ is a romanization of the Vietnamese writing. In the past, the Vietnamese language was written like the Chinese. Today, we use the Latin alphabet augmented with “diacritics” (accents added above or below the letters). It is the only Asian language that uses the Latin alphabet. Thus, once the alphabet is learned, it is possible to easily read Vietnamese. Beware however, the Vietnamese alphabet has 29 letters including 12 vowels.

 

Tones

The main difficulty is the control of the tones. It is essential to spend time in the beginning to learn the tones. But if you make some mistakes in the tones, the Vietnamese can still understand you (sometimes!). When you learn a new word, you must also learn the tone that goes with it.

 

– Many French and English words used

Many English words are used in Vietnamese, and even more French words. There are several hundred words of French origin used in Vietnamese. However, most are disappearing. Only about a hundred words are commonly used, especially in food, mechanics and housing. Examples: so co la (chocolat), pa tê (pâté), cà rốt (carotte), cà phê (café), op la (œuf au plat), bơ (beurre)… Pay attention to the pronunciation which can be very different from the French one.

 

– Pronunciation

The second difficulty is pronunciation. Try to say “N’Guyen” the way you would in English to a Vietnamese and he will not understand you. You must keep in mind that perhaps unlike other languages where it is ok to have a strong accent, if you want to be understood by the Vietnamese you will need to have the most correct pronunciation possible.

 

– Grammar

As mentioned before, its grammar is relatively simple: structures usually follow the form: subject + verb + complement. Also

are no article, no change for nouns and adjectives when switching from singular to plural nor conjugation of verbs.

 

Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns as we know them as “I” and “you” do not exist in Vietnamese. The Vietnamese society considers itself as a big family and the use of personal pronouns (I, you, he…) depends on the position within the family of oneself and of their interlocutor, ie of the respective age of each. The truth is it’s a real headache for a westerner. For example one must call someone of his age or a little older “big sister” or “big brother” (Chi or Anh) and qualify themselves as little brother or little sister (em).

 

Vietnamese can be a hard language to master. Motivation and perseverance are, even more than for other languages, essential in learning Vietnamese. Nonetheless, if you plan on spending some time in the country, learning a little bit of the language helps tremendously and is greatly appreciated by the Vietnamese people.

Nonetheless, if you plan on spending some time in the country, learning a little bit of the language helps tremendously and is greatly appreciated by the Vietnamese people.

 

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