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Just how difficult is the Vietnamese language?
Pretty much impossible, if you ask the Vietnamese themselves. The supposed difficulty of Vietnam's official language is a point of national pride amongst its 90 million inhabitants, and locals are happy to tell you “tiếng Việt khó!” (Vietnamese is hard) at every possible opportunity.
So if you’re learning Vietnamese, or thinking about learning, it’s likely that all you’ve been getting so far is discouragement! In this article, I want to give you an alternate perspective, and offer you some encouragement, because chances are that Vietnamese is easier than you think.
It's true that, with six tones and a plethora of strange vowel sounds that we don’t have in English, pronouncing Vietnamese can be tricky. But most expats in Vietnam (of which I was one for a year) fail to realise that the pronunciation is just about the only difficult thing about Vietnamese. Every other aspect of the language is extremely easy – far easier that what you might expect, especially compared to most European languages.
Don't believe me? Here are nine reasons why Vietnamese is easier than you think:
1. Vietnamese Has No Genders
If you've ever learned French, Spanish, German, or just about any European language except English, you just breathed a huge sigh of relief. Vietnamese has no concept of “masculine” or “feminine” words. You can just learn the word as it is, without any need for extra memorisation.
2. Vietnamese Dispenses with “a” and “the”
If someone who was studying English asked you when to use “a” before a word, and when to use “the”, would you be able to explain? It’s a surprisingly complicated topic. The Wikipedia page on “articles”, as they’re called, is over 2500 words long!
But is it really that important whether you’re talking about “a” something or “the” something? It’s usually obvious from the context which one you mean. Far easier to just do away with them completely, which is what Vietnamese does. Người can mean both a person or “the person”, and you never need to worry about the distinction.
3. Vietnamese Doesn’t Have Plurals
In English, when we want to make something plural we usually stick an “s” on the end of it. “Dog” becomes “dogs”, “table” becomes “tables” and “house” becomes “houses”. However, there are many exceptions. “Person” becomes “people”, “mouse” becomes “mice”, “man” becomes “men”, and some words like “sheep” or “fish” don’t change at all.
In Vietnamese, everything is like a sheep. The word người, which I’ve already mentioned, can be used for both “people” or “person”; “chó” is “dog” or “dogs”, “bàn” is “table” or “tables”, and so on. If you think this would get confusing, ask yourself: can you remember a single time in your life when you heard someone talking about “the sheep” or “the fish” and you got confused because you didn’t know how many animals they were talking about?
If you really need to be specific, just slap an extra word in front of the noun, like một người (one person), nhũng người (some people), or các người (all the people). Easy.
And it’s not just nouns that are simple…
4. Vietnamese Has No Confusing Verb Endings
Pity the poor learner of Spanish. Even to say something as simple as the word “speak” (hablar), he or she has to learn five or six (depending on dialect) different verb endings for the present tense alone . I hablo, you hablas, he habla, we hablamos, and the list goes on. Factor in different tenses and subtleties like the grammatical “mood” (indicative vs subjunctive), and a single Spanish verb has over fifty different forms that learners have to memorize.
The technical term is that Spanish verbs (and nouns, and adjectives) inflect, meaning the same word can take different forms depending on the context. English isn’t nearly as inflective as Spanish, but we still do it to some extent – for example the word “speak” can inflect to “speaks”, “speaking”, “spoken”, or “spoke”.
Here's the good news: Vietnamese is a completely non-inflective language – no word ever changes its form in any context. Learn the word nói, and you know how to say “speak” in all contexts and tenses for all speakers. I nói, you nói, he or she nói, we nói, you all nói, and they nói. That’s dozens, if not hundreds of hours of work saved compared to learning almost any European language.
A corollary to this is something that will give anyone’s who’s studied a European language a sigh of relief:
5. Vietnamese Tenses Can Be Learned In Two Minutes
Vietnamese tenses are so easy it’s practically cheating. Just take the original verb, e.g. “ăn” (to eat), and stick one of the following 5 words in front of it:
- đã = in the past
- mới = in the recent past, more recently than đã
- đang = right now, at this very moment
- sắp = soon, in the near future
- sẽ = in the future
(There are a few others, but with these 5 you’ll be fine in 99% of situations.)
To give you some concrete examples (“tôi” means “I”):
- Tôi ăn cơm = I eat rice
- Tôi đã ăn cơm = I ate rice
- Tôi mới ăn cơm = I just ate rice, I recently ate rice
- Tôi đang ăn cơm = I am eating rice (right now)
- Tôi sắp ăn cơm = I am going to eat rice, I am about to eat rice
- Tôi sẽ ăn cơm = I will eat rice.
Better yet, you can often skip these words entirely if it’s obvious from the context – for example “tôi ăn cơm hom qua” – “I eat rice yesterday” – is perfectly valid Vietnamese.
Congratulations! You can now express yourself in Vietnamese in any tense! Wasn’t that simple?
6. You Don’t Have To Learn a New Alphabet
You can thank the French for this one. Up until about 100 years ago, Vietnamese was written (by the tiny percentage of the population who were literate back then) using a complicated pictoral system called Chữ Nôm that's similar to today’s Chinese characters. Today, that’s been 100% superseded by a version of the Latin alphabet (i.e. the same alphabet that English uses) called Quốc Ngữ. So, unlike Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Thai, Cambodian, Korean, Hindi, or dozens of other Asian languages, there's no need to learn a new alphabet to read Vietnamese . All you have to do is learn a bunch of accent marks (technically “diacritics”), which are mostly used to denote tone, and you’ll be reading Vietnamese in no time.
In fact, learning to read Vietnamese is actually easier than learning to read English, because…
7. Vietnamese Spelling is Highly Consistent and Unambiguous
Quick question: how do you pronounce the English words “read”, “object”, “close”, and “present”? Well, was it close, or did you close? Did you present the present, read what I’ve read, or object to the object?
English spelling is extremely inconsistent, more than any other language I’m aware of, and the “same” word can often have different pronunciations depending on the context. Even the same letter can be pronounced a ton of different ways – like the letter “a” in “catch”, “male”, “farmer”, “bread”, “read” and “meta”. Combine this with a huge amount of inconsistencies, foreign spellings, and things that make absolutely no sense whatever (like the suffix -ough, and ESL students have one hell of hard time figuring out how English words should be written or pronounced).
Vietnamese, on the hand, has none of this nonsense. The same letter is always pronounced the same way no matter what the word or context (disclaimer: this holds true more for Hanoi Vietnamese than Saigon Vietnamese, which has a very small number of inconsistencies), and you can always tell from reading a single Vietnamese word exactly how it’s supposed to be pronounced. Once you can read the Vietnamese alphabet’s 28 letters (which, remember, are almost exactly the same as English’s 26), and understand its five tone marks, you can read any Vietnamese word. Job done!
8. Vietnamese Grammar is Virtually Non-Existent
I already mentioned how Vietnamese lets you leave out the tense word (like saying “I eat rice yesterday”) if what you mean is obvious from the context. This is actually just one example of a wider point: Vietnamese grammar is incredibly simple. Most of the time, you can just say the minimum amount of words needed to get your point across and the result is grammatically correct Vietnamese, no matter how “broken” it would sound in English.
This is why you'll often hear Vietnamese people using incomplete English sentences like “no have” or “where you go?”. They’re just translating directly from how they’d say it in Vietnamese, forgetting to apply the much more complicated rules that English insists on. It's a big disadvantage for Vietnamese people wanting to learn English, but it makes your life much easier as a learner of Vietnamese.
9. Vietnamese Vocabulary is Highly Logical
Most foreigners in Vietnam, even if they don't speak Vietnamese, will know the amusing fact that xe ôm – the local name for Vietnam’s ubiquitous motorbike taxis – translates literally as “hug vehicle.” But it doesn’t stop there – a huge percentage of Vietnamese vocabulary is formed by just combining two words in a logical manner, whereas in English you'd have to learn an entirely new third word that sounds completely different.
For instance, if I told you that máy means “machine” and bay means “flying”, could you guess what máy bay means?
There are more examples than I can begin to list, but to give you an idea: a bench is a “long chair”, a refrigerator is a “cold cupboard”, a bra is a “breast shirt” and a bicycle is a “pedal vehicle”. To ski is “to slide snow”, a tractor is a “pulling machine”, a turkey is a “western chicken”, a zebra is a “striped horse”, and the list goes on and on and on. This massively speeds up your learning of new vocabulary! As you build up a foundation of basic words, they become more than the sum of their parts as you automatically unlock hundred of new translations.
Vietnamese is Easier than You Think
Have I convinced you yet that Vietnamese just might be easier than you previously thought?
Hopefully I've managed to undo some of the myths and misconceptions you may have held around Vietnamese, and given you an insight into how the language works.