We’ve discussed in other articles whether Vietnamese is difficult to learn. We’ve also gone over some general best practices when learning tonal languages.
But what is the best way to learn Vietnamese specifically? The bad news is, there’s no right answer to that. The good news is, there’s no wrong answer, either. Everyone learns differently, so we’ve gathered some recommendations to help you learn Vietnamese in the most efficient way possible, including narrowing down the dialect, perfecting diacritics and finding a learning buddy.
Choose the Dialect You Want To Learn
The difference in dialects between northern and southern Vietnamese is challenging, even to native speakers. You’ll find different dialects that use different sounds for vowels, consonants, even tone.
Your choice of dialect will also influence the resources you have available to you. There is a standard dialect taught in elementary school, as well as two “prestige” dialects–the northern Hanoi dialect and the southern Saigon dialect.
Most native speakers speak in either their local dialect or one of these two prestige dialects. You’ll want to determine which dialect you want to focus on rather than trying to split the difference between them. This will save you many headaches!
Once you’ve gotten the basics of the language down with one dialect, then you can consider branching out to learn the other (or others). Just don’t bite off too much at once time, or you’ll risk overwhelming yourself.
Learn Your Tones and Diacritics
Spelling is essential in Vietnamese, and that includes the use of tone markers, called diacritics. As the words are so short, you need to know which tone to use when pronouncing a word. Without the proper diacritic, you won’t know the correct tone to use.
In short, if you can’t spell the word in Vietnamese, you don’t know the word at all!
That’s why learning diacritics early on is so important, especially in Vietnamese. Once you know your diacritics, you’ll know your tones, and once you know your tones, learning vocabulary will be a breeze.
Luckily for new learners, Vietnamese now uses Chữ Quốc Ngữ, the Latin-based alphabet created by Jesuit missionaries in the 1600s, for its official script. Prior to Vietnam’s invasion by the French in 1910, the nation used Chữ Nôm, a logographical script loosely based on Chinese characters.
As phonetic alphabets tend to be easier for Westerners to learn, you may find this welcome news indeed!
Build A Solid Foundation
It’s hard to know these days what programmes on the market are worth their salt. But short of enrolling in an actual classroom-taught course, you’ll need to rely on other means to build a foundation for the language.
The good news is, other than the pronunciation, Vietnamese is actually pretty approachable from a new learner’s perspective. The grammar is fairly straightforward, the vocabulary words are short and literal, and the spelling is logical and consistent.
In short, teaching yourself the language by means of self-guided language programmes is absolutely achievable.
So what are some of the programmes we’d recommend you take a look at? It depends. Not many language programmes even offer Vietnamese to begin with.
For vocabulary, we’d recommend you give Memrise a try. It offers some excellent user-created courses on Vietnamese vocabulary, and the platform lends itself perfectly to vocabulary drills. If you can find the ones that force you to type the diacritics, even better! For grammar, LingoDeer offers an “essential beginner’s course” that will lay the groundwork for you.
Find A Native Speaker To Be Your Language Buddy or Tutor
Of course, sometimes there just isn’t a substitute for proper language instruction. And who better to help correct your pronunciation than a native speaker?
Especially with a tonal language like Vietnamese, pronunciation is the most important aspect of speaking a language. Not surprisingly, it’s also the one new learners struggle with the most. That’s where a native speaker can really come in handy.
If you don’t have family who speaks Vietnamese, your best bet is going to be looking for a language buddy or a tutor. You’ll want a native speaker who can correct your pronunciation and coach you through your mistakes. You can use a service like iTalki to find an affordable tutor and easily book sessions.
Alternatively, if you don’t have time for a full tutoring session, there are apps like HiNative that allow you to upload small sound bites. Natives can listen to your pronunciation and give pointers on how you might improve.
Invest in a Good Dictionary
The wonders of modern technology mean we have access to search engines at any given time of the day. This includes access to the many and varied online dictionaries available on the Internet.
But there isn’t a substitute for a good, solid dictionary when you’re learning vocabulary. This doesn’t have to be a physical dictionary, per se, but one that is compiled by language educators can be an invaluable resource.
In fact, we recommend you get two dictionaries; one Vietnamese to English (and back again), and one purely in Vietnamese. The key to language fluency is reducing the number of steps between hearing or speaking a word and comprehending it.
Once you get to the point where you can look up a word’s definition in Vietnamese, it will only serve to reinforce your memory of the word and its meaning. Removing the step of translating words from Vietnamese to English to understand will save you time and make you feel like you’ve got superpowers. It’s an awesome feeling.
Closing Thoughts – Why There’s No One Best Way to Learn Vietnamese
Much as we wish there were, there’s no one magic method that will guarantee you fluency in Vietnamese.
By following these recommendations you can make the journey to fluency a little smoother. Some of these tips can even be applied to other languages if you so choose! It may take some trial and error to find the resources that match your learning style best.
Once you do get those resources, you’ll be off to the races, and you’ll be speaking Vietnamese in no time.
Ori Starling is a writer, editor, and translator based out of the United States. Their interest in languages began over 25 years ago, teaching themselves Spanish at a young age from tapes so that they could speak with family. Since then, they've studied Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese, with plans to continue their lifelong language learning journey.