Vietnamese has earned a reputation as one of the most challenging languages to learn in the world, but some linguists argue otherwise. This may leave you wondering: is Vietnamese hard to learn?
The answer: sort of. Like anything, it depends on how you look at it. Vietnamese has a few aspects that are far easier than most European languages, including short words and simplified grammar. However, it also includes things that most English Speakers will find quite challenging like tones and tricky pronouns.
Let's dive in and explore this language!
First, a Few Things That Make Vietnamese Easy
While there are plenty of things that make Vietnamese challenging for typical English-speakers to learn, the language also has some distinct advantages.
One of the most significant advantages that Vietnamese has? Super short words. The longest single word in the language is “nghiêng,” which means messy or uneven.
Everything else is shorter, or a two-word combo!
Suppose you've studied German and panicked when presented with a word like “Arbeiterunfallversicherungsgesetz” (which means Occupational Accident Insurance Law!). You'll be happy to know that Vietnamese words are vastly shorter, with many mono-syllabic words.
Memorizing the vocabulary feels much easier when you don't have a mouthful of syllables to string together.
Vietnamese communicates many ideas by combining two smaller words, like “giao thông,” which means “traffic.”
While perhaps confusing at first, these combinations turn out at least somewhat logical once you've studied the language for a while.
No Gender, Declension, or Plurals
While we're comparing Vietnamese to German, let's chat about gender–or rather, the lack of it!
Unlike some of the world's most common languages (Spanish, French, Arabic, German, etc.), Vietnamese does not require you to keep track of gender and how it affects a sentence's words. That makes learning the language a breeze in comparison, especially since gender is highly irregular and difficult to predict in many languages.
In a similar vein, you won't need to learn a ton of cases and their proper declensions. Vietnamese even does away with plurals! You'll need to work out the number from the context of the sentence.
Without all of these somewhat obnoxious grammatical hurdles to leap over, your path to fluency is much more straightforward.
Vietnamese is (Somewhat) More Literal
While there are certain exceptions to this, Vietnamese generally focuses less on tone to convey meaning. Being a tonal language in the first place (we'll get to this later), it relies less on inflexion and more on explicit statements to communicate the subtleties of a message.
Think of all the ways an English Speaker can say, “That's great.” A flat inflexion may signal the speaker thinks the exact opposite of the wording, while a rising tone at the end suggests a positive, supportive mood. You can probably think of several other ways somebody could say the phrase, with different meanings delineated by different tone patterns.
As a Vietnamese learner, you'll spend less time guessing at the subtle meaning of the delivery and more time parsing the language itself.
Granted, an angry person will still sound mad. Vietnamese just uses tone less to convey contextual meaning.
More Grammatical Advantages
There are tons of additional grammatical conventions that this language does away with entirely.
Take, for example, verbs. In Spanish, you'll ultimately need to know countless tenses, moods, and verb endings (many irregular) to fully grasp the language. Not so, in Vietnamese! You always spell a verb the same way, no matter the usage, and small modifier words get added to denote tense and mood.
Grammatically correct Vietnamese also usually uses the fewest words possible to get the point across. Translating the sentence “I took a trip to the store yesterday” would result in something along the lines of “I go store yesterday.” English's comparatively complex rules about tense and syntax are nowhere to be found, making it far more straightforward to learn.
Lastly, written Vietnamese uses a Latin alphabet with accent marks (diacriticals) to denote tone. That's right; you don't have to learn a new system of writing!
While this may not sit well (*ahem* French colonialism), it makes the language quite a bit easier to learn. There is an old pictorial writing style, but modern Vietnamese speakers never really use it. You likely won't run into it anywhere except art and ancient temples.
Vietnamese: Not Just a Walk in the Park
With all of those distinct advantages, you might well be wondering when the other shoe will drop?
Well, Vietnamese can feel quite challenging for other reasons. Check them out:
Diacritics and Tone
If you've ever tried to learn Chinese, Navajo, Punjabi, or Thai, you've come across the phenomenon of tone. Often one of the most complicated concepts for English speakers to master, tone changes the meaning of a word or letter based on how it is said.
Vietnamese has six to eight tones (depending on who you ask). This makes it one of the most tonally complex languages anywhere in the world.
If you've already tackled a language like Mandarin and are familiar with these ideas, this may not present much of an issue for you, but many learners struggle quite a bit with tone.
Understanding written Vietnamese also requires understanding the diacritical marks used to describe tone, which often trips up learners hoping to read the language quickly.
More Pronunciation Problems
With 19 consonants and 11 vowels, Vietnamese is more sonically rich than most languages. Combined with the tones mentioned above, you quickly end up with thousands of possible syllables. Japanese has just 108, for comparison.
While by no means impossible to master, the number of different syllabic sounds cause a lot of frustration for English speakers, who aren't used to dealing with so many other sounds.
Speed and Information Density
As uncle Ben said in Spiderman, “With small words comes great speed!”
Or something like that.
Spoken Vietnamese clocks in at a blistering informational pace.
While Vietnamese speakers don't say the words themselves as fast as, for instance, Japanese speakers, because Vietnamese packs so much meaning into the context of the small words they do use, it can quickly feel overwhelming to listeners–there's just so much information in so few words! Combined with the language's tonal nature, many learners may find following a conversation quite tricky without lots of practice.
While most of the rest of the grammar structure feels far simpler than English, Vietnamese pronouns confuse nearly everyone at first.
With different classifications for age, gender, status, etc., you'll need a deep understanding of how Vietnamese culture sorts people to avoid unintentional offence or misunderstanding. While not all of them fall into everyday use, over 50 different Vietnamese pronouns exist!
Mastering the pronouns takes quite a bit of time and effort, and without growing up in the culture, you may find it impossible to feel fully confident in your pronoun usage.
Our Final Thoughts: Is Vietnamese Hard to Learn?
Vietnamese has some important things going for it! Small words and easy grammar make for a breezy learning experience–once you master the complexities of tone and pronunciation, that is.
As you can see, the ease of Vietnamese will feel relative depending on your language background. If you've already tackled tonal languages in the past, you'll probably find Vietnamese relatively easy on the whole. If Vietnamese represents your first exploration into these ideas or your first language in general, you may struggle a bit more than you'd expected.
Curious about how long it might take to learn Vietnamese? Go check out this article: How Long Does It Take to Learn A New Language?