Challenges in Learning Vietnamese

When I was fifteen I started studying Japanese. At that time, I learned very quickly and rarely forgot anything, but ten years later, at twenty-five, my learning process for Vietnamese is quite different. Considering that I will live in Vietnam for one year, I have much less skill to show for my effort relative to the year I spent in Japan. The following will explore the initially steep challenge Vietnamese offers native English speakers. This entire post is entirely subjective.


Diphthong:  an instance where two vowels meet.    Ex:  Blue
Triphthong: an instance where three vowels meet.  Ex: liaison

Challenge to Progress Ratio

Challenge to Progress

I drew this chart to convey that Vietnamese is initially very challenging, where Japanese’s challenge builds gradually. I believe that native English speakers could imagine Vietnamese as a metaphoric rock wall to climb over. Where Japanese felt much more like gradually climbing a mountain. What is it about Vietnamese that makes the challenge so vertical for me? Simply put, pronunciation and resource quality slows my progress.

Pronunciation: Challenge v. Progress

Pronunciation: Challenge v. Progress

Pronunciation: Challenge v. Progress

The Sound Wall: Vietnamese Pronunciation

Vietnamese has many pronunciation challenges that confront a learner even on their first word. These challenges include 36 vowel sounds (mono/dip/trip) to Japanese’s five vowels, two long vowels, and few diphthongs. Vietnamese has six tones where Japanese has zero. Vietnamese has voiceless final consonants, which indicate tongue and lip positions rather than sounds. Vietnamese also has a number of initial consonant sounds that are non-native to English or Japanese. For native-English speakers Vietnamese, unlike Japanese, requires consistent tongue and ear training

To illustrate this do your best to read this aloud “ Học Nghiệp ”. If by the end of this article, you can clearly remember your first attempt, well you might be a natural linguist.

The Sound Wall: Six Tones

Although Vietnamese and Mandarin share three tones in common, Vietnamese has a total of six tones when Mandarin has only four. What befuddles western learners is that two of the Vietnamese tones contain glottal stops and with similar misfortune there are two Vietnamese tones that are falling sounds; the two tones vary only in degree of decline. The frustration while learning Vietnamese tones is in make a distinction between their similarities. I am referring to distinguishing dấu huyền and dấu nạng and between dấu hỏi and dấu ngã.

 The Sound Wall: Regional Accents

Unlike Japanese, which was standardized by force through cultural hegemony, public schooling, and radio/television. Vietnamese is much less strictly prescribed. Depending on whom you are talking to the letter R can take an English sound /z/ or /r/. The letter D taking either a /y/ or /z/ sound. The Viet letter Gi takes either a /z/ or /y/ sound.

Did you notice that there are three letters that could take the sound /z/?

While my hosts speak in the Southern accent, our housekeeper speaks in the Northern accent, and my co-worker speaks in the Mekong accent. There are instances of natural speech when all three might pronounce the same word differently

The Sound Wall: Tongue / Ear Training

Vietnamese final consonant sounds are not voiced sounds, but rather they represent tongue and lip techniques. Over-simply put, they tell you how to close your mouth at the end of the word. A friend of mine describes them as “spoken, but not spoken”. Pardon the limitations of my native-English ears, I’ve come to understand the indistinguishable difference between the Viet sounds such as /hop/ and /hoc/ as just about how you closes your mouth.

It Takes a Village: Where are the Villagers?

Vietnamese, both online and in country, lacks the population of non-native learners that Japanese has. There are very few learners to bounce ideas off of while learning. Even the Internet, the global classroom, is sparse. I sorely miss the kind of conversations about learning Japanese I had while learning Japanese.

Even more than in Japan, many non-native speakers avoid learning Vietnamese. However, due to the initial challenges they face and the hassle of balancing a full time job, who could blame them?

It Takes a Village: Where is the School?

Since there is little interest/demand for Vietnamese learning for non-native speakers the quality of learning resources is basic, low, and hard to find. Since learners almost always quit because of the gruel-starting pace, there are few books beyond absolute beginner and phrase books. I read a 1975 US Army manual because it took into account how a non-native mind can get a grip Vietnamese. I sorely miss the high quality, comprehendible, and multi-layered Japanese learning resources. To this end many of the things I learned about Vietnamese are just my own observations marinated over time.

It Takes a Village: Burn the Books

Since Vietnamese pronunciation is still such a steep challenge for me, reading is ineffective. Without the ability to accurately pronounce a word it is difficult to cement it’s meaning into my memory. Japanese pronunciation is so concrete that building a stable foundation was relatively simple. Until I reach a turning point in my ear and tongue training, I’ll soon forget the words I read. Books also do not account of regional accents making vocabulary and pronunciation in accurate.

It Takes a Village: Against Full Immersion

Whenever I tell someone that I want quality Vietnamese books, they suggest that I should just speak with Vietnamese speakers. “Just talking, that’s the best way”. However, native speakers are limited by how naturally they speak their language.

Hey! Native English speakers, could you tell me off the top of your head the correct order for a series of adjectives? … With all due respect you likely can not.

Thanks Google, the generally correct order is…

Size  Shape Age  Colour Nationality Material

Ex: Mitch was a healthy intelligent large round fifty-four year old white American man.

The vast majority of native speakers can feel their language without consciously knowing it. Without knowing it, they can’t describe or teach it. This is why a native speaker couldn’t replace a quality curriculum tailor for the native English mind.

The Good News

I’m trying to illustrate that the Challenge to Progress Ratio for a native-English speakers depends on the contents of the target language. I believe that Vietnamese is just initially challenging, but that in the long term unlike Japanese it will become much simpler due to grammatical similarities and the Roman alphabet. Where Japanese literacy and grammar will remain a constant challenge throughout.



Since I don’t have any fellow classmates to talk with, I wrote this in order to come to terms with my relatively slow rate of progress. After writing this I was able to see that I have made some progress and that has refreshed my resolve to continue studying.

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