38. On Speaking Vietnamese

Learning to speak Vietnamese may be harder than it first appears, no thanks to 11 vowels, six tonal diacriticals and a handful of regional dialects.

Duolingo is one of the most popular of many online programs for learning Vietnamese. (JGA photo)

There are two schools of thought about learning the Vietnamese language.

One is that it should be easy, for several reasons. Every word is a single syllable. There are no verb conjugations, whether past, present or future tense. There are no masculine-feminine or plural noun forms. Sentence structure follows the standard subject-verb-object construction of English and the Latin languages. The alphabet, introduced long ago by Jesuit missionaries, is a Roman one, unlike most other Asian tongues.

But like many other foreigners, I find the Vietnamese language difficult. The pronunciation of no fewer than 11 vowels, complicated by five or six diacritical (tonal) accents and specific regional dialects, more than offsets the simplicity of the grammar. If you apply the wrong diacritical — a falling tone rather than a rising tone, for instance — it changes the entire meaning of a word.

I’ve been in this country for 20 months now, and I’m still laboring to learn the language. Normally, when I apply myself to the process, I’m pretty good at picking up the patois beyond basic vocabulary — greetings, numbers, directional words and restaurant orders. This has been different.

English is the most widely spoken foreign language in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh district. (JGA photo)

In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where I initially settled, I quickly learned that, although a grasp of Vietnamese would have been a convenience, it was too easy to not speak it. English is far and away the most widely spoken foreign language in Vietnam (ahead of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and French). And there are entire urban neighborhoods where speaking Vietnamese can be more of a hindrance than a help, such as Thảo Điền (an Anglo-European precinct of District 2) and Phú Mỹ Hưng (a predominantly Korean and Taiwan-Chinese area of District 7).

I decided early that I would not surround myself with other foreigners. Even then, the (primarily female) company that I kept was only too glad to practice their high-school English with a native speaker. I naturally gravitated toward those with whom I could converse without relying upon a translation app.

One of the reasons I moved from Ho Chi Minh City to provincial Dak Lak at the start of March was to put myself in a place where I’d be more-or-less forced to learn. In all of Buon Ma Thuot, I think there are fewer native English speakers than in my last apartment building in HCMC. And my lady friend here, with whom I do often rely upon that translation app, is only too glad to try to accelerate my Vietnamese language learning.

Whether the cuisine is Japanese or Vietnamese, local language knowledge is key to conversation. (JGA photo)

Here’s what I’ve learned — what I’m trying to learn — so far.

The 11 Vietnamese vowels are: a, â, ă, o, ô, ơ, e, ê, u, ư and i (or y). Each has one and only one possible pronunciation. So instead of trying to guess how to pronounce letter “a,” for instance, in English (aah as in cat? aw as in all? ay as in place?), you’re only tasked with remembering one pronunciation. In theory, at least.

That all goes to hell with the diacriticals, as I’ll try to demonstrate here:

ma, mà, má, mả, mã, mạ

These are six different words. They are spelled identically, with the exception of their different tonal marks. The tones are level (no mark), falling (downward sloping), rising (upward), questioning (a question mark), tumbling (a tilde) and a heavy glottal stop (a dot beneath the vowel). These six words mean, in order, “ghost,” “but,” “mother,” “grave,” “horse” and “rice seedling.” If you pronounce phở without the proper ở — that is, the correct vowel and questioning diacritical — it has another meaning entirely than the beef-noodle soup you probably intended.

Unless you read Vietnamese, it won’t be obvious that this text is from an air-conditioner user’s guide. (JGA photo)

It would be easy to say Vietnamese consonants are the same as in English. Indeed, B, H, K, L, M, P, Q, R, T and V are very similar.

But C is always “k.” CH is closer to “j.” There is no J. D is “d” when crossed (đ), but “y” or “zh” when uncrossed (d). F is replaced in sound by PH. G is a hard G unless it is followed by an I (gi), in which case, like the uncrossed d, it takes a “y” or “zh” sound. X is pronounced like “s”; S is pronounced like “sh.” TR sounds more like “ts” in the north, “tch” in the south.

The N words can be the most difficult. NG is pronounced as in “singer,” except that in Vietnamese it can be used to start a word. The exceedingly common surname Nguyễn is pronounced just the way it’s spelled, in one syllable: Say it right, and it almost rhymes with “win.” NH or NGH is a “nya,” sort of like “canyon.” Thus the resort city of Nha Trang is pronounced “Nyah Tchang” and not “Na Trang.”

Then there are the regional dialects. The “northern” vernacular spoken in the national capital of Ha Noi, employed in national media broadcasts, is considered the mother tongue (much as the language spoken on nationwide TV networks in the United States is considered the standard for American English). It is mutually intelligible with the “southern” dialect prevalent in Saigon, but even a novice learner like myself can hear differences in pronunciations and some vocabulary. The central dialects spoken in Hue, Da Nang and other mid-coastal cities are said to be harder to understand.

The dialect spoken at Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge is strikingly different from either Ha Noi or Saigon. (JGA photo)

End of lesson one. Even as I work on learning to pronounce everything properly, I’m struggling mightily with personal pronouns.

There are a half-dozen different ways to say “you,” for instance, based on age, gender and relationship. One of the most important reasons a stranger is asked his or her age is to establish social status for addressing them properly.

When I finally have a grasp of that, I may be on my way to learning this language.

An ability to communicate is an essential piece of building a cross-cultural friendship. (Thuy Dung Nguyen photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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