Vietnamese language survival kit
Note: this section is not intended to replace a phrasebook. You can buy those from any postcard seller on just about any street corner in Vietnam. It will, however, present you with useful language tips that you won't find in standard phrasebooks.
Why bother learning Vietnamese?
Let's say things as they are, learning the Vietnamese language, unless you’re Chinese, is no easy task. Why bother then? Because: It is a challenge...! Well, if you didn't like challenges, you probably wouldn't be running around in strange countries in the first place. It is the best window into Vietnamese culture. Learning even the basics will help you understand the Country and its people. It is a very good icebreaker and will help you enter in contact with people at the market, on the street, in the villages. Vietnamese are extremely rewarding towards those who make the effort of learning their language. Expect more smiles, even friendlier rapports and lower prices when you try and utter the local lingo. And to top it off, Vietnamese language also has its easy sides. Yes, really. Like a totally phonetic spelling system, and an extremely easy grammar with no verb tenses, declinations, word gender or even plural forms.
Why can't they understand me?
One of the most irritating hurdles on the rocky road to learning Vietnamese is the seeming inability of Vietnamese to understand what we perceive as rather good renditions of Vietnamese words and sentences. After several unsuccessful tries, if you're lucky, a Vietnamese among the crowd that will have gathered to ‘help’ will catch the phrase you are desperately trying to get across and repeat it to the audience who will then oh! and ah! at leisure. And you will be left fuming ..."But that's exactly what I have been repeating for the last five minutes" you will be thinking. DO know that Vietnamese will not easily understand foreigners' accents. Contrary to English speakers, Vietnamese are not used to their language being twisted in unusual dialects and strange accents. They also have had very little previous contact with Vietnamese-speaking foreigners. DO understand that tones are as important as consonants and syllables and Vietnamese have a hard time guessing tones or even making the link between two words with the same spelling, but with different tones. DON'T get shy... get out there and talk. Expect a few laughs, a few blind stares, but also a lot of encouragement. DON'T expect too much technical help from your friends in your quest to learn the language. Not because they don't want to or shy away from the effort, but understanding the technicalities and difficulties of one’s own languages doesn’t come with the language itself. That's why there are teachers! DO remember, if you're serious about learning the language, there are classes ... available whenever you are.
Why is Vietnamese written in Roman characters?
Ever heard of Alexander de Rhodes? Probably not, but this priest is credited to have developed and spread the use of the current Vietnamese alphabet in replacement of a special Chinese script that the Vietnamese were using before. A very, very Long time ago... (Before the 13th century) Vietnamese was written using the standard Chinese characters (chu nho). A very Long time ago... (From the 13th to the 17th century).The Vietnamese decided to adapt the classical Chinese characters to their spoken language and devised their own writing using mostly the phonetic significance of the Chinese characters (instead of their actual meaning). This was called chu Nom and was used in parallel with the more classical system. A Long time ago...in 1627 Alexandre De Rhodes, a brilliant French Jesuit scholar, designed a radically different writing system in order to help mostly illiterate peasants read the Bible. The system was a phonetic transliteration of spoken Vietnamese using Roman characters to which were added tone markers and a few other diacritical marks. The system, called chu quoc ngu, became so popular among the people that it rapidly displaced the Chinese script that only the mandarin and higher officials could decipher. Nowadays: The language has evolved slightly but, by and large, the phonetic basis of the writing system has been maintained. So take heed, spoken Vietnamese might be difficult to master, but reading and writing it is easier than most other Asian languages.