I am a fluent speaker of Western European languages.
And in my teens I started learning Chinese as well, which has been so far the most “exotic and different” language I ever tried.
Lately, as a result of being active in the language industry, I have been managing projects in Vietnamese – and this language has started to tempt me.
Reading about the fundamentals of Vietnamese, I come to learn that a lot of its vocabulary has been borrowed from Chinese.
But what about the rest of the language?
Word order, structure, syntax, use of classifiers, tones, etc.?
Is it of any real help to know Chinese, or is it much better to start studying Vietnamese as a completely different language?
1/ Answer 1:
Study it as it’s own language.
Chinese has four tones, while Vietnames has six.
The writing systems are different too.
Vietnamese grammar is not very complex.
Once you get the tones down, the main grammar rules, pronunciation, i’ts all vocabulary enhancement.
2/ Answer 2:
Modern Vietnamese is not related to Chinese.
However, Vietnamese has a very large ‘stock’ of borrowed/loan words from Chinese.
Up to 80% of Vietnamese can be traced back to Chinese.
This has come about for two main reasons:
a) Present-day Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese for over 1,000 years;
b) The first ever written Vietnamese was done by adapting Chinese characters to Vietnamese words
1 character for meaning and 1 character for pronunciation
Learning Chinese will be of little help if your final purpose is to understand Vietnamese, although they do share some similarities of syntax.
Vietnamese also includes many borrowings from French, and increasingly from English (especially in the technical fields).
I studied Vietnamese from “zero to hero” in 46 weeks of full-time study at the Australian Government language school.
The method used could best be described as “intense immersion”.
For an English speaker, by far the highest hurdle is the very first one you must overcome: the tone system.
I liken it to taking up rock-climbing as a hobby, and tackling Mount Everest as your first assignment!
The tones are so important that during my course, we Vietnamese students (and our colleagues learning Thai and Chinese) spent the first 6 weeks in the language labs.
We could barely speak a word of our new language – just babble out isolated sounds!
However, this method reached so far down into our ‘soul’ that the tone system becomes an integral part of you.
Just like your first language, it is impossible to forget!
I would suggest a method not unlike a singing or voice coach.
Find a Vietnamese first language speaker to “coach” you with the correct pronunciation.
Have them construct a table of all the vowel, diphthong and associated tones (not all tones can be used with all vowels/diphthongs) and systematically work your way through them!
Unlike English, learning Vietnamese grammar can be useful in learning the language.
The grammar is relatively straight forward, logical and overwhelmingly consistent (which English grammar definitely is NOT).
Once you have mastered the tones and have a working understanding of the grammar, it is very simple to “insert” new vocabulary into the structures.
Like Chinese, written Vietnamese is remarkably similar regardless of dialect (Northern, Central or Southern).
The biggest difference is vocabulary choice; the same object may have a different name in another dialect.
However, overall you will be able to understand the meaning regardless of the spoken dialect of the author.
Spoken Vietnamese has 3 main dialects:
– Northern, based on the dialect of the Hanoi region, and considered the “official” language
– Central, based on the dialect of the Hue region
– Southern, based on the dialect of the Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) region.
There are other sub-dialects which are delineated by geography.
Most Vietnamese would suggest learning the Northern dialect.
For me, this is the easiest to learn because of the “crisp”, clear, distinct clarity of the differences between the tones.
The Central and Southern dialects tend to “blend” words and sounds together, making it more difficult to make a distinction.
Depending on what statistics you believe, Vietnamese may be the 13th most spoken first language on earth, with as many as 85+ million speakers!
Compiled by Vietnam Language Centre, Singapore