One of the biggest barriers when landing in Vietnam is, without a doubt, language. It is a reality that most travelers ask us when they arrive. But how difficult is the Vietnamese language?
If you ask the Vietnamese, they will tell you that it is “really complicated”. The supposed difficulty of the language is a national pride for its 90 million inhabitants and the locals are pleased to say “Tiếng Việt khó! (Vietnamese is difficult) every time they get the chance.
That’s why, if you’re learning Vietnamese, or thinking about learning Vietnamese, chances are that everything you’ve gotten so far is discouraged. And for this reason we want to bring some light to your dark tunnel and, in this article, we will give you a different perspective and give you some encouragement. It’s true that Vietnamese is a complicated language, but in this article you’ll see that it’s not as complicated as you think it is.
Let us help you break this language barrier. Here are nine reasons why Vietnamese is easier than you think:
Vietnamese language has no gender
If a foreigner once learns French, Spanish, Italian, German or almost any European language except English, it will simply give a great sigh of relief that Europe’s ligustic system has the concept of “masculine” or “feminine” words. Whereas Vietnamese doesn’t. You can only learn the word as it is, without gendering it.
The Vietnamese language dispenses with articles and pronouns
If someone who was studying Spanish asked you when to use “un/unos/unas” before a word and when to use “el/la/los/las”, could you explain? It’s a surprisingly complicated topic.
But is it really that important if you are talking about “a something” or “he/she something”? It is usually obvious depending on the context you are referring to. It is much easier to simply eliminate them completely, which is what the Vietnamese do. Người’ can mean both a person and “the person,” and you should never worry about the distinction.
Vietnamese language does not have plural
In Spanish, when we want to do something in the plural, we usually add “s/es” at the end. “Dog” becomes “dogs”, “table” becomes “tables”, “house” becomes “houses”, “fan” becomes “fans”.
However, there are many exceptions and some words do not change at all.
In Vietnamese, everything doesn’t change. The word người, which we have already mentioned, can be used for either singular or plural. “Chó” is “dog” or “perros”, “bàn” is “mesa” or “mesas”, and so on. If you think this might be confusing, ask yourself: can you remember only once in your life when you heard someone talking about both singular and plural and you got confused because you did not know the exact amount?
If you really need to be specific, just add an extra word in front of the noun, such as một người (one person), những người (some people), or các người (all people).
Vietnamese language does not have confusing verbal endings
How complicated the conjugation of Spanish verbs is, isn’t it? Even to say something as simple as the word “hablar” (to speak), he or she has to learn five or six (depending on the dialect) different verb endings just for the present. I speak, you speak, he speaks, we speak, and the list goes on. Note the different verb tenses and subtleties, such as “mood” grammatical (indicative vs. subjunctive), and a single Spanish verb has more than fourteen different forms that students must memorize.
The technical term is that verbs (and nouns and adjectives) in Spanish are doubled, which means that the same word can take different forms depending on the context. English is not as inflexible as Spanish, but we still do it to some extent, for example, the word “hablar” can turn to “hablas”, “habla”, “hablamos” or “habláis”.
Here’s the good news: Vietnamese is a completely inflexible language: no word changes its form in any context. Learn the word “nói”, and you know how to say “speak” in all contexts and times for all speakers. I “nói”, you “nói”, he or she “nói”, we “nói”, all of you “nói”, and they “nói”. Also for the past and the future, without any modification.
In Vietnam, you will never have to conjugate any verb!
Verbal tenses can be learned in two minutes
Vietnamese verb tenses are so easy that they’re practically traps. You only think about an original verb, e.g. “Ăn” (eat), and you take one of the following 5 words in front of it:
- “đã” = in the past
- “mới” = in the recent past, more recently than “đã” = just…
- “đang” = right now, right now = estar + gerundio
- “sắp” = soon, in the near future
- “sẽ” = in the future
Here are some concrete examples s (“tôi” means “I”):
- Tôi ăn cơm = Yo como arroz.
- Tôi đã ăn cơm = Yo comí arroz.
- Tôi mới ăn cơm = I just ate rice. / I recently ate rice.
- Tôi đang ăn cơm = I’m eating rice (right now)
- Tôi sắp ăn cơm = I’m going to eat rice, I’m about to eat rice
- Tôi sẽ ăn cơm = Comeré arroz.
Better still, you can often omit these words altogether if it is obvious in the context, for example, “Tôi (đã) ăn cơm hôm qua. = “I ate rice yesterday.” – is perfectly valid in Vietnamese.
You don’t have to learn a new alphabet
You can thank the French for this great detail. Until about 100 years ago, Vietnamese was written (for the small percentage of the population that could read and write) using a complicated pictorial system called Chữ Nôm which is similar to current Chinese characters. Today, it has been 100% replaced by a version of the Latin alphabet (i.e., the same alphabet it uses in Spanish) called Quốc Ngữ. So, unlike Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Thai, Cambodian, Korean, Hindi, or dozens of other Asian languages, you don’t need to learn a new alphabet to read Vietnamese. All you have to do is learn the different types of accents that are mainly used for each tone.
Vietnamese spelling is highly consistent and unequivocal
In Vietnamese, the same letter is always pronounced in the same way no matter what the word or context. This applies more to North Vietnamese than to Central and South Vietnamese, who have some exceptions but will always read Vietnamese exactly how it is supposed to be pronounced. Once you can read the 29 letters of the Vietnamese alphabet (which, you remember, are almost exactly the same as about 20 of the Spanish alphabet), and understand its five tone marks, you can read any word. Work done!
Vietnamese grammar is practically nonexistent
We have already mentioned that the Vietnamese allow you to omit the verb tense (like saying “Yesterday I ate rice.”) if what you mean is obvious in the context. Actually, this is just an example of a broader point: Vietnamese grammar is incredibly simple.
Most of the time, you only have to say the minimum number of words necessary to express your opinion and the result is grammatically correct, no matter how “broken” the translation sounds.
This is why you will often hear Vietnamese using incomplete phrases in their English translation, for example “no have” or “Where you go? (Where are you going?). When translating directly from Vietnamese, you forget to apply the (much more complicated) rules that exist in Spanish or English.
It’s a big disadvantage for Vietnamese who want to learn Spanish, but it’s an important advantage for those of us who do our best to speak the language.
Vietnamese vocabulary is highly logical
Most foreigners in Vietnam, even if they don’t speak Vietnamese, know some funny example of Vietnamese translation. One of them is the word ‘xe ôm’, the local name for the famous moto-taxis. The literal translation is “vehicle of embrace”. A very high percentage of Vietnamese vocabulary is formed by combining words in a logical way, while in Spanish you would have to learn a completely new third word that sounds completely different.
For example, if I told you that “máy” means “machine” and “bay” means “volar”, could you guess what it means? Exactly! “máy bay” means airplane.
There are more examples than we can begin to list, but to give you an idea: Skiing is “sliding the snow,” a tractor is a “drag machine,” a turkey is a “western chicken,” a zebra is a “striped horse,” and the list goes on and on and on. This greatly accelerates vocabulary learning! As you build a base of basic words, the rest become an association game to automatically unlock hundreds of new translations.
Vietnamese is easier than you think!
We convinced you, didn’t we?
Would you like to study Vietnamese after reading this article? What better way than to experience it yourself with a organized trip to Vietnam.
- 1 Learn to speak the Vietnamese language
- 1.1 Vietnamese language has no gender
- 1.2 The Vietnamese language dispenses with articles and pronouns
- 1.3 Vietnamese language does not have plural
- 1.4 Vietnamese language does not have confusing verbal endings
- 1.5 Verbal tenses can be learned in two minutes
- 1.6 You don’t have to learn a new alphabet
- 1.7 Vietnamese spelling is highly consistent and unequivocal
- 1.8 Vietnamese grammar is practically nonexistent
- 1.9 Vietnamese vocabulary is highly logical
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