How I learnt Vietnamese – Part 2

Seven years ago I started learning Vietnamese. Wow! It’s been a bumpy ride at times. I’ve worked hard but also taken long breaks. I reached an intermediate level, what I’d call conversationally fluent some years ago and have been learning other languages since then.

However, Vietnamese remains my best language. How did I get there?

3 years ago I arrived in Vietnam and went here

Cruising the river at Tam Cốc in March 2011

Part 1 recap

March 2011 – August 2012

I talked about phases 1-3 in my Part 1 blog post. In summary:

I taught myself some words and phrases, practiced them in my daily life, took a course and nailed the basics. I then hit an expat plateau where I was able to deal with daily situations and introduce myself but I wasn’t making much progress.

Part 2

Phase 4 – the intensive study

September 2012 – May 2013

I took a placement test at two language schools but neither one had a course available at the right level for me. I waited for a new class to open but eventually I bit the bullet and signed up to intensive, daily Vietnamese classes at the largest course provider in Saigon – the University of Social Sciences & Humanities.

It was the best thing I ever did. (In terms of learning Vietnamese at least. :P)

In September I joined Elementary 3 (though they offered me the option of Elementary 4). It was a turning point. I learnt so much in that first course and plugged so many gaps in my knowledge. My comprehension and ability to have conversations shot right up, although only one of my teachers actually provided speaking practice in class…

I still hung out with friends and practiced Vietnamese outside of class. I’ll never forget when a couple of months later I shocked one of my friends. She was talking to someone in Vietnamese and I chimed in with the conversation. She was so surprised!

I took a second course and after completing it I took the proficiency test Chứng Chỉ A (Vietnamese Level A) in spring 2013. It’s not necessary to take it, but I was curious to see how I’d do.

Phase 4b – the immersion attempt

It was then Tết 2013 and I spent a few weeks in central Vietnam. I started in the South Central region (Nam Trung Bộ) and travelled as far as Huế.

It was awful.

The trip was good, it was the language side of things that was awful

I had been excited about the immersion experience but here I was and I couldn’t understand people! Although I’d been cushioned in a classroom environment, I had also interacted with people in Saigon. While not fluent, I could hold conversations. But there in the countryside, while people could understand my Saigon accent (when I didn’t mess up my tones), I couldn’t understand them. My confidence took a real hit and I just clammed up.

After a few days, we met up with other young people who were back home for Tết. People who grew up in the south central countryside but now live in Saigon. I could understand and chat to people again! Maybe my Vietnamese level wasn’t so awful after all…

Phase 4c – one more intensive course

After the trip I chose to extend my time in Saigon and take another intensive course, Intermediate 1. Before leaving Vietnam that summer, I wanted to really push myself to learn more Vietnamese by taking my driving test and a Korean class taught in Vietnamese.

At this point I became fed up with my classes (like I had done with French years earlier) and decided enough was enough. Of course I still loved the Vietnamese language and planned to continue with it (that’s when I started this blog!).

Phase 5 – maintaining Vietnamese while living in Europe

June 2013 – August 2014

I went back to the UK for the first time in 2.5 years!

I was making a lot of changes in my life, so learning more Vietnamese wasn’t going to be a priority. However, this was not going to be permanent to I had to keep practising and maintaining my level.

How I maintain my Vietnamese level each week

Throughout this period I actively maintained my Vietnamese, mostly through Skype conversations and keeping up with friends on facebook. I occasionally did some self-study by reading articles or watching episodes of Qua Tang Cuoc Song but there was no structure to my learning.

Phase 6 – back to Vietnam

September 2014

I realised that two things were holding me back – 1) a lack of structure and 2) not getting enough input. For several reasons, I moved back to Vietnam.

It was hard for me to write sections of this article. Hard to admit I’ve struggled and experienced plateaus. When learning other languages now, I sometimes get frustrated as Vietnamese seems so much easier. But it wasn’t easy. There were times when my confidence was low. There were lots of times when I didn’t learn much, I just kept maintaining what I had.

3 years learning Vietnamese. It's been a bumpy ride.

My first 3 years learning Vietnamese. It was a bumpy ride!

Learning a language will involve ups and downs. The same can be said of anything – from learning to play the guitar to riding a bike. You will go through rough patches. You might think about giving up. What’s key is what you do about it.

What can help when the going gets tough?

Sometimes simply stepping back and realising what you’ve learned is enough of a boost and you can gain new momentum.

At other times you just need to ease off the accelerator, stop learning new things and just maintain your current level. There’s nothing wrong with this!

Finally, preparing for slumps before they happen and not comparing yourself to others is excellent advice. That way, when the going gets tough, you’re able to take it in your stride.

Over to you: How has your language journey progressed? Have you gone through similar stages or had a smoother ride?

Active Listening: Transcribing

Today we continue looking at listening. Last week we checked that it’s listening we’re struggling with.

Here’s a technique to help you diagnose your listening problems. The basic idea is that you watch a video or listen to some audio and write down what you hear – ie. you transcribe it.

Why should you do this?

By transcribing what you hear, you are able to compare this with the transcript and find out where you’re having problems. Doing this regularly can help you to find out what your listening problems are.

Focused, active listening is useful. Passive listening alone won’t improve your listening skills. There are many ways to listen actively, but that’s a subject for another day. If you want to use a video or podcast to learn new expressions, we have an article for that.

What you need

  • Some audio or a video that you can mostly understand. You must also have subtitles or a transcript.
  • A pen and paper.

Because this technique is focusing on your listening ability, it’s key that the content should be familiar so that you won’t come across too many new words.

Learning to deal with new words is an important listening strategy, but is only one strategy of the many you need to become a competent listener. Today we’re looking for listening problems, not vocabulary problems. It would also be really discouraging to try this when you barely understand what’s being said!

There are some suggestions for materials at the end of this article.

How to do it

1. Choose a short video or audio

Transcribing is time-consuming, even in your native language. You have to replay the video many times to allow yourself time to write and to check if what you’ve written is correct.

Choose audio under 3 minutes for sure. I recently transcribed a 3 minute audio in English for a lesson and that took me ages. So I’d recommend something shorter – 30 seconds or 1 minute can also be worthwhile.

This doesn’t mean you have to find 1 minute audio clips. Even for a short video like Annie’s, you don’t have to transcribe the whole thing. Just choose a section. For example, if they’re having a conversation, you could transcribe until they change topic.

2. Listen to the audio or video the whole way through

Start off by listening to the material the whole way through. Don’t take any notes or worry about catching every word. The aim here is to just understand the general message or conversation.

If you’re watching a video, turn off any subtitles. If your video has vocabulary that pops up on screen, either don’t watch the video or cover up that part of the video so you can’t cheat by looking at it.

No cheating!

No cheating! I covered up the right hand part of the screen where new vocabulary appears

2. Transcribe the audio or video

Replay the audio or video (still without subtitles). This time pause frequently (for example, every half sentence) so you can write down what has just been said.

A lot of the time you’ll have to replay a segment because you’ve not heard or forgotten what was just said. This is a natural part of transcribing (it’s the same for your native language).

Sometimes there will be a problem word or phrase and even after replaying it a few times you’re still unsure. Don’t worry about it. Just take a guess, write any letters or sounds you have heard. You can also just leave a space and move on. It doesn’t matter if this doesn’t make sense – just write what you hear. This will come in useful when you compare with the transcript.

If you are watching a video with pop-up vocab, you can have a look at the screen after you’ve had a guess.

I didn't know the word for diary before so I had a look.

I had a look at the pop-up vocabulary. I didn’t know the word for diary before so of course I couldn’t understand it.

When you’re finished, quickly read through your transcript looking for any spelling mistakes.

2b. optional replay

You can play the whole audio again with your transcript and check for any mistakes. Or you can focus on the gaps you have and see if you can hear them now you have a fuller picture from your transcript. You may be sick of hearing it by now though, so this step is optional!

3. Compare your transcript with the subtitles

Play the audio or video a third and final time, with Vietnamese subtitles or while reading at the transcript. Compare it with what you’ve written.

I couldn’t find my Vietnamese notebook, so here’s one in Spanish.

Check both for mistakes and words you didn’t hear. Highlight or use a different colour to make a note of these mistakes.

Comments on my problems with the Spanish transcript

In the example above I didn’t have a pencil so I highlighted the two areas I thought were wrong. The first one was actually right (I didn’t know the speakers were boyfriend-girlfriend so I thought it was weird to start the conversation with “Love”).

With the second highlighted area, it turned out to be a verb I don’t know (avisar). Of course I couldn’t understand because I’ve never seen this verb before! This is not a listening problem, but a vocabulary one. In terms of listening, I actually did ok as I had correctly heard some of the sounds.

You can also see on Line 2 some signs of listening problems. The words are squashed up as I had to listen a few times to get the words before “izquierda”. That’s OK.

I was also unsure about “me voy a” before “probar”, but I used my knowledge of Spanish grammar to help me work it out when I replayed the line. I probably should have highlighted that in a different colour because this may be a potential problem.

4. Study

Any new words should be recorded somewhere such as your study notepad or in Anki so you can learn them. If you’ve made any grammar mistakes, this is a good time to go back to your course book and revise that topic.

As for listening, once you have transcribed a few listening extracts, try to look for patterns.

  1. Is there a particular sound you are struggling with? For me, I struggle with the northern Vietnamese r. Northern gi- and d- are usually okay but the r- throws me on a regular basis.
  2. Are there words that you couldn’t separate? For example, you heard a nay (it doesn’t matter if this doesn’t make sense, or you don’t know the tones – just write what you hear) when they said anh ấy. This is a feature of speaking called connected speech and it often causes listening problems (especially in English!). We’ll look at this another time.

Once you’ve done this a few times, this is where you can start to diagnose your listening problems. Then, once you know your listening problems, you can then look at how to tackle them.


A note on choosing materials:

You can apply this technique to any material that’s relatively easy for you. Ideally when you read the transcript you should be able to understand everything (though a couple of new words is okay). If your audio is harder, use it to learn new words, not to improve your listening.

I was low intermediate when I used Annie’s video above which is for elementary learners. I was able to transcribe it pretty accurately with just a few problem areas. Similarly with the Spanish podcast, the grammar was not challenge so I was able to focus on my ability to listen and hear the sounds.

Some ideas for choosing suitable, easy materials:

  • A dialogue from a textbook that’s either a similar level or even better: a slightly lower level.
  • One of Annie Vietnamese’s diaries.
  • Any videos with subtitles that you can easily understand (but don’t look at the subtitles until you’ve finished transcribing!).
  • A podcast that comes with a transcript. Be careful if it’s a “teaching” podcast as they may have deliberately introduced new words or grammar. Natural speech is better if possible.

If you have interesting audio but there’s no transcript, you can get custom transcripts via

Over to you: What do you do to work on your listening? What problems are you having? Have you noticed any patterns?

Listening: What’s your problem?

Listening is the weakest skill for many learners. To improve your listening, you first need to know what your listening problems are.

As an English teacher, I usually survey my students to find out what kind of listening problems they’re having. Sometimes the root of the problem is not their listening ability.

This is usually my problem in a foreign language – my listening skills are ok, I understand coursebook audio and youtube videos that are at my level and I’m fine at understanding conversations in Saigon. What holds me back the most is unfamiliar vocabulary. So actually I need to improve my vocabulary, not my listening.

So first let’s check if your listening ability is your top problem.

The is the simplified checklist I’ve given to learners.

Problem 1 – There are too many new words

This is what I was referring to above. The real problem is not necessarily your listening ability. Either you need to increase your vocabulary or choose easier listening materials.

Problem 2 – People speak too fast

Here I’m getting at the changes that happen in fast, natural speech. In English we use a lot of connected speech and miss out a lot of sounds.

Problem 3 – I can’t hear what people say

This is one of two things – the extreme version is where it’s just a stream of sounds and you can barely pick anything out.

Another problem might be that you’re unable to hear familiar words. This could again be because of changes we make to words when we say them in fast, natural speech.

Problem 4 – I can hear but I don’t understand

This is where you can hear a lot of words but you’re not getting the overall message, or you’re missing key words and so not understanding.

It might also be because you’re focusing too much on trying to hear and understand every word, instead of using listening strategies to compensate when you don’t hear everything (just like we do in our native language!)

Listening Processes

If you’re experiencing Problem 2 or 3, you’re struggling with what we call Bottom-Up listening processes. This relates to the very sounds of speech and this is where we need to focus to improve your listening.

If you’re experiencing Problem 4, you might benefit from working on what are called Top-Down listening strategies. This is where you draw on your existing knowledge, background and experiences (including borrowing from how you listen in your native language).

When we listen, we use both processes together (called interactive processing) in order to understand.

Over to you: Which of these listening problems is your number one issue?

This is the first post in a series on Listening. In the next article we’ll be looking at listening Problems 2 & 3 – issues with the sounds. Specifically I’ll be showing you a way to discover what problems you are having.

Check back next week for the next article, or subscribe so you don’t miss the notification!

My language learning in 2017

How is it the end of 2017 already? Here’s a now annual tradition to reflect on my language learning over the past year, update you on what study habits I’ve kept up with and what I’ve changed about my language learning routine. I’ve started with a general overview, then moved into a month-by-month breakdown of how I was studying.



My Vietnamese is not being maintained in the way I did in 2013. I read things on facebook and occasionally interact with friends there or on Instagram. I don’t get to speak Vietnamese these days but I do speak to myself (or think to myself) in Vietnamese sometimes. For some reason this often happens in the supermarket!

When writing I struggle to remember tones, but I don’t struggle much with vocabulary. I am slower to remember words but I don’t feel like I’ve forgotten them. If I were to have a conversation I think I would be quite a lot less fluent than I was. Several months ago I did have a conversation in Vietnamese, without problems overall. I do worry that this will change in the future. I think I need to do a bit more to maintain my Vietnamese.

Other languages

Bulgarian: Maintaining

2016 was mostly about Bulgarian and 2017 started off this way too. However, I was taking a teaching course online so mostly I just maintained my current level of Bulgarian which you can read about below.

Spanish: New language

In the summer I started learning Spanish from scratch as I was going to be spending the autumn in Spain. My background with French and Esperanto helps a lot with the Spanish. I find this strange after so much time with Vietnamese where there is very little similar vocabulary with languages I already know!

Korean: Nothing

I didn’t do anything on Korean in 2017. I do get some Korean in my instagram feed but I have definitely forgotten a lot.

So, onto my year of language learning… (split into learning and maintaining)


Learning Bulgarian (classes)

I continued and concluded my second Bulgarian course. As well as classes twice a week, I did my homework and used Anki to help me learn the new vocabulary from class.

February to May

Maintaining Bulgarian

Almost no progress. I was so busy with work and without language classes I often struggle to make the time to learn. I do usually manage to fit in some maintenance.

  • Did some Anki but I’m not sure how regularly.
  • Went to a couple of language exchange events and had some conversations with a friend who doesn’t speak much English.
  • A bit of reading on facebook and instagram.
  • Some partial attempts at Language Diary Challenge on Instagram.


  • I started some Duolingo Spanish in February or March but didn’t keep it up for long.

June and July

Starting Spanish (self-study)

The summer means less work for someone people, but it’s usually more work for me. I realised that I needed to start working on my Spanish but I wasn’t very motivated because September still seemed far away.

  • Re-started Duolingo Spanish (with a complimentary Memrise course).
  • Had a disappointing look in the library for materials.
  • Started writing answers to common questions like “Where are you from?” and “What do you do in your free time?”, looking up vocabulary that is personal to me, like hiking.

I don’t feel like I made much progress during this time.


Learning Spanish (self-study)

I had a couple of weeks off in August so I put in more effort with Spanish.

I used some of my old favourite resources like Lang-8 and instagram, some apps I’ve tried before like HelloTalk and some new apps like HiNative.

  • I never manage to post daily, but I did start writing meaningful captions in the instagram language diary challenge.
  • Continued with daily Duolingo/Memrise (and managed my first 30 day streak on Duolingo!)
  • Continued writing answers to common questions and posted them on Lang-8 for corrections. I had a couple of them recorded on RhinoSpike.
  • Decided to take an italki lesson to practice speaking, but it did not go well. I didn’t click with the tutor and I felt less confident after the lesson rather than more confident. This put me off trying again.
  • Tried HelloTalk again for language exchange but only had a few random chats.
  • Used HiNative for the first time. This app provides a quick way to ask questions like “How do you say ___ in Vietnamese?” or to check whether something is correct or natural.

Maintaining Bulgarian by speaking to myself in Bulgarian and reading the occasional thing on facebook.

September to November

Maintaining Spanish and filling some gaps (self-study)

When I arrived in Spain I realised just how unprepared I was. I found my first week very frustrating – despite the self-study above I couldn’t order my lunch and could barely introduce myself. That said, I had learned quite a bit of vocabulary already which made it a bit easier to pick up the language I needed over the next week or two.

Unfortunately my course was very, very intensive and there was no time for Spanish study. I did however keep up with Duolingo and finished the whole Spanish tree in October! I did some Memrise to keep the vocabulary fresh too and I borrowed a beginners textbook and did a tiny little bit of study here and there.

November and December

Learning Spanish (classes)

My course hours reduced, I finished Unit 8 of the beginners textbook and I started doing face-to-face language exchanges. It was hard to start speaking, but I was glad of all the time I’d spent on vocabulary and I found I could understand quite a lot.

Then my course actually finished and I just had to revise for my exam. So I signed up for a month of Spanish lessons. 1.5 hours a day, every day. I managed to get myself into a A2 level group. Already within a week I felt like I made a lot of progress. My language exchanges seemed easier too! I do still find I mix words up with Bulgarian though!

2017 has been a varied year in language learning for me.

It’s interesting starting a new language again and while I got off to a slow start, I’m happy with how my Spanish progressed in December in particular. I’m now able to hold conversations in Spanish but my fluency isn’t very high yet. This is unusual for me! I usually get to a level of fluency that makes people think my overall level is higher than it is. I need to work on Spanish fluency in 2018 so I reach a comfortable level. Once I’ve figured it out, stay tuned for some speaking fluency tips here on More Vietnamese.

Coming soon: 10 thoughts on Duolingo based on my language learning this year.

Over to you: How was your language learning in 2017?

Instagram Language Diary Challenge

I often use instagram in my language learning. I’ve mentioned that now I often take part in the Language Diary Challenge, but what is it and how can you use it to improve your Vietnamese?

From offline to online

As you might know, when I was learning Korean I started writing a sentence a day. I’ve now moved to instagram where I post a caption instead of writing my diary on paper. I don’t manage to do it daily but sharing my pictures and captions online is more motivating than keeping a notebook, I get to learn and practice language relevant to my life and the support of other language learners is also motivating!

This support largely comes from the other participants in the #languagediarychallenge.

Organised by Joy Of Languages, the aim is to practise speaking or writing your chosen language every day for 30 days. As added motivation, there is a prize to be won each month.

How to take part?

1. Follow @joyoflanguages on instagram. (I’m there too, @morelanguages)

2. Post a picture or video and say something in Vietnamese, every day for a month.

3. Use the hashtags #languagediarychallenge and #joyoflanguages

For added benefit, follow other language learners and support each other by commenting and liking. The community is one of the things I like best about this challenge, along with how personalised it is writing about things in my life.

Over to you: Do you use instagram for language learning? How do you practice writing or speaking about your daily life?