Back in March I passed the 3-year mark since I started learning Vietnamese. In this time I’ve worked hard but also taken some breaks where I’ve done little but maintain my level.
Recently I realised that even though I started this blog over year ago, I haven’t told you much about how I actually learnt Vietnamese.
So here’s the first part of my story.
Before heading to Vietnam, I spent 4 months travelling round South East Asia. I had with me a mini-phrasebook from the back of a Lonely Planet and as I arrived in each country I learnt a few words like numbers, basic food items and some other simple phrases.
All along my plan was to take a teaching course in Vietnam and, if all went well, to work there too but because I visited other countries I didn’t have much time to focus on Vietnamese.
Phase 1 – A phrasebook and learning to read
I began learning Vietnamese on the bus from Laos to Vietnam.
Those first few words were really hard to learn. It all sounds so different that it’s hard to make things stick. On the day-long bus journey, I literally just learnt the numbers 1-3, chục (a unit with the value of 10, useful for money), cơm (rice) and cảm ớn (thank you).
Over the next few days I slowly added new words and mini-phrases to my repertoire. Literally just a handful of words each day until I had a rudimentary vocabulary.
In Hanoi I quickly made Vietnamese friends. In particular, I made friends with a Vietnamese woman who taught English. She gave me a list of basic phrases and when she was busy, her receptionist (who spoke no English) prompted me to read them, correcting me on my pronunciation.
Up to this point I’d used the pronunciation guide in my phrasebook to get a general idea of how letters sounded but I was probably still relying on the Anglicization in my phrasebook more than I should. Now I was more confident using the Vietnamese words themselves.
Phase 2 – My first course
July – October 2011
Having arrived in Saigon, I kept practising what I’d learnt so far. Soon after I had started work, my employer provided a free short Vietnamese course. I was a quick learner and picked up enough to manage daily life in Vietnam. The weekly classes lasted a few months and by the end I could easily order food, haggle and give directions to a xe ôm.
Phase 3 – The expat plateau
November 2011 – August 2012
I continued using Vietnamese every day to eat and get around town.
At this point I had great intentions – I practised with friends and I started speaking more Vietnamese by dropping Vietnamese words into English sentences. Through this I learnt some new words here and there. But although I had a couple of elementary textbooks, I never quite got round to using them.
While I say I plateaued, it’s not strictly true as I did pick up enough in this time that I was able to write short texts about a holiday or restaurant visit – albeit with a lot of spelling problems including missing most tones.
To be continued…
What surprises me is that I mostly learnt through self-study and practice, with just a little bit of classroom instruction. I wonder how Part 2 will compare!
Over to you: How did you start learning Vietnamese?