How I learnt Vietnamese – Part 1

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

March 2011
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.

Learning Vietnamese from a phrasebook

Learning Vietnamese from a phrasebook

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?

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  1. Chris Phillips

    I recently started trying to learn Vietnamese again. This is probably my fourth try. Previously, I had an online tutor who was very good. Unfortunately,that did not last long because I lacked sufficient time and money. This time I am listening to Pimsleur Vietnamese on my way to work. While it is the Northern Accent (I want to learn Southern), I still think that it will be helpful for me. I really wish that I could find a good Vietnamese deck in Anki that has audio. For the time being, I just need to focus on very basic words. Thanks again for maintaining this site.

  2. Emi

    I started learning Vietnamese during my studies. I reached some level of fluency and then haven’t used the language for too long. So… I can more or less read and write, but speaking is quite a challenge. And that’s why I’m into my Vietnamese adventure again. 🙂

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