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?

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