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Is it worth watching Vietnamese films and TV shows when you’re a beginner?

If you watch a Vietnamese film or TV show when you’re a beginner, you’re obviously not going to understand it all. But is it still worth watching?

To be honest, I wasn’t convinced there was any value until recently. But then that all changed…

A short case study

I started learning Vietnamese as I arrived in Vietnam, so I’d never really thought about listening practice as a beginner because Vietnamese has been all around me from Day 1.

However, since the spring I’ve taken up Korean (again). I’m not surrounded by Korean, I don’t have any Korean friends and the only real listening practice I get is the one or two lessons I listen to each week at Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK).

I do from time to time watch Korean dramas though. I’d watched them before I started learning Korean (simply because I enjoy them). As a total newbie I didn’t learn any vocabulary from watching them or understand anything at all. I was completely dependent on the translated subtitles and honestly, the dialogue was just background noise.

But last month something changed. It was the first time I watched a drama since finished TTMIK Level 1 and found myself able to pick out some words.

wait

기드리… wait? waiting? waited? He definitely said something about waiting.

Now, this doesn’t sound revolutionary but bear in mind that young children spend years listening to their native language before they start speaking. Gradually all that ‘noise’ they hear turns into words… Sound familiar?

Anyway, back to learning Vietnamese.

Will watching films teach me Vietnamese?

No, watching Vietnamese programmes (with foreign subtitles) as a beginner isn’t going to teach you to speak Vietnamese. But if you pay attention to the dialogue, you can start to pick out familiar words.

Singling out key or familiar words in a sentence is a skill you’ll use all the time when having conversations in Vietnamese. People will say things to you and you’ll miss or not understand half of what they say. Being able to use the words you heard to guess the meaning of the sentence is an vital skill that you’ll use over and over again as you have conversations in Vietnamese.

So…?

I watch Korean dramas because I like them. It’s an added benefit that I’m training my ear in a language I’m a beginner in.

However, watching dramas is not an efficient way to learn. If you only have an hour of free time, you’d be better off using that time to watch a Vietnamese lesson on Youtube and then practise what you just learnt.

But… if you’re going to watch a movie anyway, make it a Vietnamese one (occasionally at least). 😉

Over to you: Do you watch any Vietnamese TV shows or films? Do you find it useful listening practice?

Absolute Beginner: How & Where to start learning Vietnamese

If you don’t know a word of Vietnamese, where should you start?

I don’t know about you but I find it tricky to learn the first few words of any language. It sounds totally different or even strange. A sentence might sound really fast or a word seems really long. This is normal.

I like to start off slowly. I find audio courses or textbooks are overload to start with. They’re simply too much to take in at once. When you first start learning, even short sentences can be really difficult to remember. I started by learning just a few words at a time.

An Introduction to Vietnamese

If you have a burning question about Vietnamese like what alphabet does Vietnamese use or what are all those accent marks, head to the Frequently Asked Questions.

For a general introduction to Vietnamese, this video by Rusty Compass is the best.

Where to learn a few basic words

In general, the most important thing is just to start learning today, with whatever you have. You can fine tune what you learn later.

Essential vocabulary

Although the way we speak is in sentences, you do need to build your vocabulary sooner or later. Here are 120 common words with audio.

Travel & Expat phrases

If you’re in Vietnam already or soon heading there, there is some essential vocab and phrases you’ll use on a daily basis.

So if you’re planning to travel to Vietnam soon, start with these traveller vocabulary videos.

If you’re going to be living in Vietnam, here are some common phrases useful for expats.

A Beginner Series

If you want to learn some basic vocabulary like colours or hobbies (eg. before starting a course or using a textbook), the video series produced by EverydayViet.com is my favourite. Start here with learning to say thank you.

You can follow up on this video series by practising the vocabulary on Memrise.com. There are courses where you can practice vocabulary by multiple choice or by typing the answer.

Listening

If you want to get used to the sound and rhythm of Vietnamese, you could listen to music or even watch videos with Vietnamese subtitles.

Learning to read

The Vietnamese alphabet is really phonetic (ie. letters are always pronounced the same way), you just need to learn what letters match up to what sounds. Then you can start to pick up new vocabulary when you see it written down, or be able to correctly read out the items on a menu.

Then what?

Once you’re familiar with some basics, you can choose which accent to study and start with a course, textbook or tutor.

Over to you: Are you just starting to learn Vietnamese? Why are you learning and what are you using? More experienced learners, what are your favourite beginner resources?

How an afternoon in a park taught me to pronounce ng-

Readers have been asking me questions about Vietnamese pronunciation. It’s an important part of learning Vietnamese but ‘pronunciation’ is a big topic. I was wondering how to tackle it until I read this pithy article last week about how to deal with your huge language problems.

The short answer? Get specific. Then tackle it one little bit at a time.

So today I’m going to tell you how I learnt to pronounce ng and how you can do it too.

some Vietnamese ng words

I started learning Vietnamese just a few days before I arrived in Vietnam. In some ways this was great because I was surrounded by native speakers from the beginning. If I didn’t pronounce something correctly, I’d be met with a blank look.

Even so, one month in there was one consonant sound that was still troubling me… ng-

I wanted to be able to say ngon (delicious) but my attempts to say the ng- sound were really hit and miss.

It all changed in an afternoon

One afternoon I was in a park in Saigon and chatting in English to some university students. During the conversation, I mentioned that I was learning Vietnamese. They encouraged me to say something so I said “Tôi là người Anh” (I’m English).

As you may have guessed, I didn’t pronounce người right. One student decided to teach me to say it.

She modelled the sound for me, showing me how her mouth was positioned as she simply said ng. After she did this a few times, she encouraged me to try.

Me:  ng
Her: Yes!
Me:  n
Her: No.
Me:  n
Her: No.
Me:  ng
Her: Yes!

This went on for a couple of minutes.

Little by little I started getting more yes’s than no’s. I also started hearing the difference myself and being able to tell when I was saying it correctly and when I wasn’t.

I kept practising for the rest of the week. One day it just clicked and since then I’ve had no trouble pronouncing ng. I’ve even taught other people to say it correctly.

How you can learn to pronounce ng- too

Start by listening to the sound ng, paying attention to how it should be formed in your mouth and how it should sound.

This video by Stuart Jay Raj explains it really well as even though only a few examples are Vietnamese, the Thai and Indonesian examples have a ng sound.

By the end of the video you should be able to say ng correctly, though you may still sometimes get it wrong like I used to. Keep on practising Vietnamese words beginning with ng

Here are some great examples for Vietnamese. If possible, ask a native speaker if you’re pronouncing it correctly.

Although this article is about ng, you can use the same technique with any sound, tone or word you are struggling with.

Over to you: What sounds do you find hard to say? What do you do to practice them?

Why choosing between Northern and Southern Vietnamese is important

While I’ve already put together a guide about whether you should choose to learn Northern or Southern Vietnamese, I didn’t explain why it’s important.

Firstly there are pronunciation differences. But as long as you have a fairly standard Southern or Northern accent, you can probably get by with speaking that in most places. Your ears will probably always prefer one accent over the other, but with a little effort you should be able to get used to listening to either standard accent.

However where huge problems can, and most often, arise are the different words used for a lot of practical or tangible items. From street (đường/phố) to bowl (tô/bát) to a thousand (ngàn/nghìn), use the wrong word in the wrong region and you might not be understood!

How you order this depends on where you are...

How you order this depends on where you are…

Food words are probably what differs most from region to region. If you want two pineapples in Saigon you’d ask for hai trái thơm but in Hanoi it’d be hai quả dứa. In Saigon chén is the small bowl you eat rice from, whereas in Hanoi chén is a small glass to drink rice wine!

If you’re going to be in Vietnam, you definitely need to know the right words for the region you’re in. One time I was with a native speaker who spent several minutes trying to order an extra portion of plain rice while in Huế. Because in Saigon we’d say cơm trắng (white rice) whereas in Huế they say cơm không. Interestingly that’s how you order a plain baguette (as opposed to a sandwich) in Saigon: bánh mì không.

If you want to dig deeper into these differences, there’s an Android app (or a reference list here).

Over to you: Which form of Vietnamese did you choose to learn? Have you found it makes a difference?

Photo credit: lioneltitu

Should you learn northern or southern Vietnamese?

northernsouthernThe question in every Vietnamese beginner’s mind: should you learn northern or southern Vietnamese? Of course within those broad groups, there is more variation. But at this stage there is a choice to be made – just like choosing between British or American English, or different varieties of Spanish. Speakers should be generally able to understand each other but there are differences in the language.

So which should you pick?

Situation A: You live in Vietnam already

If you are in Vietnam already this choice is simpler – pick the one that matches your region. While northern Vietnamese is the ‘standard’, it’s rare to hear it being spoken in Ho Chi Minh City.

If you are not in Vietnam, the choice is a little harder. Let’s look at which kind of Vietnamese you are most likely to encounter.

Situation B: You’re planning to live in or visit Vietnam at some point

If you are likely to go to Vietnam in the future – which part? Again, pick the accent matching the region you’ll be in, or where you’ll be spending the most time.

Situation C: You’re planning to travel up or down the whole of Vietnam

If you’ll be travelling up or down the whole country and are just learning a few basics, be aware of the pronunciation differences. Some food words differ too. On the plus side, numbers are pronounced the same throughout the country (well, except for ‘thousand’).

Perhaps in this case, start with the accent of your arrival city and be prepared to adapt it as you travel.

Situation D: You’re not in Vietnam and not planning to go there soon

Are they any Vietnamese people in your local area? Which accent do they speak with? If you’re in the States, most of the overseas Vietnamese you’ll encounter will have southern pronunciation. Former Soviet countries may have more northern Vietnamese. If you know a student studying abroad where you are, ask which part of the country they come from.

Situation E: None of the above

If none of the above situations apply to you, then choose a course or tutor you like and study whatever accent you hear the most. There are more materials around for northern Vietnamese, but as I’ve lived in the south I try to highlight southern ones here too.

But…

Don’t worry about the decision too much – I spent a couple of weeks in the north first so started with that and switched once I went down south. Admittedly this was very early on in my language journey, but I also had classmates who’d started learning northern Vietnamese in Korea. They moved to Ho Chi Minh City a year or two later and seemed able to make the adjustment to southern Vietnamese.

Over to you: which variety of Vietnamese did you choose and why?