Comparing 3 years of Vietnamese v 3 years of Russian – which is harder?

In 2011 I arrived in Vietnam ready to teach English after a couple of months backpacking and ready to learn the language. In total I spent 3.5 years in Vietnam between 2011 and 2016. Some of the time I was actively learning, other times I was just maintaining the language by using it.

10 years later, I’ve had my 3-year anniversary with Russian (actually 3 years, 4 months) and also left the country. What a coincidence that I spent between 3 to 3.5 years learning each language in-country. Of course, it’s natural to compare.


Vietnamese Russian
Learning environment and motivation Living in Vietnam (I also had a one-year break in the middle, so perhaps it’s technically 4.5 years not 3.5)

Motivation: to manage daily life, travels and speak to people around me. I fell in love with the Vietnamese language, culture and people.

Living in Russia

Motivation: to manage daily life, travels and speak to people around me.

I can’t imagine living in a country and not getting to at least A2 level!

Overall ability after 3 years (self-assessed) strong B1

I’ve written before about how I got to an intermediate level in Vietnamese: Part 1 and Part 2. I’d say my Vietnamese was probably a strong B1 or B1+ at its best.

I feel like I know well that level and below – I don’t have huge gaps and would be comfortable helping/teaching a lower level learner.

low B1

I don’t always feel like B1, but looking at the can-do statements for this level it seems to be correct.

My skills abilities Good at all four skills – listening, speaking, reading, writing.

I called myself conversationally fluent – being able to go about my life in Vietnam, hold conversations with friends and strangers, and deal with problems that came up (like taking my motorbike to the mechanic) although I didn’t know all the words, I could find a way to explain the problem. I spoke without much hesitation but I didn’t quite have a big enough vocabulary, and the ability to talk about abstract topics, to be considered B2.

Received many compliments how ‘natural’ my Vietnamese sounds. I spoke without having to think a lot (I felt fluent). I expect the most common mistakes were mis-pronunciations of tones.

Listening is by far my strongest skill, followed by speaking. I can understand the main points of webinars about teaching and doctors appointments, though I still miss some details.

I have good speaking days, average ones and poor ones. Most often average and poor ones, but some days I feel like I can explain what I need even if I don’t know the exact words I can get the job done (ie.feeling fluent).

Received many compliments on how well I can understand, even when people are speaking at normal speed. I received some compliments on my speaking and even on my grammar.

My weaknesses Lack of vocabulary to understand and discuss complex subjects (eg. lectures, politics).


Lack of vocabulary to understand and discuss complex subjects (eg. lectures, politics).

Reading and writing aren’t priorities so I haven’t developed them. I read slowly in Cyrillic and my spelling is pretty bad. However, I’ve never worked on it as I don’t need to write Russian by hand so I’m happy to rely on autocorrect. I can easily message people on Whatsapp, including booking appointments, so my level is sufficient for everyday life but not a strength.

Grammatical accuracy – I don’t think I could help/teach anyone, even a beginner, because I while I’m developing a good feel for the language, I’m rarely 100% certain I’ve produced an accurate sentence even when I have.

How I learnt the language I started learning by myself, from a phrase and later from friends.

I joined high Elementary classes and studied 3 x 80 hour courses to low Intermediate. There was good input but little speaking practice, but I spoke a lot outside of lessons anyway.

I then maintained the language by myself, still speaking to friends and tried to find interesting resources (that’s when I started this blog). I may have improved a bit, but I felt like I was at an intermediate plateau.

Read more in ‘How I learnt Vietnamese Parts 1 and 2‘.

I started with small group lessons once a week when I arrived in the country, however I had an advantage because I already spoke A2 level Bulgarian. For example, numbers and days of the week are similar in both languages (with some exceptions). These lessons continued for the best part of two years (estimate: 100 hours).

Over the last two years I also have taken about 70 speaking lessons (of 30 minutes or 45 minutes) on italki to supplement these classes – sometimes regularly, sometimes I’d have a break for a few months. I’ve also done some language exchanges.

My main input has been from the book Russian Souvenir 2 and self-study with RussianPodcast.EU dialogues.

Difficulties for learners Initial difficulties included pronunciation, problems with spelling and the fact there are very few words that are similar in European languages (cognates) so you really have to learn every word.

Accents: northern and southern Vietnamese are very different. Also there are all kinds of regional accents. Vietnamese people don’t always fully understand people from other regions.

There’s no denying the learning curve at the beginning is steep. But once you get through that, there are a lot of beautifully simple things about Vietnamese. I personally don’t consider it a hard language.

The biggest difficulty has been and remains the grammar. It’s the most grammatical language I’ve ever studied and it can be demotivating. Even Russians have to study Russian grammar in school, and many people say it’s their least favourite subject.

Spelling is not phonetic although there are various rules that can make it easier – I guess this is something else Russians learn in school.

Easier aspects for learners The language is very phonetic – how it’s spelt is how it’s pronounced.

The grammar is not particularly complex and easy to get your head around.

There are words that are similar to European languages (cognates). This is one reason I’m able to listen to webinars about teaching – often there are words I’ve never heard before but I can understand because they’re similar to a word in English or sometimes when speaking I can make an English word sound Russian and that’s correct.

Accents are minimal – they exist but there aren’t huge differences that make it difficult for people to understand each other. This also applies to other countries where Russian is an official or second language.

Overall, I reached a roughly similar level in each language however my Vietnamese after 3 years is better than my Russian both in terms of ability and confidence (with the exception of listening which is slightly better in Russian).

I attribute this to:

  • my time in Vietnamese group lessons (even though the teaching wasn’t great, the input was useful, as was the consistency)
  • Vietnamese grammar being easier than Russian, so you can focus more on vocabulary
  • greater motivation – I fell in love with Vietnamese but I never fell in love with the Russian language or culture

On the other hand, Russian is the 6th language I’ve started as an adult so my learning techniques are a bit more developed than when I was learning Vietnamese (my 2nd). Plus I had a head start because I already knew some Bulgarian (a fellow Slavic language). I didn’t know a lot about self-study when I was learning Vietnamese. However, the difficulty of Russian has held me back – I had enough motivation to keep chipping away at the language but not enough motivation to put in a lot of time.

In both languages, it takes a lot of effort to amass a big enough vocabulary to get to B2. It’s not something I personally managed in 3 years. That’s not to say it’s impossible. Personally much of my learning is what I’d call ‘social’ – speaking with others, practising in group lessons and I do not read or listen to a lot of the language. This exposure is a key factor in getting to a high level. B2 level (also called upper intermediate) is a good level of fluency where you can easily cope with daily level and discuss both simple and more complex topics, read and listen to general news and so on. This has never particularly been my goal (my aim has always been to speak to people around me) but I do see it as an important level to get to if you want to keep your language ability and not forget the language as soon as you stop learning/using it.

My Vietnamese was a strong B1 or B1+ at its best which is why I haven’t forgotten it, although I’m getting rusty and it’s hard to maintain the language when I can’t understand TV well (which B2 level can). When I last travelled to Vietnam, I quickly remembered a lot and was able to use the language to get around and talk to people (including an hour-long conversation with an old friend). I’d say my level when I was in Vietnam 18 months ago around low B1 once I’d brushed back up and was using it daily. I’ve been trying to get my Russian to a higher B1+ level like my Vietnamese used to be so that, while it may get a bit rusty, I can maintain the ability to speak Russian for life.

Over to you: Have you learnt a language (or two) for 3 years? How does your progress compare to mine?

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