How to start learning Vietnamese again after a break

Pretty notepad. Too pretty.
Pretty notepad. Too pretty.

Do you like my notepad? It’s pretty. So nice that I haven’t used it yet, even though I bought it months ago. Mostly because I don’t know what to write on the first page. It should be special for a special notepad, right…

Wait, what has this got to do with language learning?

Well, the last couple of weeks I’ve gotten out of the habit of daily learning. I’m still doing flashcards (almost) every day but that’s only going to help my maintain my level. I haven’t been learning anything new, even with a pretty notebook by my side..

A new start

So I bought a new one.

Cute notepad

It’s also fairly cute, but it only cost 3000 VND (about $0.14). So cheap that I can use it as a rough notebook. A place to jot down vocab I’ve just learnt or words I want to look up later. Or to draft some writing before putting it online to get corrected. Notes and scribbles are OK because it’s only a rough book.

Still, I didn’t know what to write on the first page. So I started on the last page.

What to write

While I’ve given you suggestions for writing topics before, I find that once I get started writing in Vietnamese one paragraph usually turns into a page. Who has time for that? On the other hand, my Korean level is so low that it would take ages to sit down and write any of those things.

So keeping it simple, I’m trying to write one sentence a day in Korean and get back to posting a new Vietnamese word to Instagram. But to keep it realistic, I’m aiming for 5 sentences per week and 3 vocabulary photos. If I aim for 7 I will most likely fail, and I don’t want to fail.

A little secret…I started the Korean sentences already. I’ve managed 8 out of 12 days so far and for many of those I actually wrote more than one line.

Daily writing

Except I have another secret. Even with my ‘rough’ notepad I’ve been… Scrap …writing on scrap paper first. I do this all the time. I have notebooks and textbooks stuffed with scrap paper. Yay for the environment (recycling), not so yay for being organised.

But who cares? I’m doing something again. It might be small, it might be a bit silly to write things out multiple times but it’s something. And it’s re-creating a habit.

And Vietnamese?

Tomorrow is also a new month, so a chance to get back on track with the Instagram Language Challenge too. Maybe I’ll post a picture tomorrow, maybe I’ll start on Thursday. But I’ll do something.

How to resume your language learning

Thảo ơi, I don’t want to write or share new words. What other easy things can I do?

Underline new words

  • Follow me on Instagram and learn my words (some are also cross-posted on Facebook).
  • Practice an answer to a simple question (like Anh/Em/Chị là người nước nào?) over and over again. Repeat your answer 10 or 20 times until you can do it without thinking. Then try again later. And again tomorrow.
  • Grab a book or online article and simply highlight the words you don’t know. You can look them up now. Or later. Or tomorrow. Or next week. But highlight them now.
  • Make an outline for something you want to write. Choose a topic and think about your key points. Even if you have to use English to take notes. Again you can look words up later. Just jot down a plan now.

Stopped learning? Just do something. Anything

If even the smallest task is a struggle, look here for advice on taking tiny baby steps towards building a habit.

Over to you: Have you stopped learning? What do you do to get yourself out of a rut?

PS. I’ve been meaning to write this for a while. Or post one of the countless other articles I need to finish editing first. So I’m breaking the habit – I’m posting. Doing something. (Notice a pattern?)


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?


The story behind my Vietnamese name, Thảo

You’ve seen my Vietnamese name, Thảo, all over this site but I’ve never explained how I came to have a Vietnamese name and why it’s Thảo.

Thảo in Tây Ninh

The problem I faced

The problem of what to call myself always occurs outside of English-speaking countries. Nowadays I use my middle name, Elisabeth, but when I first went to Vietnam I was still using my first name, Ruth.

When embarking on my Asian adventure in 2010, it slipped my mind that I’d had difficulties with my name in the past so I started teaching with the name Ruth. Cue the problems. The ‘th’ sound (phoneme θ) doesn’t appear in many languages. This error alone is not a big deal but the initial ‘r’ can be tricky too. From Vietnam to Italy I’ve had people struggle with that sound and have even been asked if my name starts with ‘br’!?

A lot of my students in Vietnam simply addressed me as ‘Teacher’ as opposed to my title, Ms Ruth (or nowadays, Ms Elisabeth). While this form of address is a common and respectful thing to do in Vietnam, I do wonder if I had a higher occurrence of this due to the difficulty of pronouncing my name.

So my students found a way around the problem, but there was still the issue of interactions outside of work.


When speaking English with people, my name was sometimes a difficulty, often not. However, when speaking Vietnamese my name was just too strange. It Vietnamized as ‘Ru’. I’ve known a Ru and a Rew before but mostly the name reminds me of Roo from Winnie the Pooh.

Later, one of my Vietnamese teachers refused to call me Thảo and pronounced Elisabeth with every syllable stressed. It was kinda painful to listen to.

Even for myself, when I switch to English pronunciation mid-sentence to say my name, this affects my subsequent Vietnamese pronunciation (I slip into a stronger English accent).

The solution: use a Vietnamese name

The simple and obvious solution was to choose a Vietnamese name.

I expressed this desire to some of my friends and randomly one friend had a list of his classmates’ names on him that day. Together they went through the list and one of them read out female names that they liked. If they all agreed that it was a nice name, it was then my turn to repeat it.

Some names I couldn’t pronounce well, other fared a little better – with two friends thinking my pronunciation was up to par but the other one thinking I was a little off. Finally we got to Thảo. I repeated it successfully to a unanimous opinion not once but three times in a row.

At this point we got into the meaning. As the pool of Vietnamese names is relatively small, most people know the meaning of common names. Thảo has two meanings – the first one I heard is along the lines of ‘herbal’. The second is about respecting your parents or ‘honour’.

Thảo means herbal.
Thảo means herbal.

So there I had it – my Vietnamese name. Thảo.

Over to you: Do you have any problems with your name when abroad or when speaking a foreign language? Have you ever used, or would you consider using, another name?

Photo credit: degrassi and gabriel77


What I’m doing to maintain my Vietnamese

As you may have guessed from the fact I left Vietnam a while ago combined with last week’s post, I’m currently brushing up on my French after seven(!) years of neglect.

What does this mean for my Vietnamese? Well, I’m taking a step back from active study and just maintaining my current Vietnamese level. I don’t want to lose any momentum during this study break, because it is just a break, so every day I’m practising some Vietnamese in some way, shape or form.

But what exactly does that look like?

Skyping with friends

On average 5-6 days a week (total 8-10 hours)

This is the best thing as it keeps me using Vietnamese. However, I’ve noticed I’m already slower at recalling vocab so I’ve had to boost my activity in other areas too. Eventually I want to find new people to practice with as I’m aware that my friends are used to the way I speak.

Revising vocab with Anki

On average 2-4 days a week (total 20 mins)

I’m not adding new cards but simply keeping up with the vocab I learnt in (2 of) my classes. I keep forgetting to review more often, but I’m mostly up-to-date so around 5 mins every few days is more than enough.

Reading short articles

On average 1-2 days a week (total 30-45 mins)

How much time I spend on this mostly depends on how often new articles appear on my favourite sites or if friends share something interesting on facebook. I usually try to read these intensively but less so now I’m reading a lot of French. Of course, I do read a few emails too.

Watching Quà Tặng Cuộc Sống

On average 1 day a week (total 15 mins)

I love these short animations and don’t watch them as often as I should! A lot of the time I can understand them fairly well, but sometimes they go over my head. I watch these for pleasure, without doing any language work.


On average 2-3 days a week (total 30mins-1 hour)

Again this includes emails, which I am trying to be less lazy with as I usually don’t write the tones and accents because it’s quicker that way. If I have something interesting to write about, or if I’m not writing loads in French, I’ll write something, get it corrected on lang-8 and go through the corrections.

What that looks like

Amazingly it seems that I practice all four skills most weeks! Admittedly sometimes I’ll go a couple of weeks without watching something or intensively reading something. I should probably spend more time on decent input, but at least I’m still getting practice.

In total I spend about 10 hours a week, on average, maintaining my Vietnamese. Mostly through Skype chats which are so easy to keep up with as they’re enjoyable! Even during my busiest weeks this summer, I managed at least 4 hours a week chatting on Skype.

How I maintain my Vietnamese level each week

Over to you: How do you maintain a language you’re not actively studying?


3 lessons I learnt from missing my Summer Recording Challenge goal

I messed up. I knew I’d be busy teaching at a summer camp in July so I came up with the idea of a Summer Recording Challenge. I still maintain it’s a great idea, but I made a few mistakes in my approach. That’s ok, we’re all human and we can learn from our mistakes. Here are the lessons I learnt:

1. Test your equipment early and often.

Mic có nhiều gió lắm.
Mic của Thảo có nhiều gió lắm. Buồn quá!

I’d used my headset many times in Vietnam while skyping as well as to record on Rhinospike. I continued skyping when I returned home but little did I know, the headset had been damaged a little in my trip back to the UK and now features a heavy dose of static. It wasn’t until I attempted a trial run the day before I hoped to start the challenge that I found this static.

I tried to remove the buzzing noise with Audacity but it didn’t turn out right. I bought a new cheap headset when I had a day off and the chance to go to town, but I was already more than a week behind and had nothing but several static-filled recordings of the same text to show for it. I never caught up.

2. Get into a language routine before other big changes in your life.

If you know you’re going to have a busy month – an important project at work, moving house, a friend staying over – get your routine down before the busy period starts. It was a huge error to have the first day of the challenge coincide with the day that real work began at my summer gig. I wish I’d started a few days earlier, sorted out any problems before I got busy and built some momentum with the project, making it easier to stay committed.

3. Find it hard to stick to goals? Read this.

Last month I read an article which blew me away – finding it difficult to stick to rules or goals is a personality thing, which may have contributed to my lack of consistency with recordings. I don’t think this was the whole problem but given limited time and equipment problems as mentioned above, a so-called upholder or obliger probably would have made more effort to find a solution so they could keep up with the goal. Perhaps next time I should blackmail myself or just keep it a secret until it’s finished.

What now?

The summer isn’t over, I kept up with skyping every day so Vietnamese is still fresh in my mind. I have a new mic and some free time so I’m still going to try and complete the project, starting on Wednesday. It will be later than planned, but at least I learnt some valuable lessons along the way!

Over to you: How’s your summer language learning going?