Why you should learn to read Vietnamese from the beginning

Đọc đi! Why you should learn to read a foreign language from Day 1 Vietnamese’s romanised script is a little deceptive. It looks familiar but many of the sounds are totally different. Our recent interviewee, Adam, shared one example of where this can go very wrong.

Let’s look at the problems caused by not starting to read early in your learning journey.

Reading problems

When I first arrived in Vietnam, it was as a traveller. I thought I might stay but I wasn’t sure. I had an abridged phrasebook with me and I learnt 1, 2, 3, 10 (chục), rice and thank you on the bus over, before it got too crowded. The following day I learnt the rest of the numbers and some more food items. However, as I had no idea how to pronounce these words with all their ‘squiggles’ I learnt how to say them from the pronunciation guide provided in the book. While this meant I was understood (thanks in part to context, I’m sure), when I later came to study Vietnamese in a classroom, it caused an embarrassing problem…

I couldn’t read numbers written in word form.

I still remember the first time I saw ‘bốn’ on a page. I was shocked. I read it out slowly in disbelief before realising it was in fact the number 4. This phenomenon is not limited to numbers though, I learnt the word ‘khóc’ (cry) from a friend and was similarly staggered when I first saw it written down until I again read it out. It’s a good job Vietnamese is so phonetic!

Pronunciation problems

The second problem with not learning to read, and this will apply to languages that use a different script too, is that you might make errors when transcribing how a word is pronounced.

Again, I can offer an example from my experience. I started some Korean classes recently and this is my first time learning a new alphabet. After a couple of lessons I was able to read, albeit very slowly. My teacher has a habit of calling on people to read things from the book. But because I’m slow at reading, I wrote a phoneticisation next to the sentences in case I got called on.

While this meant I could read a little quicker, it wasn’t until I got home and wrote some sentences on lang-8 that I realised I had misread an ‘o’ for an ‘a’, thus pronouncing the word for ‘I’ totally wrong.

So there we have two reasons, with examples, why you should learn to read in a foreign language from Day 1.

Over to you: Have you had any problems reading Vietnamese? Have you ever learnt a language with a different script?

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