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?


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?


How I pushed myself to learn more Vietnamese before leaving Vietnam

Pushing myself as time was running outAs my time in Vietnam started running out, I felt an urgency to learn as much Vietnamese as I could. I decided simply attending my regular classes wasn’t enough (especially as the pace was too slow) and I’d been letting myself get stuck in a routine that wasn’t helping me learn or practice beyond my comfort zone. It was time to shake things up.

Here’s how I levelled up my Vietnamese.

1. Getting a motorbike licence

For quite some time I’d been toying with the idea of taking the full A1 motorbike test in Vietnam. Most expats get their home car licence translated which exempts them from taking the theory test, so only the practical test is needed to get a Vietnamese motorbike licence. However, this kind of licence comes with an expiration date.

I saw it as an opportunity to set and achieve a goal: study for and pass the theory test in Vietnamese.

I got a copy of the booklet of questions but left it on the shelf for a while. Sensing I needed a date to work towards to push me to study, I registered to take the test and started working through the booklet with a friend, picking out the vocabulary I needed to understand the questions. As I do in fact have a UK car licence, I found most of the questions quite straightforward once I understood them, then just memorised the rest.

Two days before the test itself, I went along to the second practice session (I missed the first the day before) which involved taking a practice test on paper then another on the computer. I scraped a pass both times. Confidence now high I was left to worry about the tricky “number 8” on the practical test.

To cut a long story short, I not only passed the theory test but I got 15/15. I’m not sure who was more amazed – myself or the guy who printed out my score sheet.

My Vietnamese motorbike licence
My licence which lasts forever

2. Attending a Korean class…in Vietnamese

Not content with one goal that took less than a week to accomplish, I also attended Korean classes for a month. I was the only non-Vietnamese person in the classroom, teacher included. I certainly didn’t understand everything and I took longer to pick up new structures, but with a bit of effort and preparing for class, I made enough progress.

While I didn’t have a SMART goal for this one, aside from learning some basic Korean the aim was mostly just to stretch myself. To put myself in a unfamiliar, challenging environment using Vietnamese and prove I could step up to it. I struggled, but it was an interesting experience.

3. Stop using ‘Vietglish’

This is embarrassing to admit, but with a couple of my closet friends we don’t actually speak proper Vietnamese. Nor could it be called English. We switch between the two, even in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes it is down to efficiency (even my friend will sometimes say ‘she’ as it’s quicker than choosing ‘cô ấy’, ‘bà ấy’). Often there is no real reason for it, it’s just become habit. But a lot of the time, it is because I don’t know (or don’t want to pause to remember) a word. Uh-oh.

Surprisingly, this has not become a problem when I’m talking to anyone else. Still, it’s a bad habit and I decided it was time to start kicking it.

So I armed myself with a notepad and wrote down every English word I used in a Vietnamese sentence. I went through my list with a friend, and got example sentences for each new word. I’ve put these new words in my Anki deck and I’m learning them. I’m trying not to speak Vietglish with my friends, but I’m aware it’s going to take time to totally stop.

Even after these three steps, I’ve still got quite a way to go to improve my Vietnamese but it was nice to leave on a high, with motivation to keep on learning. After all, I’ll have to come back to Vietnam to make use of that licence. 😉


Getting past the expat plateau: a personal story

I was stuck.

I was comfortable ordering food and giving directions to taxi drivers. I could manage my day to day interactions and for any bigger issues (like househunting) I had English-speaking Vietnamese friends.

For months I was content. I did a little happy dance when I could understand something small here or there. I liked being the ‘expert’ among my non-Vietnamese speaking Western friends. I thought I knew quite a lot.

But I started to feel malcontent. If I met someone once I’d be able to make small talk for a short time but if I met them again…I had nothing else to say.

I had ideas to improve my conversation skills. ‘I’ll learn a question a day.’ ‘I’ll start using one of those elementary books my friend gave me when she left.’ ‘I’ll go to the park to practice with the students there.’ But I didn’t.

I was stuck and I was scared. Scared of taking a written placement test for a language school (‘but I can’t remember the tones’, I wailed). Scared of being placed in a class that was too easy or too hard. Scared of the hard work and time it takes to learn. Scared of trying but failing to reach a good level.

Much as I wish it was a better reason, what finally pushed me out of the hole I’d dug myself was the chance to prove someone wrong.

The next step wasn’t revolutionary. It was simply signing up for classes. Paying someone money to make me sit down and learn. No more excuses of ‘tomorrow’. A teacher to ask questions of, a book with exercises, classmates from around the world to practice with and a slot in my day that actually makes me do it.

The icing on the cake came when, after three months of classes, one of my Vietnamese friends said something to someone else in Vietnamese…and I replied. The look of shock on her face was worth all that time studying!

In three months I’d gone from being able to order food to participating in a short but normal speed conversation with native speakers on familiar topics (daily routine, holiday plans). I’ve still got a long way to go but I’m determined not to get stuck again.

Game on!

Over to you: Have you been stuck before? How did you get out of it? Are you stuck now? If so, what are you going to do about it? Tell us in the comments.