There’s no doubt that picking up at least some of the local language in any foreign country can be an asset, and Vietnamese is certainly no different. Fluency is actually not necessary unless you happen to be planning to stay in far-flung villages, or you really do want to immerse yourself in the language.
In most cases, being able to understand a few hundred words and having the confidence to converse in some basic sentences should be enough to get you by.
Of course, Vietnamese is a tough language to pick up, at least in the early stages. Donald Wise, the roving correspondent for the London Daily Mirror newspaper during the period of the Second Indochina War, described the Vietnamese language with its sung vowels and glottal stops as “like listening to ducks fornicating”, although he used a far more colloquial word than ‘fornicating’.
Nonetheless, it is one of the few Southeast Asian languages which has a Romanised script, albeit with more tonal marks than French and German combined. The reason for this stretches all the way back to the mid-1600s when a French Jesuit missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes decided it would be a good idea to produce a Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary. Rhodes was a lot less caustic about the sound of the Vietnamese language than Donald Wise, describing daily conversation as resembling “the singing of birds.”
Quite a contrast in descriptions, but then again, one was a hard-bitten and cynical journalist; the other a man of the cloth.
It was the dictionary produced by Rhodes in 1651 that was used to create the written Vietnamese language we know today. Despite all the tonal marks, designed one presumes to try and cover all seven of the possible tones, the end result looks like a madman’s breakfast.
Still, with a little application and much effort, and having the advantage of being immersed in the country, it should be possible for the average foreigner to pick up enough Vietnamese to give them the confidence in being able to converse, even at the most basic level, with most locals.
The best ways to pick up the language is to try and learn the words and phrases you think you need to know for everyday living. So, for example, being able to count to 10 and then extend that knowledge to 100 and beyond will come in handy when a vendor tells you how much something is going to cost you.
Being able to tell the time, recite the days of the week and the months of the year and describe the weather: “It’s hot today” or “It looks like rain for sure today” are the simple little phrases which may well help to elicit a smile from a stranger on the street. After all, the ‘weather’ is almost the easiest and safest conversation starter on the planet.
Since eating is vital to human survival, being able to ask whether a vendor supplies a dish you’d like to eat, or simple being able to inquire what dishes they may have available will help prevent hunger pangs from becoming acute. Being able to ask for water or a beer should be a basic.
Equally, transportation tends to be an important area for language knowledge. Whether it’s hiring a taxi, catching a bus, or trying to find the train station, having the words you need to accomplish these tasks makes life just that much easier. As well, picking up useful phrases and key words will help build confidence, especially when a local responds as expected to your questions.
Charles Berlitz was a world-famous linguist and author of more than 150 language-teaching books. He believed it was possible to effectively communicate in most languages with a knowledge of just 80 words.
Most of these words and phrases were the simple, everyday words we all find we need to know at some point. From ‘hello’ to ‘good day’ to ‘how are you?’ Or from ‘my name is’ to ‘what is your name?’ or ‘Where is the toilet, the bus, the bank, the train, the ferry?’ to ‘left’ and ‘right’ and ‘straight ahead’, being able to use the words and incorporate them in phrases or simple being able to understand the words when a Vietnamese uses them in a sentence when speaking to you, will make a world of difference to how you see the locals and the country in general.
Of course, so many words in Vietnamese can mean so many different things if not pronounced correctly. Yet this is the same problem most languages have for non-native speakers. What tends to happen to smooth the language waters, thankfully, is that most Vietnamese will be able to get the gist of what you’re trying to say as long as a few words come out correctly and the conversation is simple enough to be able to facilitate this. Luckily, most expats won’t be trying to discuss the virtues of existentialism and its adherents with the average fruit vendor. In most cases they’ll hopefully be looking to buy some bananas and mangos at a fair price.
One of the major reasons for attempting to learn at least a smattering of the Vietnamese language is the simple respect you are expressing to you local hosts by speaking to them in their own tongue, no matter how tortured your glottal sounds and badly structured your tones may be. For most Vietnamese the simple effort you are making is greatly appreciated.