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Speaking the Language

Vietnam - Speaking the Language


The majority of people in Vietnam speak the country’s official language, which is Vietnamese. This is the national language that dominates business, mainstream communities, public life and state education. TV and radio productions made in Vietnam will be in Vietnamese.

However, there are also several minority languages spoken by particular communities, usually as a second language to Vietnamese. Sometimes these reflect the countries their speakers’ ancestors have left. For example, the descendants of Chinese people may speak Mandarin, or more typically Cantonese, because these languages have been spoken at home. In some cases, these languages will also be taught at school. Tày and Muong are regional minority languages spoken in the north of the country, while Cham, Khmer, Nùng and Hmong are other regional languages spoken by tens of thousands of people in their distinct communities across the country.

For more than seventy years, Vietnam was part of the huge French colony of French Indochina. Despite this colony only having come to an end in 1954, you are unlikely to meet many people in Vietnam who are able to speak French, unless they are working in some capacity with French tourists or have studied the language. In this respect, Vietnam is very different to other ex-colonies, such as in the African country of Morocco, where French is a second language spoken by a significant percentage of the population. In Vietnam, French can be offered as a foreign language subject at school, which can be furthered with study at University, but other languages may be offered instead.

Other languages spoken by small numbers of people in the country include German, Russian, Polish and Czech, reflecting the wide range of nationalities who have made Vietnam their new home.

English is widely spoken in the tourist areas of Vietnam and is taught in a lot of schools. Waiters, hoteliers and other staff working with Westerners will invest their time and money in learning to speak fluently with their customers, to raise their job prospects or improve their business. Menus and price lists may be in Vietnamese and English in these areas, along with clear signs.

In cities, expats and well-educated Vietnamese people will often live in the same neighbourhoods and share common cultural pursuits. In global companies, expats may find themselves working alongside Vietnamese professionals who have learned English to a fluent level and have travelled for either leisure or university studies. You are therefore likely to come across many English speakers.

However, fluent English cannot be taken for granted. If you are going to live in Vietnam for any length of time, learning some basic Vietnamese will help you settle more quickly and earn respect from those you meet.

Vietnamese is not an easy language to learn, not least because the vowel sounds are so unfamiliar. However, there are a number of factors that can help.

Firstly, the language uses the familiar Latin alphabet, albeit with additional accents and symbols. This is a legacy of the French colonial system, which replaced the difficult Chinese-style lettering with a new alphabet to be used consistently across the country.

Secondly, much of the language has simpler forms than that of its European equivalents. There are none of the male and female nouns of French and German, there are no plurals or different tenses for nouns. A word means the same in any context, so it doesn’t change because it happened yesterday or because there were two of them. Nor are nouns introduced with words equivalent to ‘the’, ‘a’ or ‘an’.

Verbs do change to reflect different tenses, but this is done by placing a word in front of the verb. There are several of these tense setting words, but only five are commonly used, and many sentences make sense if they are skipped.

Vietnamese words are typically descriptive, which means you can understand what someone is talking about without learning a whole new word, plus the straightforward grammar cuts out unnecessary words. There is, therefore, simply much less that you have to learn before you can competently communicate with someone in Vietnamese.

In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, you will easily find a number of language schools running Vietnamese language lessons for migrants. They give you the chance to be heard and corrected in your speech, as well as ask questions about the use of the language in particular settings.

Alternatively, there is a wealth of online resources which you can use to build up proficiency. Duolingo, for example, is free and includes both written and aural language tasks to learn at your own pace.

In the busy city streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, it is possible to find imported magazines in English and the occasional imported newspaper. However, for up to date information about news and events in Vietnam, there are a number of online resources in English. Viet Nam News is an English language, online, daily news site. They cover the latest politics, law, society, economy, lifestyle, sports and environment news.

Vietnam Net has a more magazine style, whilst the English online site Voice of Vietnam has a distinct focus on the country’s industry and business news. Meanwhile, the Tuoi Tre News website is produced for expats living in Vietnam, and for the Vietnamese living abroad by the Tuoi Tre Newspaper.

You do not need to obtain a TV license in Vietnam. The state broadcaster, Vietnam Television (VTV), transmits six channels all in Vietnamese, as do other regional broadcasters.

Cable TV, which can help you get used to hearing Vietnamese being spoken, can be supplied by Vietnam Cable (HTCV) and Saigontourist Cable Television Company (SCTV). You will need to take out a contract with them, and pay both an installation fee as well as a monthly fee.

In Vietnam, the television transmission standard is PAL (Phase Alternating Line) which is also used in most of Western Europe except France, South Africa and Australasia. This is different to the NTSC (National Television System Committee) standard used in the US and Canada. Televisions, DVD players and games consoles can only be used by both systems if they are specific multi-standard items. If you are moving to Vietnam from the US for the long-term and are intending to bring all your possessions, this may a factor to consider when packing electronic items.

Going to the cinema is a popular leisure activity in Vietnam, and there are a number of cinema chains operating around the country. These are often modern venues offering food and drink in addition to the latest movies from Hollywood and China, although IMAX technology has yet to take off here. More basic venues will be very cheap to attend but may lack the state of the art visual and audio equipment.

The majority of films will be screened in their original language, with Vietnamese subtitles added. One exception to this is animated films, which are dubbed to reflect the fact young children make up a significant portion of the audience. Cinema websites will normally state which language a film is to be screened in, along with subtitle information.


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