Part 1 - Vietnamese - Learning a New Language from Scratch (Kinda)

Three Fridays ago a friend of mine gave me a call just before he was about to board a plane at Suvarnabhumi airport (Bangkok). This guy is a genius when it comes to financial matters and was about to travel to the US to work on the last stages of a deal that could retire him for life. Nevertheless, I couldn’t imagine him retired and I don’t think he could imagine it either. He’d been offered a number of jobs over the past couple of weeks – one of them a very lucrative opportunity in Vietnam. He said to me “How would you like to learn Vietnamese?” – “If I do take this position, I’m going to need to speak the language – so I’ll hire you to learn it and then teach it to me”.

The cogs in my mind started clicking and just the mention of it was enough to give me enough of a buzz to start getting stuck into a new language.

Over the past few months, I’ve had a lot of emails come from my blog and the clips asking about how I go about learning a new language from scratch. I figure that this is as good an example as any to show you how I go about learning languages and things that you might want to try if you’re getting into a new language. I admit that the other languages that I already speak have helped me to no end in my Vietnamese, but still, it’s the ‘manner’ in which I approach it that’s important.

Day 1 – Friday Evening

Where do I start?

  • Just got off the phone to my friend with the new notion of learning Vietnamese
  • Went online and started doing a bit of background research. The background information that was going around in my head was:
  • From the brief encounters that I’ve had with Vietnamese people and language in the past, I know that
  • Many of the older ones speak Cantonese very well
  • Many of the middle age people to elderly ones speak French well
  • From a few questions about language that I’ve asked some Vietnamese people over the years, I’ve noticed many similarities to Cantonese and Middle / Ancient Chinese – pronunciation, vocabulary, monosyllabic building blocks, tones and glottal stops
  • I’ve also noticed many similarities to Thai both in lexicon and grammar
  • When I hear Vietnamese people speaking (I can pull in Vietnamese TV on my satellite at home), I hear this wild thing they do with their tongue when they pronounce D’s and B’s – What is that?

With this information I started my quest.

Google Google Google

I spent the next couple of hours searching Google with search strings like:

  • “Vietnamese Wikipedia”
  • Vietnamese Cantonese
  • ภาษาเวียตนาม
  • ภาษาไทย เวียตนาม
  • เรียน เวียตนาม
  • 粤语 越南 (Cantonese yue yu – yue nan – Vietnamese)
  • 越南话 汉语 (Vietnamese Han Yu)
  • 越南 古汉语 (Vietnamese Ancient Chinese)
  • 越南 声调 (Vietnam Tones)
  • Vietnamese tones
  • Vietnamese Cantonese tones
  • 越南 阴声 OR 阳声 (Vietnam Yin Tones or Yang Tones – a tonal principle in Chinese that breaks tones into Yin and Yang tones- a key to transposing one Chinese dialect to another)
  • Vietnamese Chinese similarities
  • “learn Vietnamese”
  • Vietnamese vocabulary
  • Hints Vietnam OR Vietnamese

You get the idea. Wikipedia is always a great place to start.

The reason I typed the word “Vietnamese” in Thai was that I’m sure if there was anything about the Vietnamese language in Thai, it could well highlight points between the two languages that are similar – e.g. guides to pronunciation that would be more accurate than going through English, and similar lexicon. The same principle with the Cantonese and Chinese queries.

I also hunted through youtube and found a few useful clips – one in particular was a series done by a Vietnam vet who is a magician, teaching both Vietnamese and Tagalog (not to mention magic – Great stuff!)


After a couple of hours of hunting, I finally stumbled on GOLD! I couldn’t believe that an article like this was on the internet. It is exactly – and even more than what I was looking for.

The web article was a paper entitled **“What Makes Vietnamese So Chinese?
An Introduction to Sinitic-Vietnamese Studies”

The paper can be found at

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the author’s contact details or name. It was signed dchph.

The other unfortunate thing was that this well intentioned author made it really difficult to read the article in the way that I like to read papers – that is back to front, front to back, middle to front and every other direction. That didn’t stop me. I cut and pasted each HTML page into MS Word, and when all the sections were in place, I reformatted the whole thing, added all the appropriate Heading styles, cut out all the meta-data, paginated it, added headers and footers, generated a Table and Contents, a nice looking Title Page, generated it as a PDF file and I was good to go. At around 2am that evening (morning) I sent the PDF to my printer and with the instructions to print it out double sided on good paper, bind it, colour title page to be picked up on Sunday.

As I was cutting and pasting the sections of the article, my brain was jumping all over the place seeing all the links between Vietnamese, Chinese, Ancient Chinese, Thai and many other things.

I was now more excited about learning this language than ever and couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning to continue on my journey.

Day Two – Saturday

Preparing my Environment

I woke up at around 7am still buzzing from my findings the previous night. I took a shower, got dressed and at 10am went into the Kinokuniya bookstore at Siam Paragon to relieve their shelves of any books on Vietnamese that they had. Sadly there were only a few. One of more useful ones was a little blue book written in Thai, where some guy had included many colloquial phrases from Vietnamese to Thai and Vice-Versa. The good thing about that book was that it had a pronunciation guide that made it easier to comprehend the new phonetic writing system that I was learning.

I also picked up a copy of the Vietnamese Rosetta Stone series. I rushed home and quickly installed the Rosetta Stone. I had started!

Preparing my Mouth

Remember the thing about the funky d’s and b’s that I mentioned? I did a bit of research on that. As it turns out, I was right in my observations. The Vietnamese d and b actually ‘implode’ giving them a very distinct flavor. I spent about half an hour listening to the Vietnamese pronunciation on the CD until I could comfortable implode my d’s and b’s along with them, and then programme my mouth to do it whenever I saw the appropriate Vietnamese letters coming – i.e. đ b.

The first thing I did was to identify what in the pronunciation was similar to Thai, Cantonese and Mandarin (and middle Chinese) and what was different.

Some of the similarities included –

  • The Yin and Yang tone system of Chinese can also be found in Vietnamese
  • The French didn’t seem to have a grasp of this when they were designing the writing system
  • Many of the words that Vietnamese called ‘Original Vietnamese words’ – i.e. not Chinese origin, were actually from Chinese, but had undergone Sandhi, replacement of local concepts in place of Chinese concepts and other phonetic shifts which would make them almost unintelligible to Chinese speakers. Nevertheless, the links were still there. – This is something that happens in Thai too. Many Thais call their official ‘non-Chinese’ words ‘Thai Thai’ words, but in many cases they can be traced to common roots
  • Many of the ‘Vietnamese’ words that weren’t thought of as ‘Chinese origin’ words sounded very similar to the Thai equivalents (or similar meanings).
  • There were many words that were common to all ancient Chinese, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Thai.
  • Vietnamese still contained the vocal set of consonants that are still heard in Shanghainese, but lost in Mandarin, Cantonese and other dialects. I knew that this would ultimately influence the tones.
  • Vietnamese had the entering tone – just like the ‘dead’ Thai syllable.
  • Vietnamese had short and long vowels like Thai, Cantonese, Ancient Chinese, but unlike Mandarin.

I also transcribed the sound system in Thai, based on a similar layout to the Indic 5×5 consonant system.


**Short – Vietnamese** **Thai** **Long Vietnam** **Thai**
Ă อะ A อา
Y อิ I อี
U อุ
 เออะ Ơ เออ
Ư อือ
Ô โอ
Ua อัว
Âu เอิว
Ươ เอือ
Ưu อืว
Ay ไอ Ai อาย
**Non-Plosive** **Non Voiced** **Voiced** **Sibilants** **Nasal** **Aspirants** **Affricate non Voiced** **Affricate Voiced** **Semi Vowel**
K ก Kh ค G Ng / ngh / nh ง H ห
C ก
Qu กว
Ch จ Nh ญ Gi ญี Y ย
Tr จ ตร R ร but more like mandarin ‘r’
T ต Th ท Đ ด N น S ส L ล
P ป B บ Ph ฟ V
Not perfect, but worked as a good enough start for me. I’m also aware that things change from the south to the north.

I also re-adjusted my tones according and set this conversion running in the back of my mind:

= yin |陽 = yang | 聲 = tone | 平聲 = even tone |上聲 = rising tone | 去聲 = exiting tone |入聲 = entering tone |

5 – Very High Pitch

4 – Medium High Pitch

3 – Medium Pitch

2 – Medium Low Pitch

1 – Low Pitch

**Tone** **Cantonese** **Vietnamese**
**陰平** 5-5 4-4
**陰上** 3-5 3-5
**陰去** 5-3 3-2′ 5
**陽平** 2-1 2-1
**陽上** 1-3 2-1-4
**陽去** 2-2 1-1
**陰入** 5-5
**中入** 33
**陽入** 22
I know that this table is also not perfect, but good enough for me to start making some comparisons. It’s really interesting to look at the different words in Vietnamese that are cognates from Chinese (even the ones that the official books say are not), and see how the tones compare. Depending from where they came in and WHEN they came it, the tones differ.

Remember – I’m not an expert on Vietnamese. I might find out that all this is a load of crap in a few months when I’m really becoming fluent in the language, but it’s good ground to start on.

Learning Vocabulary

In following posts, I’ll actually go through some of the methods that I used in detail to show you how in the space of about 5 days, I was able to build up a vocabulary of around 1500 words.

Some of the memory tools I used included contrasting the words against their Chinese and Thai equivalents


  • Ở dâu – อยู่ไหน (yu nai) – 於哪於邊度 – where is it (at)

- (sorry, my Cantonese input isn’t working on this machine – but ‘yu’ is the same meaning as ‘hai’ in Cantonese – ‘do’ is written a little different but can’t find the character. This also shows that the front ‘yu’ from Chinese gets flattened into an ‘oe’ in Vietnamese (ơ) – in Thai, the ‘yu’ is kept, but it becomes a diphthong.

  • Đi – (to go)
  • sao – (zen) – dim (Cantonese)
  • nhế – นะ (na – ending particle in Thai)
  • nhà – (jia – house / place of doing something in Chinese)
  • bai – (fei) – บิน (bin) – to fly\

And so the list goes on.

That night I also mapped my fingers to the Vietnamese keyboard and then went online to a number of sites like Myspace etc to find new friends in Vietnam that could act as my testing ground. I would never ask them to teach me. I would just try stuff with them and see how they respond, welcoming their corrections.

I have a system that I use when using a language. I try and find 2 or more ‘mentors’ that think that they’re the only ones teaching me. I’ll leave one person with ‘x’ amount of ability, then go to the next person and learn something out of left field from them. Then I’ll go back to the first person and drop my new knowledge ‘in passing’. Then they get curious about where you learned it from and teach you more. Then you go back to the other person and they are blown away with how much you’ve progressed since last time you spoke. This is a great strategy for building up confidence and motivation for continuous learning.

Day 3 Sunday

I went out and picked up my freshly bound book (but had already read the e-version the previous day (and night))

I also found another couple of books that I got stuck into.

I learned a LOT of vocab that day through both reading, surfing the net, reading internet posts in Vietnamese, reading how people structured their personal profiles in places like Myspace, learning slang from the “Making out in Vietnmese” book that I picked up the day before, listening to youtube clips and basically trying to absorb vocabulary from anywhere I could.

I also noticed that there were some discrepancies just like you get in all language when it comes to the formal ‘book taught’ language and what people actually use. This was ok though, cause it pretty much paralleled with Thai and Chinese.

Day 4

Vocab vocab vocab, grammar, more rosetta stone and


I had a Vietnamese student in one of the Thai classes that I taught last year. I thought that I would surprise her by letting her know that I was learning her language.

Here’s the letter:

**Chào cô! **

Lâo lắm nồi tôi không thấy Trang. Trang chưa sống ở Bangkok không?

Tôi dã học Tiếng Việt vệ̀t tuần rồi… thích nó́m vì́u noí dược Tiế́ng Tháí và Tiế́ng Trung (cũ) Tiếng Việt không khó quá…. biết tôi đang viết không đúng lắm – Trang vui lòng dạy tôi

Tôi chưa tùng dên ViệtNam – muốn đi dên ngon có gì doanh nghiệ dược làm không. Lúc này economy (经济)? Tố́t lắm.

Thôi, tôi đi nhé. Chúng ta gặp lại sau dược không? .. sẽ dược đi noí Tiếng Việt và ăn phở ngon ngon nhé

Bảo trọng nhé

Stu (Jay)

Here’s my friend’s reply

**You gave me a big surprise with your letter and your Vietnamese. There’s a few mis-choice of words but overall, it’s perfect for one week learning. I always question how you can have such a talent in pick up a foreign language…Glad to know you are interested in learning Vietnamese. Many considered it “horrible-terrible-” learning experience (especially pronunciation). **

Ok – so I was on the right track. Not perfect- actually now looking in hindsight, pretty dodgy, but good enough to keep me going.

I think this is enough for this post.

Stay tuned for the next installments where I’ll go through exactly how I went about building up my vocabulary, what words I targeted first, what type of language I targeted first and other fun stuff.

I might note that my friend never actually told me that he was going to take the job and that this was all going to pay off for me in the end as far as he was concerned. I didn’t care – I just liked getting into a language. For me, this was a play thing that I’m sure will come in handy sometime soon. As it turns out, my friend has since chosen another path that will keep him in Bangkok. The hours I now put into my Vietnamese after a couple of weeks are a lot less that I did in the first 5 days, but I still keep it up, reading every day, going out of my way to bring Vietnamese people into my environment and basically continue to build an environment that will continue to teach me.

To Be Continued …



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Written by

Stuart Jay Raj
Part 1 - Vietnamese - Learning a New Language from Scratch (Kinda)