Mandarin Chinese versus Vietnamese

20 May 2014

The following is a guest post by “Prince Roy.” If you’ve been following the blogosphere for a long, long time, you might recognize the name and remember his China blog, which was hosted on the (now defunct) Sinosplice blogging network. He also wrote the guest article Integrated Chinese (Levels 1, 2): A View From the Trenches on Sinosplice as well. In this post he’s going to share his personal experiences learning Vietnamese in preparation for being stationed there by the U.S. State Department, after having already learned Mandarin Chinese years ago to an advanced level.


When John asked me to comment on my experiences learning Vietnamese and Chinese, I was happy to oblige, because it allows me to try and wrap my head around what I’ve been through since I began studying Vietnamese last September (8 ½ months ago now). In the interests of full disclosure, I studied Chinese for a total of five years, and have spoken it now almost 25 years.

I will cut to the chase: Vietnamese is enormously more difficult than Chinese. Hands down. It’s not even close. Some of you may recall a seminal essay by David Moser: “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”. I had the pleasure to meet David recently (his Chinese is superb, by the way), and here’s some unsolicited advice for David and anyone else who might agree with him: if you think Chinese is hard, steer far, far clear of Vietnamese. I studied both languages in a very intensive environment, but when I recall my (much greater) proficiency in Chinese after the equivalent period spent learning Vietnamese, I can only cringe in shame at my Viet inadequacy. True, this is just my own experience, but don’t take my word for it—every person I know who has studied both languages sings the same sad song—Chinese is far easier than Vietnamese in every way except, just maybe, reading. Why is this? Here are a few general thoughts:

Pronunciation

This is the big one. It is hard to imagine two sound systems more diametrically opposed than English and Vietnamese. Every aspect of Vietnamese phonology is hard. Vietnamese has single, double and even triple vowels. Few of them are remotely similar to English, and just the slightest mispronunciation will result in an unintended vowel. This, compounded with the tones, can easily render one’s speech unintelligible or worse.

The pronunciation of a consonant can change depending on whether it occurs at the beginning or end of a word. There is a multitude of nasal and glottal sounds that don’t exist in English or Mandarin. In southern Vietnamese, the dialect I am learning, people often pronounce ‘v’ as ‘y’—to add to the confusion, ‘d’ and ‘gi’ are also pronounced as a ‘y’ sound’. The consonant pair that has given me the most difficulty is t/đ (different from the ‘d’ above). In normal speed speech, I cannot distinguish them; in the language lab only if I listen very closely. Here’s a real-life example of why this is so critical: a very common dish in Vietnam is phở bò tái—rare beef pho. But when I pronounce this in Vietnamese, my teachers say they hear ‘phở bò đái’, literally ‘cow piss pho’. Oops. Umm…waiter?

In short, I’ve found Chinese phonology presents much less difficulty than Vietnamese.

Tones

Vietnamese Tones

Image from Wikipedia

Like Chinese, Vietnamese is tonal, but the similarity ends there. The northern (Hanoi) dialect has 6 tones; the southern (Saigon) has 5. Thankfully, I’m learning the Saigon dialect, because that extra tone of the Hanoi dialect is a ‘creaky’ tone which has the effect to my ears like nails on chalkboard. I had hoped my experience with Chinese would prove beneficial—the tones in Mandarin always seemed somewhat intuitive to me, even from when I first began to study the language. Not to say I am completely error free, but tones were never problematic for me to the degree they often are for other students.

Having spoken Chinese for so many years, I plead guilty to tonal transfer, but in my own defense, tones in Vietnamese are more subtle, and for me, not nearly as intuitive. Two that give me a lot of trouble are the dấu huyền and dấu nặng tones (low-falling and low-dropping), particularly when occurring consecutively and spoken at conversational speed. Also, the dấu sắc (high-rising) tone is tough for me, because I tend to produce it like the second tone of Mandarin, which is wrong. However, tones are the least of my worries in Vietnamese; I think they will come more naturally after I arrive in Vietnam this August. And at least my teachers tell me I sound tonal when I speak, albeit with a somewhat pronounced Chinese accent.

Grammar, etc.

Vietnamese, like Chinese and English, is an SVO language. But that is its only concession. Vietnamese grammar is the most difficult aspect of the language after pronunciation. Similar to Chinese, sentence particles are a very important grammatical component, but Vietnamese takes this to a stratospheric level of complexity. I also believe Chinese is more flexible than Vietnamese—in the former, once you learn a particular sentence pattern, you can pretty much plug anything into it, and while it might not be the way a native speaker would say it, they will often understand you. Not so in Vietnamese. Phrase memorization is more useful than patterns, because if you don’t say it exactly like a Vietnamese does, you will usually encounter a blank expression on the face of your listener.

Another characteristic of Vietnamese is it boasts an extraordinary number of synonyms. Chinese is rich in synonyms too, of course, but the difference is that in Chinese, you might commonly encounter two to three of them in typical popular usage. In Vietnamese, it seems people like to use all of them.

But all is not lost

Vietnamese is indeed a very rich, complex language—in fact my classmates and I have an inside joke: Tiếng Việt rất phong phú (Vietnamese is a very rich language) = Vietnamese is really, really hard. But there is an upside for those with a Chinese background when learning Vietnamese. Due to the roughly 1000-year period that Vietnam was a colony of China, Chinese had an enormous influence on the Vietnamese language. I can determine a Chinese cognate in up to 60% of the vocabulary I’ve learned to this point. Its close relationship with Chinese is both a blessing and a curse, however. A blessing, because I can often correctly guess the meaning of words when I encounter them in a text, and a curse because that close relationship makes it harder for me to take Vietnamese on its own terms—and this language, like its people, is fiercely proud and independent. I feel as though I am treading water in Vietnamese, and my facility in Chinese allows me to, just barely, keep my nostrils above the water. That’s why I’m in awe of those among my classmates who are making good progress in Vietnamese without the benefit of Chinese. It makes their achievement all the more amazing.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. David Moser Says: May 20, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Arrgg, yes, you’ve convinced me, Vietnamese sounds nightmarishly hard. It may be fair to say that indeed, for Chinese the script is the real problem, whereas for Vietnamese it’s the actual spoken language. I tried to learn a few Vietnamese phrases about ten years ago when I was helping a friend of the family who was a Vietnamese immigrant. I, too, tried some tonal transfer to suprasegmentals my informant was uttering, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of them. The one that sounded like second tone was clearly not so, but the difference was too subtle for me to detect. I never got any sense for the grammar, but I believe you. But if we’re talking about “Chinese” in the broader sense, I wonder how Vietnamese stacks up to Cantonese? Guangdonghua always seems horribly daunting to me, as well, but from what you’re saying the grammar is probably still much easier than Vietnamese. Luckily, at my age and station in life, I’m probably never going to tackle either one. I’m in awe of you for even trying. If God created different languages after the Tower of Babel in order to punish us, he must have added tonal languages as a particularly sadistic form of torture.

  2. Having done considerable Mandarin and a smattering of Vietnamese, I have had much the same experience. I think English pronunciation is difficult for foreigners because of our large variety of subtly different vowel sounds. Vietnamese is the first foreign language I’ve encountered that has us beat in that respect. Mandarin has some sound distinctions that are alien to English but ultimately the number of possible syllables is far more limited than in Vietnamese (or English, for that matter).

    I haven’t found Vietnamese tones to be such an issue.

    And for some reason, I find Vietnamese vocabulary just doesn’t “stick” as easily as Mandarin.

    If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend you use Chữ Nôm to identify Chinese cognates for Vietnamese words. For example, “special” in Vietnamese is “đặc biệt”. This didn’t ring a bell until I saw the Chu Nom is 特别: “te4 bie2” in Mandarin, “tokubetsu” in Japanese, “dak6 bit6” in Cantonese.

    • Serge, as a learner / speaker of Mandarin myself, I do also want to know what words are the same in Chinese rather than attempt to recognize them or guess when I encounter then. You say Chu Nom, but as I understand, that’s a general term for all characters that were used in Vietnamese, which includes characters made up specifically for Vietnamese.

      Do you know of any resources, hopefully online and free, that show specifically ONLY the words shared in Chinese and Vietnamese? And I do mean “words,” not characters, which I already have something for (http://nomfoundation.org/nom-tools/Nom-Lookup-Tool/Nom-Lookup-Tool)

      Please let me know, thanks.

      • My Vietnamese instructors tell me such a reference exists, but I didn’t find one on my recent immersion trip there in March. Regular Chinese-Vietnamese/Vietnamese-Chinese dictionaries abound.

        I did find a pretty cool dictionary, however: Từ Điển Thành Ngữ-Tục Ngữ Việt-Hán, 越汉成语俗语词典, by publisher Nhà Xuất Bản Văn Hoá Sài Gòn. Its flaw is that it doesn’t provide definitions or examples of usage. I definitely plan to stock up on these kinds of reference materials once I arrive in Saigon. Books are a good value in Vietnam and quality of publishing is quite good.

      • Luu Vinh Phuc Says: October 23, 2014 at 2:28 am

        Another very good dictionary for looking up Sino-Vietnamese words: Hán Việt Từ Điển Trích Dẫn – 漢越辭典摘引 http://www.hanviet.org/

        Some other ones http://hvdic.thivien.net/ http://www.viethoc.org/hannom/tdtc_intro.php

      • I suggest han-viet.com

        Using the example 人:

        This lookup tool will link the Chinese character (ex: 人 rén, as opposed to the Chu Nom character) with its Sino-VietNamese form (nhân), but will also include the more modern Chu Nom forms ((2) thằng, (3) người).

        người (1) nhân, (2) thằng, (3) người 人 rén (nhân) [ Vh @ QT 人 rén < MC ɲin < OC *nin | cđ MC 臻開三平真日 | Pt 如鄰 | PNH: Hai. dang2, jəŋ32, QĐ jan4, jan12, Hẹ ngin2 (ɲin12), Bk ʐjən 12, Tn ʐẽ12, Ta ʐẽ12, Thn zjəŋ1, Hk njən12, Tx zjən12, Dươngchâu ljən12, Tc zjən12 (lit.); ɲin12, Ôc zaŋ12, Ts ʐjən12, Shuangfeng in12, Nx lan31, Hm ʐin12, $ laŋ12, Hai. njəŋ32, Trc naŋ12, Pk iŋ 12 $ loyŋ12, Th zjəŋ32, $ ɲiŋ32, Zyyy: ʐijən12 | Shuowen: 天地之性最貴者也。此籒文。象臂脛之形。凡人之屬皆从人。如鄰切〖注〗

  3. Serge, thanks for that example; the dak6 bit6 contrast with đặc biệt confirms what I’ve suspected all along: a speaker of Cantonese would find Vietnamese much less difficult. Naturally, the Vietnamese words that stick best for me are those with close Chinese equivalents: phong phú/丰富; giao thông/交通; hiện đậi/现代; phát minh/发明…words like that.

    • Cantonese definitely seems to be much closer phonetically at least. I have a couple of Vietnamese friends (natives / international students) who admit that if they’re around various Asians and are not paying attention or didn’t hear well, they can’t be sure if they heard someone speak Vietnamese or Cantonese.

      Glad to know about those equivalents. I’m putting together a table / database of how characters / syllables in various Asian languages are related, so it’s nice I got to add these. If you see my question to Serge, though, I’m looking for a dictionary or something that shows shared words between Chinese languages and Vietnamese.

    • Tung Dinh Says: July 28, 2014 at 2:23 pm

      sơn is san (mountain)
      phong is feng (wind) phong thuỷ/ feng shui
      Hải is hai (ocean/sea)
      kinh is jing (the main city) bắc kinh/ beijing

      i don’t know chinese, i’m a Vietnamese speaker. But I know we share a lot of words with Chinese. We call them Hán-Việt, which we got influenced by the Han dynasty during the colonial period. I was born and grew up in Vietnam, I finished high school there but honestly I don’t know a lot of Hán Việt, not many Vietnamese are good at Hán Việt either. We mostly use modern Vietnamese, which I think has changed a lot after the invention of Chữ quốc ngữ.

      I think Vietnamese grammar isn’t very hard, it’s similar to English in some aspects. We don’t have tenses and and question form is only to put some words at the end.

      Example,
      đi đâu? (Go where?)
      ngủ chưa (sleep yet?) I feel like we shorten the sentences a lot.
      làm cái gì (vậy)? (doing what?)

      Tao đi làm ngày mai. I go work tomorrow.
      Ngày mai tao đi làm. Tomorrow I go work.

      Hôm qua tao đi làm. Yesterday I go work.
      Tao đi làm hôm qua. I go work yesterday.

      Tenses are so simple, we only put time adverb to indicate tense without transforming the words, not like English.

  4. I could have written this post! I learned Chinese for 2 years (1 in Australia, 1 in Beijing) before a 3 year posting in Beijing. I was never a brilliant linguist and I struggled with tones but I could be understood. I requalified to a high level of proficiency twice (including while 37 weeks pregnant) and then 5 years later started Vietnamese. I thought it would be the same, I thought I could get by without tones. My teacher was kind on me in Australia and I tested well. But after a 3.5 month break (to have our second child) I arrived in Hanoi and realised I could barely be understood. I can read signs, pick up a bit in conversations, speak basiclaly and I do a party trick of starting and finishing speeches in Vietnamese. Going back to China last year after 9 years, and my Chinese came flooding back – and people understood. And yet in our system, we get 2 years for Mandarin (because of characters) and 1 for Vietnamese (although at least the in-country component has increased from my 4 weeks to 12). Great post thanks

  5. Reading this makes me want to study Vietnamese. I should probably keep working on my Chinese for a while first though. I’ll add it to that list of languages I want to learn someday but never probably will unless I end up living there.

  6. It would be great if you can also do a comparison of some other southeast Asian tonal languages, such as Thai and Lao with Mandarin Chinese. I wonder whether they are similarly difficult to learn like Vietnamese.

  7. Hi Alex,

    As a matter of fact, I studied Lao before my posting to Vientiane from 2009-2011.

    Lao presents much fewer difficulties than Vietnamese. The most difficult aspect is the script, but it is quite consistent, and actually not all that hard to learn.

    The sound system is not problematic for native English speakers.

    Lao has 6 tones, but we were never really taught them, and I will say that incorrect tones will not inhibit communication with Lao people. They will understand you at least 90% of the time, mostly due to context, and also because the Lao have such an easy-going nature–they really want to talk with you.

  8. Angela, I’ve argued (in vain up to now), for a re-designation of Vietnamese to a ‘super-hard’ rather than just ‘hard’. It would be great to get an extra year of instruction, especially in-country as is the case for Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic.

  9. Roy,

    As a native Vietnamese (who’s now an American citizen), I can totally relate about the “super hard” nature of the Vietnamese language. We even have a saying for it: “Phong ba bão táp không bằng ngữ pháp Việt Nam” (heavy storms are less difficult to deal with than Vietnamese grammar).

    With regards to the pronunciation of t/đ, for a new learner, you can use the English t and d to approximate those sounds (the Vietnamese d is pronounced like the German j/English y as you already know). Most people will understand you just fine (in fact, many America-born Vietnamese kind of pronounce those consonants that way even though they speak fluent Vietnamese). For that matter, the Vietnamese “th” and “ch” can be approximated by the English “th” and “ch” as well, (though the Vietnamese “th” is closer to the Mandarin “t”, as in your “交通/giao thông”). However, I agree that if you want to get those sounds right, you need to practice with a coach.

    As for the tones, we are very forgiving and most of the time, the context will determine the meaning of the word anyway. In fact, the Huế people pronounce tones differently from Northern and Southern people and we understand them just fine.

    When I started learning Mandarin, the 2nd and 4th tones used to trip me up like they did to you. It took me a while to break my habit of pronouncing the 2nd tone as dấu sắc and the 4th tone as dấu huyền. While we’re on the topic, I’d say dấu hỏi is pronounced exactly like the Mandarin 2nd tone (名,国,人,etc) and dấu nặng is pronounced like the 3rd tone (我,你,etc.). Dấu sắc is pronounced almost like the Mandarin 1st tone, as it has the highest pitch in the Southern accent (don’t need to worry about dấu ngã, which has a slightly higher pitch than dấu sắc in the Northern accent). These are obviously just approximation but they can get you pretty close.

    As you already pointed out, there’s a lot of cognates between Vietnamese and Chinese so knowing Chinese is a great advantage when it comes to learning Vietnamese. Besides the meaning, these cognates also share a tonal mapping system, which I’m going to describe below.

    In both Mandarin and Vietnamese, we categorize the tones into 2 groups: bằng (level 平) and trắc (oblique 仄). Now the rule to remember is that most of the times (there’s exceptions), a Mandarin word and its Vietnamese cognate will belong to the same tonal group, either level or oblique.

    Group 1 – Bằng (level 平)
    Vietnamese bằng: dấu huyền và ngang (level)
    Mandarin 平: 1st and 2nd tones

    Examples:
    名 -> danh
    人 -> nhân
    同 -> đồng
    知 -> tri

    Of course, there’s exceptions (typically due to Vietnamese also adopting Cantonese).
    十 -> thập (we got this from the Cantonese sap6)
    发 -> phát (again, we got this from the Cantonese)
    出 -> xuất (probably same reason)
    国 -> quốc

    Group 2 – Trắc (oblique 仄)
    Vietnamese trắc: sắc, hỏi (ngã), nặng
    Mandarin 仄: 3rd and 4th tones
    Examples:
    美 -> mỹ (as in nước Mỹ)
    现代 -> hiện đại (using your example)
    历史 -> lịch sử
    政治 -> chính trị
    法律 -> pháp luật

    There doesn’t seem to be many exceptions here. I can’t recall one off the top of my head (and that’s a good thing).

    Using this tonal mapping trick helps me get the tones right when I learn Mandarin. At least, now I have a 50/50 shot as opposed to 1/4. I think it would help you learn Vietnamese as well.

    Finally, a great website to look up Chinese/Vietnamese cognates is http://www.hanviet.org/.

    Best,
    Dinh.

    • Thinh Nguyen Says: October 25, 2016 at 6:26 am

      @Dinh Ton: I think you make some confusion in the use of d, đ, t, and th.
      First off, in Vietnamese D(d) and Đ(đ) are two distinct letters. They make completely different sounds, and so is the letter t. Even for English speakers there should not be any confusion between t/d/đ.

      The Vietnamese “t” is the SAME exact sound as the Spanish t which is quite differ to English t.
      Vietnames “th” simply does not have an equivalent in English. In IPA it is recorded as /tʰ/. I woudld say the “th” is most closer to the English t.

      Easy trick to remember t and th: T = Spanish t. Th = English t.

      The Vietnamese “đ” (with a little slash on top) is pronounce very similar to the English d (not completely the same but almost).
      Now the Vietnamese “d” (without a slash like the đ) is pronounce similar to German j and English y. Vietnamese people in the North tend to pronounce the d similar to English z.

      Vietnamese “ch”, “tr” are to be pronounced as English ch and tr (as in channel and truck). In the South, people tend to pronounce “ch” slightly differ (doesn’t have an English equivalent) but you should be able to tell. In the North, people pronounce both ch and tr as “ch”.

      Vietnamese “gi” is same as English z.
      Vietnamese “g” or “gh” is same as English g. Note that g becomes gh when it comes before i/e/ê.

      Vietnamese “r” theoretically should be pronounced as the rolling rr in Spanish, but no one I know does that, most pronounce it similar to the English r. In the North, people like to pronounce r as English z. Whereas in the deep South people pronounce it as English j.

      Vietnamese “ng” does not exist in English nor most Western languages. You just have to learn how to pronounce it.

  10. Very interesting. Personally, I find grammar to be the easiest aspect of Vietnamese by far. It’s isolating, so no conjugation: A blessing after Japanese.

  11. Another layer of difficulty in Vietnamese is “I” and You”. Unlike Chinese, the personal pronoun to refer to “You” and “I” differs according to the relative position of the speaker and the listener.

    You need to learn a very complex system of pronouns, only for saying ‘You’ and ‘I’, I mean, just to start your saying… Oh, my God.

    I’m a Korean and my native language Korean is very similar in such a complex ‘you’ and ‘I’, but we Korean people just ‘remove’ the tricky part and say, without explicit reference to that complex ‘you’, freeing us from the burden of wrong and rude utterance.

    But in Vietnamese, you are not allowed to omit ‘you’/’I’. It makes me almost impossible to start even the very simple sentences. Jesus.

    • Actually you can omit pronouns in informal situations. Heck if you’re not Vietnamese/don’t have Vietnamese relatives, you immediately bypass a large portion of the kinship terms. You can stick to things like anh, chi, em, toi, ban, ong, ba, chu, co… no need for things like thim, mo, duong, co/coc, noi, ngoai…

    • well, how about bạn & tôi? Anyway, yes, tiếng việt rất khó : why did I have to fall in love with an Hanoian girl, for crying out loud!

  12. Nomoto

    Chinese also has many way to say I and you traditionally. But it has probably been simplified for foreigners learning Mandarin.

    You can learn the various ways by watching ancient drama movies.

  13. I’ve been in-country now since late August. Everything I wrote above still applies, largely validated in my experiences here. However, one unforseen difficulty is terms of address. Not for men so much: Em, if they’re a lot younger; Anh if the same age or up to a decade older; and Ông for the elderly or someone in a position of authority.

    But for women it’s much harder. Theoretically: Em if they’re a lot younger or for a spouse/gf; Cô, for a woman < 40; Chị for a married woman > 35; and Bà for an elderly woman or a woman in authority.

    But it’s not so clear-cut, at least in the South. I’m never sure how to address any female older than 30. Maybe some Vietnamese speakers here can offer some input.

    • You’re not wrong about chị but it’s not only used for married women. It’s used for older women, but younger than cô*. But FYI married people usually use em, the 99% of the husband in Vietnam will call their wife for em, not chị. That even applies even if the woman is older than the man in a relationship and marriage. If the female is older than you it should usually be Chị. If she is around in her 30s and far from your age, it should normally be cô. E.g if you’re 18 and she’s 30, it’s cô. If your age is 25 and she’s 30, it should chị. As for authorities, we don’t only use ông. In fact, most likely we won’t use it for authority. We rather use bắc (Hồ Chí Minh is a good example), there’s a slight difference between these two words. Don’t forget we also have chú which is same as cô for males. *For older people, they can still use chị and cô as well but same thing applies, it depends on the age range. I know that since I am Vietnamese-Chinese.

      • Thanks that’s helpful, but still murky. Yes, I hear people say bắc alot. It literally means ‘uncle’, but I could swear I’ve heard people addressing women with that too.

      • It’s “bác”, to be exact. Prince Roy, yes people do use “bác” to address older women, but usually they have to be much older than you. You also use “bác” for women in the family that hold the rank “bác” in particular, but you won’t get to use it anyway so I won’t go deeper.
        I’m a Northern Vietnamese.

    • The correct term to use is dependent upon both the age and the relationship one shares with that individual. If you’re a foreigner then generally you can stick to the default kinship terms.

      If a female is younger than you it’s em. If she’s older it’s chị. If she sêems like a generation older it’s by default cô (it can also be thím/mợ/bác, but you don’t have to worry about it if you’re a foreigner since they’re relational differences). For instance bác is generally used for your paternal uncle/aunt who’s older than your father. Otherwise it’s cô. If it’s a maternal uncle then it’s cậu, if it’s a maternal aunt then it’s either cô or dì if they are older and younger than your mother respectively. Mợ is your maternal uncle’s spouse while thím is your paternal uncle’s spouse. Your maternal (older) aunt’s spouse is dượng.

      It goes on and on but if you’re a foreigner you can stick to just anh, chị, em, tôi, bạn, bác, cô…

  14. Interesting, because being Spanish, I find the t/đ pair easy to differentiate (in Spanish it is almost identical, and no, English and Spanish are not similar at all here), but I find the Chinese pairs t/d, b/p and g/k extremely hard to differentiate in normal speech. I guess another “nasal” sound you refer to is the Spanish ñ.

    Also, what is with that “few of the vowels being remotely similar to English”? Unless all the IPA transcriptions in books are wrong, from what I can see, there is only ONE Vietnamese vowel that does not exist in English (three, if you include the unrounded /ɯ/ and /ɤ/). Chinese has several vowels that English does not have, like the previous Vietnamese /ɯ/ and /ɤ/, the funny “vowel” sound (syllabic consonant) you get in 日, both vowels in 月 (/ɥ/ and /œ/ -although the latter is used in New Zealand English and a few other places), the French-like vowel in 女 (/y/), and nasalized vowels (ɑ̃ ə̃ ʊ̃). I can accept that you personally found Chinese easier to pronounce, but objectively, your vowel argument does not seem to make much sense.

  15. If you have problem with dau nang and huyen, then most likely you will forever sound like a foreigner. Pronouncing tái is easy, try pronouncing more complicated word such as nứa, lưu.
    I think your post is exaggerating, Vietnamese is easier than Chinese. And some Vietnamese do understand if you say words in wrong order, but if you can’t pronounce the right word then you’re pretty much screwed. I have heard foreigners who think they have mastered the pronounciation. Sure they are trying but the tones never comes naturally when having conversation. And I think you may find it harder because even though you’re learning the easy dialect (saigon), you are still bound to use the official writing system which belongs to North. So it’s more beneficial to learn The Hanoi dialect. Even though there are many native Vietnamese who does not use the Hanoi dialect, they still have to know all the 6 marks.

    • Perhaps Vietnamese may be easier to you but I doubt it’s the case for everyone, especially given how many more consonants and vowels there are in Vietnamese in comparison to Mandarin.

      What do you even mean by “easy” dialect? AFAIK there is no such thing. The standardised written form of Vietnamese is not uniquely Northern (at least the modern dialects anyway). If you analyse it carefully, it actually does a great job at encompassing the two major regional speeches.

      The initial consonants are closer to the Southern speech while the rest (the vowels and endings) are closer to the Northern speech. Regardless, this should serve little relevance.

      As for learning the Hanoi dialect, if OP happens to live in Saigon or amongst the Vietnamese overseas diaspora, then it’s more sensible and suitable for him/her to be learning the speech of the majority in that region.

  16. Hung Tran Says: July 12, 2015 at 9:52 am

    I am Vietnamese and my major is English.I graduated 2011, I had to learn Mandarin in my third year of college.After graduation,. I dropped off Mandarin for 3 years before I started again. It is a real pain to start over.I learn Mandarin myself now.But I made mistake that I tried to learn both traditional and simplified Mandarin at the same time.Second,I should have applied grammar translation method because Vietnamese has 70 % vocabulary of Hán Việt. But I did learn all Chinese new words via English definition instead. I started first with 301 chinese sentence book, then moved to 汉语教程 6 books.Studying the 5th book, unit 70, I totally got lost. I realized I cannot remember 40-60 new words a unit a day, cannot learn both traditional and simplified chinese , English definition for Chinese does not help my studies (I use pleco dictionary).I searched Internet and I find Hackingchinese site and this site. At the moment I use Step by Step chinese book, learn 2 hours a day 5am-7am, learn 20 words a day(my limit so far).at the moment i focus on building vocabulary before i can have a foundation to lean on and move on to other skills. i went to 重庆 2 times and Hongkong once, but what a shame to my chinESE cos I just can ask for directions and order food, as one local says 他 可以说和听懂简单的汉语.Back to vietnamese,i think learners should learn Hanoi voice first as I think it is standard

  17. I don’t remember what Chinese to me sounded like when I didn’t know it, but Vietnamese does sound very difficult phonologically. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWZ620nh_S0

  18. Clayton Davis Says: August 1, 2015 at 10:07 am

    This posting is exactly right. Before I studied Vietnamese I thought it was “Chinese lite.” Then learned Cantonese and saw how easily that went when compared with Mandarin and I became even more arrogant. Then I finally sat down and started learning Vietnamese and I made barely any progress the first year despite working on it every day. To be fair Mandarin was hard, too, back in the dark ages, but I have had so many more resources for learning Vietnamese in the Internet age and after having Cantonese come smoothly I was sure I’d do better at Vietnamese. The sound system is so hard to aurally comprehend. The vowels and consonants are almost all different from any language I’ve studied so I’m constantly getting confused about what I hear even when I have the dialogues memorized.

    If you don’t believe me, at least consider this. Of all the accents of people speaking English that I’ve hear, I’d say Vietnamese natives is the hardest to understand. I’ve even met a few 40-something professionals that had lived in the U.S. since elementary school who were occasionally hard to understand with certain words. When my company tried to find Vietnamese-English bilingual speakers to hire, it was by far the hardest even though we have one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the country.
    It’s not as easy to learn as people make it out to be.

  19. I have worked as an aid worker all over the world for 16 years. I learned to partially speak many languages, I was never able to be totally fluent since once an emergency ended I returned home. But I managed to pick up Dari (northern Afghanistan) quite easily, Swahili (Kenya) likewise.

    Thai took a while, but after one year, I managed to speak like a 6 year old, ”me like me no like’count to ten, tell time etc, I was able to be understood quite easily with my pigeon Thai / English as I traveled around doing development projects. There were SLIGHT differences between the dialects in the north and central regions. Sawatdee jow instead of sawatdee khrup for example.

    I have been studying Vietnamese for 6 years, and am no closer to being understood now than I was the day I arrived here.

    The cruel truth is, there are tonal sounds that Europeans simply cannot make!!!

    In addition, Vietnamese people are not capable of guessing what it is you want. For example, when you ask for the bill in a restaurant, and ask for the bill (even you make the verbal sign of writing the cheque)… they will call the manager and ask what it is you want… they think you are asking for a bucket of cow urine… !!! It doesnt matter how I say it, how many times I say it, to this day, waiters etc will be baffled when I ask for the bill…

    I know people who have been here 16 years, who speak perfectly to my ears, who still have Vietnamese people staring at them blankly when they try to converse with them.

    Vietnamese is a coastal language first and foremost. Each VILLAGE has its own dialect.. these differ dramatically as you go further up and down the coast!!

    I did a bike tour from Hanoi with a Vietnamese tour guide and bus driver.. by the time we got to Nha Trang (halfway down) he was unable to understand what the locals were saying.. this I say without any word of exaggeration. This central dialect is again different from the ones in HCMC and Hanoi.

    To be honest, I am regretting that I have spend so much time trying to learn this language, I could have been fluent in TWO other languages by now (French and Russian) with the amount of time and effort I have spent on Vietnamese.

    Ive only heard one foreigner speak like a local, and that was some 60 year old American missionary who has been here since the 1980’s.

    To be brutally honest, I would advise you to study something else. I continue to plod along because my fiance is Vietnamese… 😉

    • I think Europeans can definitely make Vietnamess tones haha

      I think Northern tones are easier to make than Southern tones. Southern tones are too exaggerated and hard for speakers of non tonal languages to make. However I think Southern tones are easier for Chinese people to make.

      Northern tones are like the tones you use in singing. I think you should practice with Vietnamese karaoke. Notice that all Vietnamese people sing in Northern Vietnamese, unless they are singing country songs or folk songs from their own region.

      I’ll leave you with this song, which I think has quite easy pronunciations and slow enough for a learner to catch up with all the words
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPv8f6jS2qA

  20. I think another feature that makes Vietnamese hard is also the amount of Chinese vocabulary we have acquired. Not only words but we have borrowed entire idioms and proverbs. So sometimes in conversations we would throw in a Chinese proverb. I think this happens more in the North than the South. We also use Chinese words when we want to be sarcastic, as euphemism or when we want to sound sophiscated lol
    So this can baffle foreigners trying to learn our language
    Also just to correct some points, Vietnamese didn’t borrow from a cantonese but from Classical Chinese. Chinese vocabulary in Vietnamese resembles its counterparts in Korean and Japanese. Many words are closer to Mandarin, other to Cantonese. For example hoang is closer to mandarin Huang than cantonese wang

  21. On a Chinese polyglot forum I see some people are saying Burmese>Khmer>Thai>Lao>Vietnamese.. Burmese being the hardest one while Vietnamese being the easiest one. Is that also true for you guys? I’m curious to know.

    • It’s going to be hard to find someone that can comment on all 4 languages! (Especially someone whose mother tongue is English, and not one of the 4, which would inevitably distort their perceptions of the other 3.)

  22. palomnik Says: June 24, 2016 at 10:48 pm

    I have been living in SE Asia now for eight years – four years in Thailand and four years in Vietnam. My undergraduate degree was in Chinese, and I learned Thai quite well when I lived there. I also have had no problem with Lao (but in fact Thai and Lao are so close that there’s not much effort involved in learning it if you already know Thai), and even after one week in Burma I could understand and communicate to a surprising extent. I have worked on Vietnamese – the first year I was here with a tutor – and it has been an exercise in frustration. I agree with most of John Pasden’s initial comments above; Vietnamese pronunciation is quite difficult, and despite what IPA symbols are used, Vietnamese vowels are not really similar to those of any European language, and frequently are different from those in other Asian languages too. What’s more, the differences between the vowel sounds can be quite subtle. In addition, vowel length is an issue in Vietnamese as well.
    However, people who already know that I can speak some Vietnamese have no trouble understanding me. This leads me to a suspicion that I have had about foreigners learning Vietnamese – Vietnamese people don’t expect you to speak Vietnamese, and they can be confused and even embarrassed when you do, or when you try to. This is not as preposterous as it sounds; people who have spent some time in Japan frequently face this same problem and I’m told that it’s not unusual in Korea either, although I’ve never been there.
    Of course, this makes the effort to learn the language frustrating – if nobody wants to talk to you, why bother to learn it?

  23. Vy Nguyen Says: June 29, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    This is an interesting perception coming from a foreigner who has tried to learn Vietnamese. As a person who was born, raised in, and had lived in Vietnam for 11 years before immigrating to the U.S. , I can tell from my own experiences that out of all the regional dialects, the Central (Trung/Hue) dialect is the most difficult to comprehend. There were some occasions in the past where I had great trouble just trying to figure out what the locals were trying to say; sometimes I even gave up trying. Thus I can totally understand your frustration in learning Vietnamese.

  24. For me, Vietnamese is not hard because it is my native language. Chinese is like so easy. But to most beginners, Vietnamese is a HARD language. Mandarin is like a breeze. I can speak Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Spanish, and English. And I am only 12. Languages are sooooo fun. I would NOT recommend learning it if you only know English ( Beginners )

  25. nguyenaky Says: June 6, 2017 at 11:30 am

    Most people are correct Vietnamese had borrowed a lots from Chinese especially Cantonese. Many words from Cantonese pretty much Vietnamese people can understand few words like “Long” Dragon both can understand that words. But don’t forget modern Vietnamese are pretty much different we don’t said “Long” but we said “Rồng”. Also Hà Nội pretty much people call it original Vietnamese that where most words are borrow from Cantonese and Mandarin. But few words in Hà Nội still pronounced different like letter “L” can become “N”,Nokia will turn into Lokia. For Southern like Sài Gòn you will hear people miss pronounced this letter “R” will turn into “G,Gh” and “V” will turn into “D,Gi. For example “Đi ra”(go out,get out) will turn into “đi ga” and “đi vô”( go in) turn into “đi dô”. Vietnamese had borrow numerous sruffs not only from Chinese,also French and Spanish, Portuguese of course English also. Most closest words are Cantonese. Hán – Việt, Chữ Nôm pretty much old day. We do still have words,but moder Vietnamese don’t used much of those from Chinese anymore.

  26. I’m Vietnamese speaker, and I’ve been learning English for nearly 10 years, Japanese for 3 months and Chinese for 1 month and I found the most difficult parts of these languages: Chinese writing, Japanese listening and English collocation and idioms.
    Maybe because I’m Vietnamese, I find it no difficuty. But I think, Vietnamese speaking is the hardest part.

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