Learning a new language can be both rewarding and intimidating, not least for people who have only ever spoken their mother tongue. For people living abroad, learning the language of their temporary or adopted home can be a doorway into the deepest corners of a new culture.
If you’re tired of needing help to arrange appointments, or you want to understand why Vietnamese people look offended when you mispronounce the word for “big”, the opinions which follow offer the motivation you’re looking for.
Stop Staying, Start Living
Tieng Viet Oi is a Hanoi-based company dedicated to teaching Vietnamese to foreigners. It was founded by Nguyen Thanh Lan and Phan Hoang Anh, who felt frustrated by the language centres who only cared about profits.
“Learning Vietnamese is just a bonus,” says Lan. “The main benefit is learning more about our culture and etiquette.”
Lan’s students are often taken outside, where they are given challenges to help build their confidence. Combined with the café-based lessons, the whole experience feels more social than academic.
Lan has students who quit after just one lesson, but she doesn’t take it to heart.
“Learning any language is hard,” she says. “People always have their strengths, and some are just not into languages.”
One of the main challenges can be the lack of support from Vietnamese people.
“Vietnamese don’t encourage foreigners enough,” Lan says. “They often laugh, or don’t make any effort to understand when a foreigner tries speaking Vietnamese.”
To overcome this, Lan instructs her students to spend the first half of their journey focusing on the tones, which are often a source of anxiety.
Lan accepts that Vietnamese people can be less than friendly when dealing with foreigners in shops, restaurants or markets.
“If you go there and speak even a bit of Vietnamese,” Lan says, “you will get more than a big smile. People will be more helpful, and they’ll remember you when you go back.”
For more information on one-on-one, group and Skype classes, visit facebook.com/tiengvietoi or call 0164 9583167.
Persist, Thrive, Succeed
Let’s Speak Vietnamese (LSV) burst onto the Hanoi language teaching scene four years ago, founded by Phung My Hanh and Valentin Constantinescu.
“Lonely Planet won’t help you understand the culture,” says Valentin, the Romanian co-founder who has lived in Vietnam for 12 years, and speaks fluent Hanoi Vietnamese.
Valentin has found one of the most effective ways to motivate foreigners is by making them jealous; when he chats and jokes with Vietnamese people around him, others wish they could join in.
“I show them how people respect foreigners more when they speak Vietnamese,” adds Hanh.
In the beginning, LSV operated small lessons in cafés. These days, they have a proper centre with a syllabus, organised classes and custom designed textbooks for all levels.
“Sometimes we combine students of different levels,” says Hanh, “so the students can learn from each other, and see the progress between levels.”
Their classes never have more than eight students, so the teacher is able to focus on individual students and find the methods which work best for them.
Overcoming the first stage is always the most difficult, because people struggle to persist when faced with laughter or misunderstandings.
“Making this change permanent is the same as with any language,” says Valentin. “Watch Vietnamese movies, listen to Vietnamese songs and keep in touch with Vietnamese friends.”
As the Vietnamese economy continues to grow, the Vietnamese language will increase in importance. Valentin believes learning Vietnamese is just another way to open doors and create opportunities.
“You’ll always find a reason to use Vietnamese.”
For more information on LSV check out facebook.com/lsvhanoi, call 0121 6076061 or visit their centre at 89/173 Hoang Hoa Tham, Ba Dinh, Hanoi.
Photos by Julie Vola
Learning Vietnamese in Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City has a number of language schools. However, the best known is VLS (vlstudies.com). Running since 1994, the school’s founder Dr. Vo Xuan Trang wrote the first Vietnamese textbook for learners of the local language. The school has since been taken over by his daughter.
Key to VLS’s success is an understanding of a need to teach both the southern and northern dialects. They’re quite distinct — as distinct as Swedish is from Norwegian — but the problem of living in Ho Chi Minh City is that learning northern Vietnamese doesn’t quite work. You won’t understand the majority of people when they talk to you and they won’t understand you. To be a successful Vietnamese language speaker you need to have knowledge of both dialects.
To read about some ideas for personal change, click on the following links:
Get Into Stand-Up Comedy
Take Art Classes
Get Professional Help
Nutrition and Vietnamese Food
The Power of Habit
The following stories are about people who have made substantial personal change. For some inspiration, click on the following links:
Todd Gilmore, The Triathlete
Sophie Pham, The Introvert
Ha Minh, The Woman
Laura Sheehan, The Mentor
Robin Babu, The Fitness Dude
Sheereen Amran, The Pastry Chef
Mitch Brookman, The Hairdresser