[Note: Heh. I remember when this was a thing. I’ve basically come to terms with the language now…]

They say the most effective way to learn something is to eventually teach it to someone else. In this series, I’m going to take you deep into my (no doubt painful to hear) attempts to learn the languages of my host countries. First up, obviously: Vietnamese.

Vietnamese is a complete asshole of a language for many Westerners. I do not use the profanity lightly – my brain honestly starts to cramp after my 1.5 hour lessons. The subtle, alien-to-my-ears tone inherent in each vowel, plus any additional tonal phrasing included in the form of up or down accents, tildes, hooks, and dots, brings a sing-song effect that is easily mocked by racists (seriously, I feel like I’m making fun when I try to read sentences), but very difficult to master, let alone speak accurately.

For instance, a simple word in Vietnamese (hereafter: VN) can be altered by any of the five tonal modifiers to create a total of six possible words, depending on your inflection. Getting the tone right is just as important as remembering to pronounce your vowels and consonants correctly (which is ALSO really difficult), or you’ll be thoroughly incomprehensible to any native speaker, no matter how good your pronunciation of the rest of the word may be. And if you’re messing up tones, you KNOW your pronunciation is going to be shit.

In ADDITION to that complexity, spoken VN also almost always leaves the last letter out of a word. Why, VN, WHY?! Sometimes I can be looking directly at a written version of what my tutor is repeating to me, and it STILL sounds like garbled nothing, even as I read and she speaks. She’ll point at her mouth and chin, and I repeat her over and over again, still failing to find the difference between pronunciations she’s attempting to get me to recognize.

I must sound like an infant child to the coffee shop guests around me, and in many ways, that’s exactly what I am. A child has an infinite capacity to learn to make the noises associated with its parent language, but these abilities ossify as a child ages. To learn a new language as an adult takes time, patience, and a damn lot of coffee practice. I’ll need all of them to succeed.

Yes, it’s this easy to use your existing, English-centric Mac keyboard to successfully, if painstakingly, type in VN!

So, every few weeks, I’m going to practice using my VN keyboard (THANK YOU, Apple, for including an easy-to-use way to switch between languages on the fly!!) and put down what I’ve learned so far. Hopefully this will help solidify what I learn in my brain, as well as providing you an entertaining read or two!

First up, the building blocks of any language: the alphabet. Ay-yi-yi… the alphabet. And to start that off, let’s take a look at tones and vowels, the very, very beginning of the VN language. Some people choose to jump right into phrases, but because the pronunciation of consonants and vowels is so consistent across words that it pays to start with these basics.

TONES

We’ve got five basic tonal modifiers, as I mentioned (and btw, I’m making up all these technical-sounding words, i.e. “tonal modifiers” and the like. It’s just what I think of them as. They probably have real names, but I don’t actually care).

´ – Dâú Sắc – Slide up on word
` – Dâú huyền – Slide down
 ̣ – Dâú nặng – low staccato – use throat to attack and slightly move up on the vowel – if you’re musical, slide one half note up
~ – Dâú ngã – slight dip and up, as if to question or argue
 ̉ – Dâú hỏi – slight dip and up – this is pronounced the same as the tilde in Southern Vietnam

And, of course, if there is no tonal modifier present, then the sound is a straight, neutral vowel, without any inflection. This is sometimes the hardest to do – leaving vocal inflection out of questions and statements is honestly the hardest part I’ve had to deal with yet.

Aside: notice that each modifier has the actual modifier in the name!

Note: ‘d’ in VN is pronounced ‘y’: Dâú is therefore pronounced “yaó?” with an upward inflection. Đ is the letter for a hard ‘D’ like in English.

VOWELS

There are twelve vowels in VN language. They’re mostly easy to imagine in terms of English sounds, except for the final U vowel… as you can see, I can’t even make a paper noise as to how this vowel is pronounced – I simply try and imitate my tutor’s mouth, for better or worse… usually worse. Four lessons in and I still have very little idea how to consistently make this noise.

a – say it like the ‘a’ in Than
ă – say it like the ‘a’ in Than with an upward inflection, always – i.e. than?
â – say it like uhh? always upwardly inflected except when modified
o – say it like the ‘o’ in on. jaw open
ô – say it like the ‘o’ in oh. jaw open, lips in O shape
ơ – say it like ‘uh’, but without the upward inflection of the â
e – say it like ‘eh’ in ‘can-eh-dian’ or like the straight English letter ‘A’
ê – say is like ‘eehh’ like you just said e, but back in your throat with your tongue down, like a grunt
i – say is like ‘ee’ – make it short, like the English letter ‘E’
y – Say it like ‘ee’ – just like VN letter ‘i’
u – say it like ‘ooo’
ư – say it like ‘ooo’ but with your teeth mostly together, your lips spread in a half grin, and a look or terrible concentration on your face… at least that’s how I roll, so far. haha.

As I mentioned… hopefully that last ư sound will simply come with practice. It gets me every single time, so far. I literally don’t even know how to say the name of the vowel. It’s just “that goddamn U vowel” for now.

Alphabet

b – bờ – pronounced “buh” with downwards inflection
c – cờ – pronounced “cuh” with downwards inflection
d – dờ – pronounced “yuh” with downwards inflection
đ – đờ – pronounced “duh” with downwards inflection
g – gờ – pronounced “guh” with downwards inflection
k – ca – pronounced “kaa” like the ‘a’ in cab
h – hờ – pronounced “huh” with downwards inflection
l – lờ – pronounced “luh” with downwards inflection
m – mờ – pronounced “muh” with downwards inflection
n – nờ – pronounced “nuh” with downwards inflection
p – NEVER ALONE, NO SOUND
q – NEVER ALONE, NO SOUND
r – rờ – pronounced “ruh” with downwards inflection
t – tờ – pronounced “tduh” with downwards inflection, more D than T
s – sờ – pronounced “suh” with downwards inflection
x – sờ – pronounced “suh” with downwards inflection, same as VN ‘s’ in almost all cases
ch – chờ – pronounced “tchuh” with downwards inflection
gh – gờ – pronounced “guh” with downwards inflection
kh – khờ – pronounced “hkuh” with downwards inflection, slight ‘h’ breath before the ‘k’
ph – fờ – pronounced “fuh” with downwards inflection, just like ‘ph’ in English
qu – wờ – pronounced “whuh” with downwards inflection, like English ‘wha-‘
tr – đjờ – pronounced “djuh” with downwards inflection, d and j running together in almost an ‘ch’ sound
th – thờ – pronounced “tuh” with downwards inflection
ng – ngờ – pronounced “nguh” with downwards inflection, ‘ng’ like the end of english ‘sing’
ngh – ngờ – pronounced “nguh” with downwards inflection, same as VN ‘ng’, see above
gi – di – pronounced ‘yee’ without inflection (neutral, neither up nor down)
nh – nhờ – pronounced “nhyuh” with downwards inflection

So, all in all, these are not terrible, terrible problems. They mostly follow a pattern and they almost always are pronounced as they look, once you adapt your pronunciation to the VN style.

On to dipthongs, then!

Diphthongs

What is a diphthong? If you’re reading this, you already know what it is, whether you know it or not. A diphthong is when two vowels get together and have sweet, sweet intercourse, making a new-sounding vowel as their love-child. Yep, that’s the best way I can describe it. Read on to learn about normal VN diphthongs!

ao – pronounced ‘ah-ow(l)’ as if you were going to saw ‘owl’ at the end and bit it off instead
ai – ‘I’ – just the same as the English I. Short and sweet
iu – ‘ew’ Make it short
iêu – ‘ew’ make this the same as VN ‘iu’ – short
ay – ‘aiee’ – wide ‘e’ at the end, like you’re grinning
au – ‘ow!’ – super short, bite it off. No inflection in the base.
ây – ‘uh-ee’ – short, drop your jaw
eo – ‘eh-oh’ – make it fast, end with your mouth in an ‘O’
êu – ‘ee-oo’ – super fast, halfway in your throat

Look at that last one! WHAT A MESS.

ui – ‘oo-ee’ fast.
uôi – ‘oo-ee’ fast. Faster. FASTER.
uyên – ‘oo-win’ – super fast
ac – the ‘a’ in act
ăc – the first ‘o’ in octopus
ât – ‘úh(t)’ and bite off the ‘t’
ươi – Grunt and say something like ‘uoee’ or WHATEVER jesus
ươn – Don’t move mouth, say ‘oo-uh’ while half smiling. This is a mess, christ.
_________________________

So here we go. This is the first three lessons I’ve had on the VN alphabet boiled down into my notes, and hopefully, if you care, it helps. I know I’m basically putting it down for myself, so go ahead and not care if that’s your cup of tea. If you don’t care and you’re reading this just for fun, I hope to god you just skipped to the bottom and avoided the headache, and in the future you’ll know not to click on links like this. Yes? Yes. It’s all a mess and unless you want to come to visit me here in Vietnam, don’t even bother. Just think of me rewriting all of this as part of my learning experience (and isn’t it all, really?).

Until next time, when I lay some heavy number theory down on you! That’s right, I learned numbers today. And they make a million times more sense than letters, and possible even more sense than English numbers. They’re insufferably long, though, just like all VN. So be prepared.