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Tips for learning Vietnamese…from one who is still learning

“It’s hard,” is my recurring complaint. “It’s easy!”, is my wife’s persistent retort. Of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Vietnamese is a language far removed from the familiar grounds of any westerner. At the same time, some parts of the language are much easier (praise be to verbs without conjugations!).

A dedicated course made it easier for my parents-in-law to understand me, got me better deals from street vendors and helped me guide my friends to a tasty bowl of beef phở in Hà Nội. Drawing upon my experience as both a student and a teacher (I was a chess teacher for years), I want to share some tips that I am sure should help out many on their path to learning Vietnamese.

1. Have a concrete goal for learning

You are going to go much further with a goal for learning. For example: coding is a skill that can land you a high paying job. But for the life of me I have been unable to sit down and properly learn to code. Friends I know who did though, almost universally had the same start. They wanted to solve a specific problem and coding was the way.

One of the most successful Vietnamese students I have witnessed had the goal to live in Ho Chi Minh City, connect better with his fiancée as well as her family. He studied faithfully before going and kept up his studies while he was there. His level grew in step with his dedication and eventually he was able to hold a half hour conversation with his tennis coach and arrange for documents with public officials by himself.

2. Find a teacher you have good chemistry with

For this, as with much in life, it helps to know yourself. What kind of learner are you? If you can answer that for yourself you can also help your teacher who (if they are from Vietmaster) is skillful enough to incorporate your preferences into the lesson plan. For me, I love games and challenges, the most exciting learning experience at Vietmaster was a timed quiz where there was a high score to beat. I must have done that quiz at least five times.

Try to find a teacher who you can have a trial with. Ask yourself: do they motivate you? Is it fun? At this point you can still request a switch if you have any reservations. You are in charge of your learning and you should feel like you are in good hands.

3. Follow a structured lesson plan

When I taught I followed a well-respected lesson plan with more than 15 workbooks and 7 instructional manuals. Although I loved to improvise every now and then for fun, this structure was a godsend and made sure students built a solid foundation. Because the curriculum was well thought out, lessons flowed nicely into each other and my students progressed quickly and easily.

Once you find a plan that works for you, it's wise to stick with it. Much like losing weight, it’s much easier to do when you are able to follow a plan instead of jumping onto the bandwagon of whatever is in fashion every other week.

4. Learn outside of your lessons

When I taught I always told parents that 90% of their kid’s progress was made outside of my lesson. That is not because I am so humble. It is because I usually had only one hour per week with a student. Two hours a week is already much better. Doing some Duolingo is also great. But it does not have to be “work”. Passive learning like listening to Vietnamese music or watching a show with subtitles is also going to help you.

Finally, remember to have fun! It’s exhilarating to finally be able to understand and be understood. One of life’s greatest joys is experiencing the development of your skills. If you are putting in all this effort (and you are, because you are reading this), you deserve to enjoy it.

Richie Bartels - A Vietnamese learner


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