In New York state, the COVID-19 shelter-in-place/quarantine/lockdown started in mid-March. After a month of trying to adjust to the new normal, I realized that I needed to do something with the extra time freed up from not commuting and basically not leaving my apartment at all.
I am a person who thrives with a routine, so I decided to start taking Vietnamese lessons so I could improve my Vietnamese and add something to my very vacant weekly schedule. I also never speak Vietnamese in my daily life, so I thought it’d be nice to have a teacher who I could speak with and correct my pronunciation.
I decided to take lessons with Southern Vietnamese For Foreigners (SVFF). The national standard for the language of the country is the northern accent, but my parents are from the south, so I specifically wanted to learn Vietnamese with the southern accent. It was also really helpful for me to have a teacher who was also from the south because she understood some of the southern lingo I picked up from my parents (i.e. where my parents are from, they’ll say “thật” for “real” but the word used nationally is “thiệt”).
It’s been four months since I’ve started, so here are the changes I’ve noticed:
I feel vulnerable when speaking another language because I can’t fully express myself and I’m afraid of mispronouncing words. Every time I’ve spoken Vietnamese in the past, people would make fun of it, telling me I sound like a child or my Vietnamese sounds funny. So it’s understandable why I would have such low self-confidence when speaking in Vietnamese.
However, my teacher has been really encouraging and gentle with my speaking. She’s patient and has never rushed me no matter how long it takes me to form a sentence. And when I mispronounce something, she’s strict at correcting me but her corrections don’t make me feel bad at all.
While I’m still far away from being 100% comfortable speaking in Vietnamese, my confidence level is higher than when I first started my lessons.
Pronunciation needs work
I have developed some really bad habits when it comes to pronouncing words in Vietnamese. My parents’ hometowns are far south from Saigon, a major city, so their pronunciation is really different compared to those living in or nearer to the city. I think the southern accent is pretty relaxed, soft, and easy-going, whereas the northern accent is really pronounced, sharp, and structured. So the further south in Vietnam you go, I feel like the more relaxed the accent becomes.
One example is the word “loại” (means “type”). I’ve historically pronounced this with a silent “a” sound. My teacher told me that while some people in the south do tend to drop the second vowel in words, it’s not technically correct since we’re completely omitting the second vowel. Another example is “thoại” in “điện thoại” which means “phone”.
Another word I’ve had a lot of trouble with is “phông” which means “room”. I tend to make my lips smaller into an O shape when I say this word, but the correct way to pronounce it would be to keep your lips neutral in the – shape. I found for things like this, it’s really helpful to have a teacher there to see how I’m shaping my lips and help correct it.
My parents left Vietnam decades ago after the south lost the war and as I mentioned previously, their hometowns were pretty far south in the countryside, far from the city. After the north and south were reunified, it was easier to travel from north to south and vice versa, and I imagined it cause some mashup of the accents. That’s why even though Saigon is a part of the south and the accent there is distinctly different from the accent spoken in Hanoi, my parents still consider the Saigonese accent to be northern-ish.
In addition to the accent differences, words also evolve. Here, I’ve only ever heard “nhà băng” being used for “bank”, but according to my teacher, that’s an old word and the more commonly used word now is “ngân hàng”.
Context matters when translating
I have a really bad habit of doing literal translations between Vietnamese and English.
Take “đi chơi” as an example. “đi” means “go” and “chơi” means play, so I’d translate it as “go play”. That doesn’t really make sense if it’s an adult talking about their hobbies. In that case, it’s more like “go hang out”.
In English, we use “at” to describe where something is taking place but also at what time. I’m going to be at my friend’s house at 9pm. In Vietnamese, there’s two words to say “at” depending on whether we’re talking about place or time. “ở” should be used when we’re talking about where and “lúc” should be used when we’re talking about time.
If you’re interested in learning Vietnamese too (specifically with the southern accent), I have an affiliate code with SVFF that will give you 15% off your first purchase – SVFFMai14. I get a small commission/free class if you do use the code.
There are other Vietnamese language schools that teach the northern accent which I have listed in this Vietnamese language resource list that I’ve put together. I don’t have any experience of learning with them but based on what I’ve seen, they also seem pretty good!