If there’s one thing I dislike while being abroad, it’s not being able to communicate with everyone. Since I moved to Saigon over six months ago, I went from sitting silently in meetings not understanding a single word, to accidentally saying something offensive in Vietnamese over dinner. Instead of saying “áo dài”, which is a traditional outfit, I said “dái”, which means balls. But hey, it’s still an improvement, right?
Similarly, a friend spent a week in Vietnam saying “không có chim” instead of “không có chi”. This is basically saying “I don’t have a little birdie” rather than “you’re welcome”. And a student from my language school said “cởi đi” instead of “cười đi” to a girl while pointing his camera at her. Instead of saying “smile”, he said “take it off” as in take off your clothes. Did you know there are six tones in Vietnamese? The minute you change the tone, you say something different—or nothing at all. How fun!
But seriously, it’s not that hard to learn a new language, at least the basics. Though it’s as easy to start learning a new language as it is to quit and forget everything. There have been times when I postponed my classes and lacked the motivation. And then I found comfort in knowing that adults can be better language learners than kids according to research from the University of Haifa. With the right mindset and a few tricks, you can add a new language to your repertoire and open the door to a new community.
First, nothing replaces a good teacher. Not only does my teacher help me with pronunciation, but she explains the meaning and root of certain words while sharing valuable information about the culture. But there are also plenty of resources such as books, apps like Duolingo, and programs that can help you learn and improve your skills on your own. These three tricks will help you learn better and more quickly.
Loanwords are words adopted from a foreign language with little or no modification. For example, many Vietnamese words were borrowed from Chinese, some from French and Tai languages, and a few from English and Chamic. So if you speak one of these languages, you’re not really starting from scratch.
Examples of French loanwords in Vietnamese in the food and drinks category:
These loanwords are much easier for French speakers to remember than any other Vietnamese words.
In order to speak, you don’t need to know all the words of a language. You may “realize that 20% of the effort you spend on acquiring new vocab could ultimately give you 80% comprehension in a language” as mentioned on this blog by the author of the 4-Hour Workweek.
In English, 300 words make up 65% of all written material. As for Chinese, the top 200 characters will allow you to comprehend 40% of basic literature, as mentioned in this Ted talk by ShaoLan Hsueh. In Vietnamese, 100 key words and phrases lead to 1,000 ideas, as promised by this book.
You should also ask or search for industry-related words, or sentences that are important to you. After a few classes, I asked my teacher how to say, “Have a nice day”. I was surprised to hear that people don’t say that to each other. But I learned it anyways and say it often.
When necessary, come up with mnemonics. As described in Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, tell yourself a funny, unusual, or memorable story to associate with a specific word. By doing this, the word will stick to your memory more easily. For example, I used to mix up the numbers two (hai) and three (ba) for no reason. So my teacher told me to picture the Vietnamese beer called ba ba ba or 333, and to think about someone saying Hi (hai) while making a peace sign (✌).
Other than that, you’ll memorize words better by pairing them with images, writing them down by category and repeating them. Singing and watching movies with subtitles also helps with both memorization and pronunciation.
Are you learning a new language? What’s been helpful to you?
I’d like to thank my Vietnamese teacher Mai from Vietnamese Language Studies (VLS) for her precious help as well as my previous English teacher Kurt Chaboyer, who’s also a freelance translator, proofreader and copywriter.