Attending the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki, late last month, has inspired me to do a bold and daring thing: start learning Vietnamese. While the language may appear small in comparison to its northern neighbour, Chinese, it actually has no fewer than 80 million speakers. Moreover, one of these, a friendly and wonderfully efficient woman named Tuyết, happens to clean our house every fortnight, so I may have an opportunity for practice there – or at the very least, I will be able to surprise her one of these days. (Days? Make that ‘weeks’. Or ‘months’, more likely.)
Another good thing about Vietnamese is that it uses the Latin alphabet, so I won’t have to learn thousands of characters, only the meaning of nine diacritics: the tilde, the acute, the dot below, and so on. Moreover, Vietnam is an attractive tourist destination, so I may one day go on holiday there. (Or perhaps not. I’ve been flying a lot recently, and I should get back to practicing what I preach, climate-wise.) The main downside is that, like Mandarin, Vietnamese has tones, and even more: six instead of four. But hey, I have a good ear for tone in music and I grew up with a pitch language, Limburgish, so that should give me something of a head start.
Still, I haven’t yet mentioned the main reason to embark on this adventure, which is that I’d like to report on it in Babel, the book I’m working at. Babel will be about the world’s twenty largest languages, and Vietnamese is one of them. I’m sure the language has all sorts of surprises up its sleeve, and I’m looking forward to being amazed and amused and frustrated and rewarded – which I hope will make for an interesting chapter in Babel.
Right now, I’m trying to figure out what might be a good way to start cracking this rather exotic nut. There’s an Assimil course on its way to my address (the German version; it also exists in French, but somehow not in English). I already owned a language guide from the German Kauderwelsch series, which tends to be good. And there is of course a lot of free stuff online: the big names, such as Duolingo, Memrise, Forvo, but also dozens of videos featuring a Saigon-based native speaker and teacher named Annie.
Time to take the plunge. I’ll keep you posted.
You can find all my posts about Vietnamese here.