Ten reasons to study Vietnamese (and 5 to regret it)

Last year, my friend Huyền and I gave a presentation at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana titled ’10 Reasons to Study Vietnamese (And 5 to Regret it)’. Since she couldn’t come to Europe at the time, her contribution was pre-recorded.

The whole talk, including the Q&A, has now been published. The response of the audience can’t be heard, making the thing a bit eerie, like a movie without its soundtrack. Anyway, here it is:

7 thoughts on “Ten reasons to study Vietnamese (and 5 to regret it)

  1. I saw the Chinese version of Babel in a local bookstore here in Hong Kong and was keen to find an English copy. (I could plow through Chinese at a snail’s pace but that would be quite a chore) I discovered some chapters of Lingo online and was looking forward to Babel with great expectations, even mapping out the 20 languages. I was quite disappointed with the first chapter on Vietnamese. I spent six weeks studying Vietnamese part-time in 2007, while also looking after kids, taking a class at a university language center and one-on-one in private school. I always go into a new language with an open mind, not referencing unrelated languages or obsessing too much about unfamiliar structures or aspects. You memorize the vocabulary, learn the structures and find interesting contrasts or analogies with other languages. I don’t think Vietnamese is a particularly difficult language. I have yet to start 7 of the top 20


    • I congratulate you on your language-learning talent, and envy you for it. Both my Vietnamese teachers have reassured me that my experience is rather typical, even among Westerners who spend years in Vietnam. Yours seems to be exceptional. But then, your linguistic trajectory seems to be exceptional, having studied quite a few non-Indo-European languages. I guess that helps. (If you studied a Chinese language before Vietnamese, it will appear easy indeed.)
      Have you considered writing a book about language-learning? Ot perhaps you have already?

      What I don’t quite get is why are you disappointed about my experience being different from yours. Most books are about people experiencing things differently from oneself, I’d say. Anyway, I hope you’ll like the other chapters better. They’re not about learning any language.


  2. I enjoyed your book, as I’ve myself had some similar adventures. But I sometimes find the tone too patronising, to be quite honest. IAn example is pages 29-30, where you go on at length on the formality of Vietnamese & term yourself “an egalitarian Western European” (who’re we kidding?) who finds terms of respect strange. Yet surely you’ve noticed the rather complicated pronoun system in European languages you yourself speak (vou/tou; du/Sie) and the associated verbal structures, right? You surely did not call your French teacher with toi, did you? This is to ignore the profusion of gendered nouns in European languages (and associated articles) & their absurdity in the “rapidly modernising” cultures where gender is more & more conceived as fluid and a product of social performance. So, let me ask you your own question as a native speaker of a Middle Eastern egalitarian genderless language: “Don’t young Limburgish speakers hate it”?

    That being said, thanks for the book. Makes a fun read…


    • Thank you!
      In response to some points you raise:
      * Surely it’s not patronising to notice a difference between just two levels (tu, vous) and a much larger number? I do think Western Europeans are more egalitarian. That isn’t to say we don’t make *any* distinctions, of course. (And don’t get me started on xenophobia.) But where I live, we do our best not to emphasise the differences; in Vietnam, it’s all about emphasising them all the time. And I also quote my Vietnamese friend who wouldn’t have it any other way; I’m just trying to explain my perspective.
      * There’s no reason to put ‘rapidly modernising’ in inverted commas: every Vietnamese person will agree. If you mean ‘Westernising’ would be a better word, I agree. ‘Modern’ has a positive connotation that has always puzzled me.
      * The reason why I asked a few Vietnamese people how they felt about this pronoun system, was the fact that one person said so herself. I’d never assumed that, just because I dislike it, they also might. But apparently some do. (Just as many Javanese dislike their complex honorific vocabulary.)
      * In response to your question: many people (not Limburgers in particular, but many speakers of Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Polish, etc. ) are indeed uncomfortable with the tu-vous distinction, and many speakers and writers, including myself, would prefer our languages to be much lighter on gender. (We envy Persian, Turkish, Finnish and the like.) But of course that’s not an easy change to make…


      • I guess one of these days, we might meet somewhere in the world (Maastricht?) and discuss this in person. I think the image that morpholigical formations in languages are epitomising social values is wrong, in fact describing unrelated phenomena. An example is that Persian society is not at all gender-less (au contraire!), but the language is! I think egalitarian Western values (whatever that might mean) are not the reason why French has less terms of respect than Vietnamese, or that Icelandic society’s equality in gender stands in any particular contrast with the language’s rather complicated gender system. But thanks again, and looking forward to meeting you. I have finished the book and will write a review of it soon.


      • There we really seem to disagree, though only partially. I’m entirely with you when it comes to things like gender in inanimate nouns, and even in many animate nouns: that’s just an accident of history. Also, I don’t buy any of this ‘languages without a future tense make people save for the future’ stuff – I strongly suspect it’s rubbish. Also, the fact that German and Dutch have a word for schadenfreude, while English traditionally didn’t does not in the least imply that the Germans and Dutch are more given to that emotion. (On the other hand languages’ vocabularies will reflect to a degree the natural environment in which they are spoken. I mean, Swiss German has certainly more specific terms for alpine phenomena than Dutch, which in turn has more words in the field for water management. But that should go without saying.)
        However, grammatical ways of expressing respect and politeness change much more quickly than deep-seated grammatical phenomena such as gender, reflecting social change. In Sweden, most formal forms of address went out of the window in the late sixties, including the words formerly used for ‘you’ (as in vous, I mean). In the Netherlands, the same has happened to a lesser degree. That has a lot to do with a growing informality in society, which in turns reflects a degree of egalitarianism, or at the very least a widespread uneasiness with all the class (and gender and ethnic and what have you) distinctions that, of course, have not gone away.
        Anyway, I’m looking forward, with some slight apprehension, to you review. And of course I would enjoy discussing these matters over with you over a cup of some hot liquid when you’re somewhere in the West of the Netherlands – I only rarely visit Maastricht anymore.


  3. Oh how I`d love to hear it. My problem is that I´m almost deaf by now. I´ve never made any comments before so it´s about time I thank you a lot for giving me the pleasure of reading your pages.


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