I’m Learning Vietnamese, Y’all: What You Really Need To Know When Learning a New Language

I’m Learning Vietnamese.

I Think I’m Learning Vietnamese.

I really think so.


Harbin Chinese

This one says, “I’m with stoopid’


So I’m learning another language.

I’m adding Vietnamese, slowly and poorly intoned, to my slapdash mental collection of half remembered words and phrases from a dozen countries.

I may have mentioned this once or twice already.

After a decade of trying to cram Turkish (fairly successfully in certain areas) and Mandarin (less so) into my overstuffed brain, I’m now adding a tonal, alphabetized language to the chaos.

Somewhere in the early days of the Happiness Project, we acknowledged that trying to do what we are, well, trying to do in the UK (like, earn a living, have a good circle of friends, do pleasing and interesting things during our free time, etc) was doing our heads in at a remarkable speed and force and that maybe quietly packing up and heading back to Asia might be a good idea after all.

It hasn’t even been a year since we decisively left Shanghai and headed back into the theoretically calmer and easier world of the west, and already we’ve lined up work, goals, and a small theoretical social network in Hanoi.

In preparation for our move come October, I’ve decided to do something I never did before any of my previous massive global life transitions: I’m going to prepare myself for it.



Shanghai art descriptor

Language learning for better art appreciation


Since I will have been travelling and living abroad for exactly 20 years come September, I have a pretty good idea about what I will need to learn first when it comes to languages. I know that the classroom courses I took in both Turkey and China really weren’t helpful when it came to real life situations.

What do I actually need to know in a language?

Realistically speaking here. The basics.

When would I be asking about someone else’s nationality (and when will I be asked about mine, aside from having my foreignness pointed out in a regular, generic manner by passersby?) or traditional holidays and festivals?

When would I be asking about brothers or sisters?

Do I care about people’s ages or hobbies or jobs?

When have I ever needed to know about the rooms in a house and the contents contained within?  

Do I ever talk about the weather with random strangers?

Hell no.

I’m a language teacher and those are all the things I often end up asking in class in beginner level courses and I know that neither I nor the students really give a toss about the answers. They’re just the building blocks used in the foundation of learning a new language.  Tools to practise with.

Living in a country, however,  calls for a very specific set of functional language very rarely taught in structured courses.


lanzhou lamian

I’ll have the noodles. Oh. Wait.

Phrases in Vietnamese I already know I’ll need…

At the market

  • What’s this?
  • [insert passive understanding of Vietnamese phonetic structure to be able to imagine how it’s written, for future reference]
  • How do you eat this? Do you need to cut/peel/cook it?
  • How much is X amount of this/that?
  • [insert passive understanding of numbers/weights/units/etc]
  • Sorry, how much was that again?
  • Can you speak more slowly?
  • Can you write that down?
  • No, that’s too much. Are you mad? Seriously, you’re taking the piss.
  • Can you give me a better price? What if I bought 3 mangosteens and a dragonfruit? Would you throw in a ______?
  • So how much is everything altogether if you throw in an extra bundle of cilantro?
  • I have my own bag, thanks.

On the street, looking for an address

  • Excuse me, where is __________?
  • [insert passive understanding of directions/distances/prepositions of location]
  • Is that near the _______ [insert landmark here]?
  • [insert passive knowledge of language of certainty/supposition]
  • Is there a bus that goes there? Which one? Do you know the name of the stop?
  • [insert passive awareness of Vietnamese phonetic structure to approximate match with spelling]
  • Thank you.
  • No, I’m not giving you my phone number/email address.
  • [repeat until you get the right directions]

In a taxi

  • Take me to_______________, please.
  • Please turn on the meter. Seriously. I’m getting out if the meter isn’t on.
  • Your meter is rigged. Please stop the taxi and let me out. This is ridiculous.
  • No, I’m not sharing this taxi with another passenger. He’s not even going in the same direction.
  • No, don’t take me to your brother’s shop. I want to go to ___________.
  • Stop here. This is my stop. Stop, for fuck’s sake. Now. No, don’t circle the block to run up the meter. I’m only paying you the amount it said when we passed by my stop.
  • Can you please go via __________ street, as it’s the most direct route?
  • Seriously, I know this city and you’re taking the long way around. Not cool.
  • Dude, you can’t change the price we agreed on at the beginning of the journey. That’s bad ethics. I’m giving you X amount, like we agreed on.
  • Ah, this is my stop. Just here. Thank you, brilliant. Can I have your card?

In a restaurant/food stall/cafe

  • What’s this?
  • What are in these?
  • What are you making?
  • How do I eat/drink/assemble this?
  • What are these for?
  • Can I have what they’re having?
  • Is that yogurt/egg/[insert X here] in my coffee?
  • Is this offal/brain/lung/sweetmeats?
  • Am I supposed to eat this part or is it just for flavour?
  • Yes, I know how to use chopsticks.
  • Do you have any chilies or hot sauce?

At the hair salon

  • Here is a photo of the hair cut I want, and here is a photo of me with that haircut. Can you do this exactly as shown?
  • No, I don’t want my hair coloured.
  • No, I don’t want to buy any product.
  • Oooh, yes, a massage would be fabulous.

What else would you add to this list?

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.