Can You Teach Yourself Vietnamese?

Here I go, talking to myself again.  No, I’m not schizophrenic, I am learning a new language.  This time, it is Vietnamese, my first Asian language.  Sadly, although San Francisco is home to over 13,000 people of Vietnamese descent, the 11th highest number in the United States, I was unable to find a single Vietnamese language school.  The only school I could find was the Au Co Vietnamese Cultural Center which offers Vietnamese language classes for kids between the ages of 5 and 12.  I don’t think being a kid at heart would qualify me.  Sigh.

Without a class or a tutor, I am learning Vietnamese exclusively through on-line or pre-recorded language programs.  I am using Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Duolingo and Mondly.  I will give you a summary of each program along with what I think are the pros and cons of each.

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone is a great way to learn Vietnamese.   I started using Rosetta Stone seven years ago when my husband gave me Rosetta Stone Greek Level 2 for Christmas. I loved it. Immediately I became a Rosetta Stone junkie.  I have used Rosetta Stone to learn Greek, Italian, French, Spanish and now, Vietnamese.

In the past seven years Rosetta Stone has evolved significantly. Today you can buy an online subscription which gives you access to all levels in your particular language.  A one year on-line subscription for Vietnamese will cost you $179 at full price.  However, Rosetta Stone routinely has specials, so do not pay full price.  Check out the prices around holidays when Rosetta Stone is most likely to offer specials.  For example, right now, you can get a year-long subscription for just $149.

The online subscription also gives you access to what I think is the best part of the program, the Studio Sessions. These studio sessions are thirty minute on-line sessions led by a native speaker. The studio sessions really help reinforce the vocabulary,  get you speaking the language and improve your listening comprehension.

I like Rosetta Stone because it teaches you whole phrases to use in various situations you will likely find yourself in while traveling. Unlike memorizing a stack of flash cards, with a catalog of sentences committed to memory, I can walk up to a stranger and say “Xin chào ông. Tên tôi là Elizabeth Hilton (Hello sir. My name is Elizabeth Hilton).  Rosetta Stone focuses on listening, reading, writing and speaking.  Rosetta Stone is also great for perfecting your pronunciation by giving you feedback during the speaking exercises. For added practice, you can download the audio files for each lesson to listen to between lessons.  I made a CD of each lesson and listen to it during my 20 minute commute home.

The downside of Rosetta Stone is that it is a complete immersion program.  Although I think immersion is a great way to learn, with Vietnamese, there are grammar rules that I do think merit an explanation.  With Rosetta Stone, you have to play grammar detective to figure out the patterns and rules.  If someone had just explained that in the phrase “Những người đàn ông ăn” (The men eat) “những” indicated a plural, that would have really helped.

Rosetta Stone will work best for you if you have fast internet, a up-to-date laptop or desktop computer and 20 minutes in a day to access this computer in a quiet place to work through the lessons.  Rosetta Stone will not work for you if you can only do your language learning through your phone or you do not have fast internet.  If you do successfully complete Rosetta Stone, you will have a superior ability to actually speak and read Vietnamese.  I feel that Rosetta Stone is the superior program in joining these two skills.

Sample Rosetta Stone Clip

Pimsleur

I first used Pimsleur to learn Croatian.  As Croatian is a less popular language, there were less learning options.  Rosetta Stone and Duolingo, are you listening?  You all need to offer a course in Croatian!  Sorry, I digress. Pimsleur offers 30 audio lessons in Vietnamese.  You can order the CD’s which I love because I just pop them into my car’s CD player and listen on my commute.

Pimsleur is solely an audio program.  It’s method is teaching you whole phrases by repetition. The program leader explains the phrase, the meaning and invites you to repeat.  Each lesson reinforces and builds on the prior lessons.  If you complete all 30 lessons, you will be able to greet people, ask for directions, order meals, shop, count, tell time and socialize a bit.  Each lesson is about 20 minutes long.  You should repeat lessons until you feel that you have memorized about 90% of the material.  If you do this program for 20 minutes every day and complete each lesson at least twice, you can complete the entire course in 2 months!

The downside to Pimsleur is that it is only an audio program.  It will not teach you to read Vietnamese.  Also, the dialogs are kinda funny. It seems that they designed the conversations for British businessmen who want to pick up foreign women.  Within the first nine lessons, you will know how to invite a Vietnamese woman over to your place for a beer.  Also, the program only works if you can talk out loud.  I commute alone so I can play the CD and repeat all of the phrases out loud without annoying any fellow commuters.  This program may not work for you if you are taking Uber to work.  Finally, Pimsluer can be pricey.  If you buy the CD’s from the website, it will cost you $345.  I recommend shopping around the internet.  I bought the sixteen introductory lessons from Amazon for $34. 95.

Pimsleur will work for you if you have 20 minutes a day to listen to the CD’s any repeat the phrases out loud.  I found Pimsleur to be one of the best ways to do what is the hardest in a second language, just speak.

Sample Pimsleur Clip

Duolingo

Duolingo is a free language-learning platform that first launched to the general public in 2012.  Its co-founders, Severin Hacker (born in Zug, Switzerland) and Luis Von Ahn believe that “free education will really change the world.”   Van Ahn was born in Guatemala and saw first hand how expensive it was for people in his country to learn English.   Duolingo strives to offer its program in many different languages on many different devices absolutely and completely free.  Duolingo currently offers language courses in 23 different languages.  Cool celebrity fact: Ashton Kutcher’s firm, Grade-A Investments, was one of the original investors in this project.

Lucky for me, Duolingo launched a Vietnamese course for English speakers about a year ago.  I immediately signed up and started using it.  I have used Duolingo for French, Spanish, Italian and Greek too.  I am more of an advanced beginner French speaker and an intermediate Spanish speaker.  As such, I was able to finish the entire course for each language.  Duolingo’s course is a tree.  As you finish each section, you advance up the tree.  Each section gradually gets harder and more complex.  Some of the courses tell you how fluent you are.  When I completed my Spanish tree, Duolingo told me I was 52% fluent.

For Vietnamese, as an absolute beginner, climbing the tree has been much more difficult.  I was able to advance about a third of the way up the tree and then I got stuck.   The desktop version, unlike the mobile version, offers grammar tips for each new level.

Also, some of the phrases that Duolingo teaches are not very useful like “The fish bites the bicycle.” Not really sure when I would say something like that ever.

Sample Duolingo screen

Duolingo will work for you is you already have some working knowledge of the language and the grammar rules and you just want some daily motivation to practice.  Duolingo also has language clubs that you can join and compete with others to see who will practice the most each week.  I really like the bonus lessons in idioms that you can get in some of the other languages.  Unfortunately, idioms are not yet available in Vietnamese.

Mondly

My new favorite Android App is Mondly.  It launched in 2016 and offers lessons in 33 different languages.  Bonus points for Mondly, it offers a course in Croatian which both Rosetta Stone and Duolingo lack.  Mondly offers a free daily lesson in the language of your choice.  However, in order to unlock the full unlimited language access to all of the lessons, you must pay $9.99 a month.  I splurged and purchased the unlimited access.

I have really enjoyed Mondly.  I feel that I am learning actual useful phrases that I will use when I travel.  I also feel that my vocabulary is expanding with the daily lessons.  I also find myself turning to this application before I use others language learning programs because it is easy to spend a couple a minutes doing a lesson or two each day on my phone.

The downside of Mondly is the speaking component.  You do not spend a lots of time repeating the phrases out loud.  I can read lots of words and phrases in Vietnamese, but I am not saying them.  During the limited time that the program requires me to speak into the mic, it almost never shows that I have said the words correctly.  Given that Rosetta Stone and Duolingo both give me positive feedback in the speaking exercises, I think Mondly might be a tad too sensitive.

Mondly will work for you if you are willing to make a small investment and want to practice your language on the go with your phone.
Sample Mondly screen

Practice, Practice, Practice

Those are the four language learning courses that I am using to teach myself Vietnamese.  I would recommend using all four courses because the strengths of each make up for the others’ weaknesses.  No matter what program you decide to use, in order to learn a language you must have motivation, dedication, consistency and courage.  For me, I find my motivation by planning a trip to a country with my target language.  I dedicate myself everyday to learning the language.  I consistently spend at least twenty minutes everyday doing at least one of these programs.

So how about courage?  Get out there and try speaking the language in your community.  Ask questions.  Have fun.  Do not be afraid to make a fool of yourself.   Here are a few videos of me asking my friends to help me learn Vietnamese.  If I can do it, so can you.

Me at the office asking my friend Hien about the word “quá.”

Me at JT Nails learning the different ways to say “umbrella” in Hanoi versus Ho Chi Minh City

I hope that you have found this article useful.  Please let me know if you have a Vietnamese Language Learning Program that you have tried that works for you in the comments.  I would love to hear from you.

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Cuộc sống là một cuộc phiêu lưu, không phải là điểm đến.

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