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Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam and is spoken throughout the country, albeit with variations of dialect. English is the second language, superseding Russian, which was dropped after the USSR collapsed. Some French is spoken, mainly by older people in the south.
Many of Vietnam’s fifty-four ethnic groups speak their own language, and some K’mer is spoken in the Mekong Delta close to the Cambodian border.
New career opportunities in tourism and international trade have been a stimulus for young people to become fluent in Japanese, Chinese or Western European languages.
An ancient oral tradition with a recent written form
The spoken Vietnamese language has its origins in Asiatic and Sino-Tibetian languages, but for centuries Chinese characters was the only written language. In the latter part of the last millennium, demotic Vietnamese script appeared but its development was superseded by today’s Romanised script. Originally developed by a Jesuit missionary in the 17th century and used by the Church and the colonialists, it was only adopted as the national script at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Although Chinese characters have been swept into the dustbin of history, it's remarkable how much their spirit lives on, both in the Vietnamese vocabulary and, ironically, in the writing system.
In fact, the practice of representing each syllable as one 'word', which is the common practice in modern Vietnamese, is actually a throwback to the old concept that each Chinese character is equivalent to one word. For instance, 'Hanoi', which is spoken as one word, is written in Vietnamese as Ha Noi.
The crucial importance of the tones
Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language that uses variations of pitch, called ‘tones’, to differentiate between several meanings of the same word. There are five tones, identified in the written form by tone markers. To complicate things further, apart from those familiar to English-speakers, there are an additional six vowels identified in the written form by diacritics, three diphthongs and ten consonant clusters, each with different pronunciation.
Vietnamese is difficult!
In English, differences in pitch are used to convey different implications or emphasis – a rising tone at the end of a sentence indicates a question or a surprised reaction. A falling tone shows disappointment or suspicion. In Vietnamese, a change of pitch changes the meaning of the word. As the pitch variation is almost imperceptible to the untutored ear, the opportunities for confusion (and acute embarrassment!) are legion. As many foreign diplomats and dignitaries anxious to make an initial impression by attempting a few words of their hosts’ tongue have learned to their cost, Vietnamese is not an easy language!
Native English speakers have grown used to hearing mangled versions of their language spoken by people from all over the world. As a result, they can usually guess what is being said despite poor pronunciation. As Vietnamese is only spoken in Vietnam, most people here have no experience of hearing it mispronounced. For a visitor, even the slightest mistake with a tone can turn a carefully-crafted sentence into gobbledegook.
A good try pays dividends
Nevertheless, for visitors it’s worth taking the time to learn a few common phrases from the back of your guidebook. Even being able to pronounce xin chao (‘hello’, pronounced ‘sin chow’ with a falling tone on the second word) and cam on (‘thank you’, pronounced ‘kam uhn’ with the last syllable drawn out) will please Vietnamese people.
Fortunately, tourism has made the presence of foreigners less unusual, foreign languages less of a mystery, and English more widespread, so language difficulties are a diminishing problem.