Expats flock to learn Vietnamese

By Dat Nguyen, Minh Nga   March 21, 2019 | 10:25 pm PT
Expats flock to learn Vietnamese
More foreigners are learning Vietnamese to communicate with the locals. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thanh Lan
Language classes are attracting increasing numbers of people who need to communicate with locals at work or just want to understand the culture.

A new customer at Dom café in Hanoi might be surprised to see four non-Vietnamese sitting around a table and speaking to each other in Vietnamese. But the sight is hardly a surprise to frequent visitors to the café on Dao Tan Street, where many expatriates come every day for Vietnamese lessons.

Daniel Nyilas, one of the four, has been learning Vietnamese from a private tutor for a year and was seeking to improve his language skills further with the group.

"I just have a need to understand locals more instead of talking like a monkey with my hands," the Hungarian, 31, told VnExpress International.

Nyilas is among an increasing number of foreigners striving to learn Vietnamese for their work or just daily conversation in a country that is steadily opening up its economy to the world.

Vietnam attracts billions of dollars in foreign direct investment every year, and with it come foreign managers who need to learn Vietnamese to communicate with their local employees. Samsung, one of the largest foreign companies in Vietnam, requires its South Korean managers and specialists to learn Vietnamese for a year. They are frequently tested for their communication skills.

For this reason, Vietnamese language centers are attracting an increasing number of students. Nguyen Thi Phuong Dung, general manager of 123Vietnamese, said new students sign up every week but there are times during the year when the center, despite having almost 80 part-time and full-time teachers, has to turn some of them away.

The center, which has 600 students in six cities and provinces, regularly receives requests to organize classes near industrial areas where Japanese and Koreans work.

Dung said: "The demand is huge and there are areas that we haven’t covered. We want to expand."

Vo Thi Thanh Binh, director of HCMC-based Vietnamese Language Studies, said the number of foreigners coming to her center has been increasing year after year and reached 670 last year. Besides those who come to learn Vietnamese for work, there are also research students who need to understand Vietnamese for their projects.

Vietnamese centers publish their own textbooks for foreign students. Photo by VnExpress/Dat Nguyen

Vietnamese centers publish their own textbooks for foreign students. Photo by VnExpress/Dat Nguyen

Language barrier

But learning Vietnamese is not easy. Beginners, even intermediate students, have a hard time with the pronunciation and tones, Nguyen Thanh Lan of language class Tieng Viet Oi said.

"Foreign students at any level struggle because Vietnamese often speak fast. Because of the tones, many students cannot recognize even words they know."

Nyilas knows these challenges. Having been in Vietnam for over two years, he has been studying "on and off" for about a year because of the difficulties. "It wasn’t rewarding at first. Even if I know what I wanted to say, people wouldn’t understand me because of my pronunciation. At the beginning I had no success."

Even foreigners with close relationships with locals have a hard time learning the language.

Briton Greg Ashby, 37, is married to a Vietnamese and lives in Da Nang, but since his wife’s English is very good they don’t speak Vietnamese often. "Listening is a challenge. When I talk to my wife’s family they always speak so fast, I can only get a word here and there."

Other students have trouble finding time for the courses. Marshall Presnick, 49, took the first Vietnamese course nine months after coming to Hanoi from the U.S., but his busy English teaching schedule prevented him from being a diligent student.

He said: "I lived in Spain for three years and I can say anything I want in Spanish. But that’s not the case with Vietnamese though I’ve been here for seven years."

However, he, like many others, has persevered. He is taking regular classes to improve his Vietnamese to show he cares about his fiancée and her culture. 

He plans to try out his new vocabulary when he meets his future parents-in-law next weekend.

"I think those who live more than a year in Vietnam should learn Vietnamese. Life is just easier when you do."

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