Vietnam is a well-established destination for unqualified foreigners in baggy elephant pants to earn a living teaching English, such is the constant demand for new classes.
However, the Vietnamese appetite for learning new languages goes well beyond paying too much for an unplanned lesson delivered by someone who can’t define a gerund.
We spoke to a dozen Vietnamese language learners who can already speak English, to find out more about which other languages they are studying, why they chose them, what their goals are, and what nuggets of advice they have for any other potential linguists.
Bui Phi Long, 26
Long has studied Thai for nearly a year, learning by himself at home
“The number of Vietnamese who speak Thai is pretty small, so there will be more job opportunities for me. Also, I love Thai food and movies and I have a lot of Thai friends.
“The shortage of Vietnamese people learning Thai means there’s a dire shortage of materials, but luckily we have the internet.
“Speaking more than one language is so important, because every country and every person is overwhelmingly affected by globalisation. I would love to live in Thailand and open some restaurants serving traditional Vietnamese dishes.”
Pham Van Anh, 26
Van Anh has been studying Korean for five months, in a class taught by her friend
“I’m an editor at a publishing company, so knowing Korean is very helpful for my work. I’m also interested in K-pop and K-drama, so I’d like to understand them more.
“English is one of the easiest languages to learn; we had to learn it in school, and it’s very popular. German was hard, the gender of nouns made me crazy. “Japanese is definitely the most difficult; but there are so many benefits to speaking more than one language, I can’t list them all.”
Duong Thi Van, 29
Van has studied Spanish for two years, at a language centre and with the Memrise app
“I started learning Spanish because I really liked a Spanish guy. After travelling to Spain, I started learning more seriously.
“I think sooner or later, speaking a third language will be a requirement. Speaking languages develops your memory and brainpower, and it’s good for business too; customers are always happier when you can speak in their language.
“There is a very limited community of Spanish native speakers in Vietnam, or qualified Spanish teachers, so studying or doing a language exchange is a real challenge.”
Le Thi Khanh Linh, 23
Linh is in her fourth year of studying Japanese, at Hanoi’s Thang Long University
“I really love Japanese culture, especially manga and movies.
“In Vietnam, we have a lot of foreign investors. I think if I can speak Japanese, I’ll have the opportunity for a better job and better salary at a Japanese company.
“Communicating with Japanese native speakers is a real challenge; the textbook Japanese I study at university doesn’t always work in the real world.
“I would love to study abroad in Japan for a while, maybe through an exchange programme or internship. Then I can come back to Vietnam and try to work for a Japanese company.”
Nguyen Tra My, 25
My has studied Russian for nine years, at Hanoi Amsterdam High School, Hanoi University and Tula State Pedagogical University in Russia
“My love for Russian began when I was a little girl trying to perform a Russian song at the Children’s Cultural Centre. When I had a chance to seriously study Russian at high school, I took it without the slightest hesitation.
“Learning Russian has several challenges, such as the Cyrillic letters, three noun genders and lots of irregularities to memorise.
“Speaking more languages opens up a ton of job opportunities, and also helps you to truly understand other cultures. It can also make you more confident when adapting to new environments.”
Nguyen Linh Anh, 25
Linh Anh has studied French on and off for one year, a bit at university, then at L’Espace, and now at home with online videos and software
“I love learning languages; I’ve attempted German and Korean as well, but French is widely used worldwide, and there are so many resources for a self-learner.
“I think it’s a personal choice to learn another language; bilingual people are not even that rare these days.
“Charlemagne (8th to 9th century French Emperor) said that to have another language is to possess a second soul; that’s something I totally agree with.
“All languages have words for things that can’t be translated, isn’t that a beautiful thing?”
Nguyen Thi Van Trang, 31
Trang started studying Dutch 10 years ago, and recently picked it up again with a private tutor
“I currently work for the Dutch Embassy in Hanoi, and even though English is our official office language, Dutch makes it easier to work with Dutch colleagues and customers.
“I feel language is much more than a means of communication; it’s the true expression of culture.
“I enjoy learning something new, and learning a language keeps my brain fit. I’ve tried Dutch, Spanish, French and English, and I think English is the easiest to learn, because it’s everywhere.”
Ngo Thi Quynh Trang, 22
Trang has studied German for four months, mostly in a language centre, but also with a tutor
“I have loved Germany ever since I was small, and I plan to join a culture exchange in Germany in the future, so I can learn the language better.
“Knowing a foreign language is often the first and foremost requirement to work for a foreign company in Vietnam, so it’s a huge advantage.
“Learning the gender of nouns in German is a tough challenge; if you don’t get the noun gender correct, then you’ll get the wrong form of adjective and the wrong article!”
Le Hoa Binh, 25
Binh has been studying Italian for seven years, first at university and then at Dante Alighieri Hanoi
“Italy is known for its art, architecture and fashion, so their style attracted me to give Italian a try. And also, who doesn’t love pizza?
“In Italian, irregularity is regular; things tend not to follow the rules. I’ve now been teaching Italian at university for a year; I hope in the future I can continue to spread this language.
“Speaking more languages makes people more open-minded to different points of view, and improves your mental reflexes, as your brain gets used to switching between languages. And being multilingual is super cool!”
Dao Hong Ha, 25
Ha has been studying Mandarin Chinese for five years, through self-study and a language centre
“I’m interested in the ancient culture of China. The modern- day trade between Vietnam and China shows there’s a lot of potential business for bilingual workers.
“Learning a new language helps you adapt when you go to new places; it can also help to avoid conflict, as you are able to recognise multicultural differences.
“Chinese writing is quite difficult to learn, but it is so genius to capture a whole concept in a single written character. I would love to become a Chinese teacher, so I can promote the spirit of learning Chinese to others.”
Hanh Mai, 23
Mai has studied Swedish for over a year, both online and at home
“I spent a year on an exchange programme in Gothenburg, Sweden. I only picked up Swedish as a hobby, to speak with Swedish friends and know how to read street signs or supermarket labels.
“Even though Swedes speak perfect English, I didn’t want to waste the chance to immerse myself better in their culture.
“I still struggle with the ‘r’ sound in Swedish; the pronunciation is the most difficult part, among countless challenges!
“But not many Vietnamese pick up Swedish, so I feel like I have a unique secret weapon.”
Nong Thi Thuy Dung, 24
Dung studied Portuguese at Hanoi University for four years
“My parents wanted me to study accounting, but my entrance exam score wasn’t high enough; I decided to try Portuguese, because it’s a rare language to learn in Vietnam.
“The amount of multilingual people these days is making the cultural distance between countries smaller; it’s also helping business, tourism and education.
“I only use Portuguese when chatting with my Brazilian friends on Facebook, but I hope one day I can use both Portuguese and English for my job.”
Top Tips from our Top Learners
1) Change the language on your social networks to the one you’re learning
2) Take your homework seriously
3) Have realistic goals, so you’re not demotivated by failure
4) Patience, practice and passion
5) Make it into a daily habit
6) Watch foreign language films without subtitles
7) Watch TV with the subtitles on of the language you’re learning
8) Make use of free mobile apps
9) Check YouTube — there are so many free videos
10) Communicate with native speakers frequently
Photos by Julie Vola