Backpacking Teacher

Travel, teaching and things in between. Saigon is the focus for now.

Trying to learn Vietnamese – I need a new mouth

with 5 comments

see no evil 

Seeing as I’m moving to Saigon in January I thought I’d try and learn a few words of Vietnamese. With that in mind I’ve obtained a couple of language tapes to play in the car on the way to work. Well, not so much tapes as mp3 files playing through my ipod ….but you know what I mean.

I never thought Vietnamese would be a cinch. I knew it was a tonal language and, not being able to hold or recreate a tune to save my life I knew I would struggle. I did think however think I’d have a shot at pronouncing some words or recognising some sounds. Perhaps I’d even recognise an occasional word they’d borrowed from the French. I speak a smattering of a few other languages. OK I lie, not so much a smattering as an ability to order a beer in several languages but one thing I have noticed is that I can recognise the occasional Spanish, German or French word as being similar to words I know in English.

Well the old adage of the more you know the less you know certainly came true about 30 seconds into the Vietnamese tape. First of all there are six tones – two tones would be enough to confound me, six tones sends me into paroxysms as my mind fails to differentiate a rising tone from a falling tone. Instead my befuddled mind deals with the rising tone by having my head rise as I speak the word and deals with falling tones by having my head disappear into my neck. Thirty seconds into the tape and I know I’m in trouble. A madly wobbling head is unlikely to be interpreted by Vietnamese speakers as an attempt to come to terms with tones. I suspect that they’d be rather disconcerted by my discombobulated nodding.

Tones aside, the first words sounded vaguely familiar, something about apologising which, to me sounded like sin loy. I can sin and loy with the best of them I thought. Ha! …here’s some advice ….never get cocky……Sixty seconds into the tape and I’ve no idea what’s going on. Shortly after feeling confident about being able to apologise to everyone in Vietnam I began to hear words that were nothing like what I was familiar with. There were some throat clearing guttural sounds, some words that seemed only half spoken and more than a number of nasal, sinus challenging sounds. I haven’t a chance. There’s no way my mouth can make those sounds. I remember hearing story, perhaps apocryphal, about Korean speakers having the underside of their tongues operated on so they could pronounce English words. How they explained the fact that people born of Korean descent in English speaking countries had no pronunciation difficulties I don’t know but I finally understood why they thought their mouths needed operating on. I need a Vietnamese mouth operation. Without it I’m not going to be able to speak a word of Vietnamese, apart from apologising which, come to think of it, may just come in useful. Imagine me in Saigon – pasty skin, sweating, weird head bobbing movements, pronouncing Vietnamese words atonally and as if I have a mouth full of gravel. Funny – yes. Helpful to a prolonged stay in Vietnam – no.

Oh. Did I tell you the tape is based on a speaker in Hanoi?  I’m going to Saigon. It seems there’s a major difference between the forms of Vietnamese spoken in the North and the South of Vietnam. So much for my sin loi – I won’t even be able to apologise for my bastardisation of their language.

Photo used under creative commons licence: 



Written by backpackingteacher

October 22, 2008 at 5:02 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Dear,
    If you are living in Saigon and you want to learn Vietnamese . I think we can make an agreement. I can teach Vietnamese. And i would like to learn English from you ?
    Please let me know if you want.
    Hope to hear from you,


    August 5, 2009 at 5:48 pm

  2. sounds good …. i’ll send you an email


    August 8, 2009 at 2:19 pm

  3. Learning vietnamese and do vietnamese blog 🙂


    August 10, 2009 at 2:34 pm

  4. Funny, a new mouth operation for speaking Vietnamese. Maybe I should ask for a mouth operation to speak English too. Anyway, I have a blog at and wrote a simple Quick English Vietnamese Phrases as a quick introduction to Vietnamese. I recorded the sound with my own voice which I considered as normal non-regional accent so hopefully more in tune with SaiGon folks.
    Would be nice if you can write a quick post about yours trip to VN. Thanks.


    September 11, 2009 at 6:19 am

  5. Hi Vietcali … thanks for the comment … I had a quick look at the site ..looks good .. I can’t do a quick post for you (as much as it seems like fun) as I can barely find the time to update my own blog …sorry mate


    September 27, 2009 at 2:47 pm

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