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HomeStudy AbroadUnlocking the Vietnamese Language: A Student’s Perspective in Saigon

Unlocking the Vietnamese Language: A Student’s Perspective in Saigon

Leanna Robinson espouses the benefits of language learning at an immersion school in Vietnam’s greatest metropolis

Vietnam—the land of delicious food, viral-worthy motorcycle traffic, immense history, and… language classes? Learning Vietnamese is definitely not on the radar for many language learners, and as I’ve written before, it’s notoriously difficult to find language-learning materials in Vietnamese.1 Unlike many international languages such as French, Spanish, or English, Vietnamese is spoken primarily by native speakers and there are few opportunities outside the community to learn the language. The greatest way to overcome the barrier to entry to learning this language is to buckle up and take the leap to Vietnam itself.

Saigon’s Linguistic Playground

The vibrant streets of Saigon (officially now Ho Chi Minh City but still called Saigon by most locals) have long been a hub of culture and history in Vietnam. I decided to study with Live the Language (LTL) Language School for the balmy month of May. LTL set up a homestay through the school with a lovely three-generational family in the multicultural and hip neighborhood Bình Thạnh. The neighborhood is composed of narrow alleys just waiting for you to get lost in, with street vendors, hip cafés, and bars around each corner. My homestay family went above and beyond—they took me on adventures around the neighborhood and the city each weekend, and we would often go on walks in the evening after the heat was more bearable to explore the bustling nighttime streets. In many ways, Saigon is a city that comes alive at night—especially in the summer—due to the heat. Because I stayed with a homestay family, I also had homecooked meals each night and was able to talk about my day. Saigon is not just a city; it’s a gateway to a world of language, culture, and connection, just waiting to be explored.

Family Ties

One of the distinctive features of learning Vietnamese in Saigon is the opportunity to live with a multi-generational Vietnamese family. This arrangement provides an invaluable insight into the culture, traditions, and way of life that textbooks alone cannot convey. Here are some of the benefits:

Cultural Immersion: Sharing a home with a Vietnamese family exposes students to the customs, rituals, and celebrations that are an integral part of Vietnamese life. Whether it’s participating in Lunar New Year festivities, enjoying traditional family meals, or learning the art of making delicious pho, living with a local family offers a truly immersive cultural experience.

Language Practice: Living with native speakers ensures constant exposure to the Vietnamese language. Conversations with family members help students improve their language skills rapidly, building their confidence in speaking and listening comprehension.

Emotional Support: Adjusting to life in a new country can be challenging, but the presence of a supportive family provides a sense of belonging and security. This familial support network can be particularly comforting for international students.

For the Intrepid Traveler

Each year, Vietnam attracts more than 3.6 million international visitors, according to the National Authority of Tourism. It’s a country that is getting more and more attention from a wide variety of travelers, especially those searching for a place that can still be visited on a budget. Adding a language-learning course—even for a portion of the trip—can turn a typical vacation into an enriching immersion experience. I can’t count the number of foreigners who heard me speaking Vietnamese in public and were shocked when I told them I had only been in the country for a few weeks. Many shared that they’d been in the country for much longer and could only exchange pleasantries, if that. I also visited Thailand after Vietnam, except without a language immersion exchange, and I was just like those other visitors who essentially couldn’t speak the language at all. It’s not that I am a language whiz—on the contrary, I think that all it takes is a streak of curiosity to pick up a working knowledge of any language. However, the most evident difference was that I took immersion language classes at LTL in Vietnam, while I just relied on “immersion” in Thailand. I spent over four times as long in Thailand, yet I was able to learn a great deal more Vietnamese than Thai. I’m living proof that taking immersion language classes is an invaluable supplement to any trip. There are additional benefits to adding a language-learning course to any trip, especially a trip to Vietnam:

Forces you to stay still: While it’s a blast to hop around from city to city, especially in Vietnam with the popular motorcycle routes, it’s such a pleasure to be able to stay in one place for an extended amount of time. Taking language courses was a great opportunity for me to really get to know the ins and outs of Saigon, rather than just seeing a snapshot of a series of locations.

Gives structure to your trip and to each day: My favorite thing about my class is that I knew that each morning would be spent learning Vietnamese, leaving the afternoon open to explore, relax, or try something new. I didn’t feel pressured to have bespoke experiences at every moment of each day, and I enjoyed the structure that classes gave me.

Offers an opportunity to talk to locals: Many travelers spend almost all of their time talking only to other foreigners instead of the locals themselves. Traveling can easily become an insular experience, for the backpacker hostel crowd, older travelers, and couples alike. Not only was I able to have “language safaris” exploring the town with my tutor, but I also became acquainted with the other staff at LTL who were around my age and had fun exploring the city and chatting with them. They offered advice, insight, and friendship that I otherwise would not have experienced.

Teaches you to navigate situations more easily: Not only can it be a smoother experience to give directions or ask for the check in the local language, it’s also a sign of respect. Especially in a country like Vietnam, where many travelers visit without speaking any Vietnamese, speaking just a little is an indicator that you are interested in connecting to the culture and people a little more deeply, and many are appreciative of that.

Allows you to travel more sustainably: By learning a language you can get out of consumerist and colonial-based travel patterns. By attending a language-learning course, travelers can give more meaning to their travel experience and actually immerse themselves in the culture of Vietnam, rather than simply going shopping, attending planned-out tours with large groups of other tourists, or venturing down the same backpacker trail as so many others.

Overcoming Hurdles—With a Little Help from My Friends

A quick Google search on the subject of learning Vietnamese elicits numerous responses on how notoriously difficult it is to learn. In fact, it’s difficult to find much information at all about learning Vietnamese outside of the dire pleas of language learners on how to make it easier to learn the language, only to be chagrined when fellow learners respond to just give up, and that it’s impossible unless you’re a native speaker. But fear not—it’s immensely straightforward, and dare I say fun, to learn Vietnamese. Simply by having a dedicated teacher (or tutor) to help guide along the treacherous path of pronunciation, grammar, subjects, modifiers, phrases, and expressions, students can focus on what they’re learning rather than how to learn in the first place.

At LTL I was lucky enough to have an incredible private tutor—Andy—who completely transformed my learning experience. While I’m sure that all the tutors available at LTL are more than proficient, I was so overwhelmingly impressed with Andy’s teaching that I would go so far as to suggest it’s worthwhile to go to Vietnam specifically to learn from him. We met up Monday through Friday for four hours each day to study—and while that sounds like a lot of classes, they went by surprisingly quickly due to the interesting learning materials. On our first day of class, Andy asked me why I was interested in learning Vietnamese, what kind of subject matter I was interested in, and the kinds of things I would like to learn and talk about. Since I personally am interested in arts, culture, and history, Andy tailored the program to fit my interests. I was also interested in learning how to talk about myself and my likes and dislikes—who doesn’t like to talk about themselves!

One of the components I most enjoyed about our classes was when we got out of the classroom itself. On these excursions, billed as language safaris, Andy would take me to different locations such as cafés or restaurants and put my language-speaking skills to the test. It was a fun way to practice being in these scenarios, with a back-up plan that he would come to the rescue if I got too nervous or couldn’t properly express myself. We also went to interesting historical locations around Saigon that I would never have found myself, such as an old spy bunker in the middle of the city that’s full of vintage memorabilia from the 1960s.

Rediscovering Roots for the Vietnamese Diaspora

There is a large diaspora of over five million Vietnamese people living overseas (known as Việt Kiều), with the largest community residing in the US. The opportunity to study Vietnamese can serve as a bridge for the Vietnamese diaspora in the following ways:

Reconnecting with heritage: Many Vietnamese diaspora members have lost touch with their ancestral roots over the years. Learning the language in Vietnam allows the Vietnamese diaspora to reconnect with their heritage, bridging the gap between generations and preserving their cultural identity.

Strengthening family ties: For families spread across different countries, learning Vietnamese and experiencing life in Saigon can be a powerful way to reconnect. It fosters a sense of unity and shared culture among family members, even if they are geographically distant. Many people also grew up partially speaking or understanding Vietnamese but not feeling completely confident navigating the language. This is where an immersion class in Vietnam can boost language learners’ abilities to comprehend Vietnamese.

Career and business opportunities: As Vietnam continues to grow economically, proficiency in its language can open doors to a wide range of career and business opportunities. The ability to communicate effectively in the local language is highly valued in both business and diplomatic circles and offers an opportunity for those in the diaspora to connect economically with Vietnam in the future.

With the help of my homestay, LTL, and my tutor Andy, I walked away from Saigon able to have a basic conversation about myself, share my likes and dislikes, ask for and give directions, make basic observations, and navigate restaurants and markets in Vietnamese. Did I walk away fluent? Absolutely not! Not even close. But it’s important to have reasonable goals when learning a language. More importantly, I left Vietnam with what I believe is an inside look at how people actually live in the country, and I was able to get off the tourist path and live (more) like a local. There’s nothing like the enriching experience of learning a language in a bustling metropolis, especially with the unique benefits of living with a multigenerational family. For those seeking to immerse themselves in the beauty of this nation’s language, history, and traditions, there’s no better way than enrolling in an immersion school in Saigon.

Learn more about how to study in Saigon here.

Leanna Robinson is Language Magazine’s creative director and is an avid traveler and language learner.

  1. Robinson, L. (2023). “An Adaptive Approach to Instruction.” Language Magazine. www.languagemagazine.com/2023/05/08/an-adaptive-approach-to-instruction ↩︎
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