Unless you’re a lifer, Niko Savvas believes there are much more useful things you could be doing


Learning Vietnamese is not worth your time.


If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (or if you’ve heard somebody refer to it during a cocktail party, which is more likely), then you already know that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to truly master a skill. As Gladwell himself probably says*, there are exceptions to this rule — mathematical savants, child prodigies and so on.


*Your correspondent hasn't read the book, either.


But these people are rare. Most six-year-olds are more likely to swallow a chess piece than use it as part of a brilliant Steinitz Defense. And the “10,000 hours” figure itself is suspiciously precise. Anders Ericcson, the psychologist whose work Outliers is based on, later found that it may take anywhere from 500 to 25,000 hours to earn your metaphorical Expert badge.


In light of Ericcson’s findings, consider the following numbers:


500 hours — 20.8 days — 0.06 years


10,000 hours — 416.6 days – 1.14 years


25,000 hours — 1,041.7 days — 2.85 years


Let’s pretend that you could master Vietnamese in a mere 500 hours (you cunning linguist, you). All you’d need to do is lock yourself in a dank, windowless room for three solid weeks with your Pimsleur tapes, several college-ruled notebooks, and a towering pile of Bolivian nose sugar. After a fortnight and a half, you’d emerge speaking fluent Tieng Viet, switching seamlessly between Hanoi and Saigon accents. Learning Vietnamese would seem to be an excellent time investment.


Now compare this hypothetical scenario to your real-life experience, in which the hotpot waitress glares at you dumbly while you beg to know the location of the restroom. Chances are good that you’re not a Vietnamese-pronunciation wunderkind.


A Language Limited in Range and Function


You’re not alone.


Vietnamese is a Category IV language with “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English”, according to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI). The FSI designates Vietnamese as one of the most difficult Category IV languages to learn, along with tongues such as Finnish, Estonian and Magyar. Learning Vietnamese is considerably more challenging than trying to dust off your high school Spanish.


Which, if you think about it, would probably be a much better use of your time anyway — Vietnamese is more or less useless outside of Vietnam. The Vietnamese Consulate General in Houston estimated the total number of overseas Vietnamese at around four million in 2014. The densest concentration of people with Vietnamese ancestry outside of Vietnam is found in the United States, where they constitute 0.6 percent of the population.



In an international context, speaking Vietnamese isn’t going to help you travel. It isn’t going to help you work, either — the number of jobs requiring proficiency in Vietnamese is roughly equivalent to the number of jobs that require applicants to have excellent fire-swallowing skills.


Vietnamese is not a particularly rich literary, cinematic or musical language either. Compared with Asian pop culture trendsetters like Japan and South Korea, Vietnamese artists produce little of note. There are no Vietnamese equals to Haruki Murakami or Bong Joon-Ho. The best-produced TV programmes are knockoffs of western shows like MasterChef or Vietnam’s Got Talent. No one is breathlessly predicting the rise of V-Pop.


Opportunity Cost


But if a person is going to live in Vietnam, shouldn’t he or she learn the language? Isn’t it a bit rude and presumptuous to assume that you can move to a foreign country and expect the local people to speak your language?


The quick answer: no.


A more elaborate explanation: no, because that’s the entire point of having an international language. In the days of the Umayyad Caliphate, a traveller could wander from modern-day Portugal down to North Africa, then roam all the way to India, so long as he had a decent grasp of Arabic. Even in the 700s, people recognised the value of a bridge language.


Lingua francas exist because they are efficient — by mastering one language, you can suddenly communicate with people from many places. Native English speakers have it easy. They’re inherently adept at the world’s most versatile language.


Non-native speakers have to give up a lot to achieve this proficiency: time, energy and money. But the tangible benefits of learning English (higher wages, easier travel, and broader access to global culture) justify this sacrifice of resources.


Unless you’re planning to spend a very long time in Vietnam, the opportunity cost of studying Vietnamese is much less favourable. You’re giving up too many of your available non-working/sleeping/eating hours for a skill that loses nearly all its value the moment you leave the country.


To illustrate, assume that Gladwell is bad at maths and that you can become fluent in Vietnamese with 1,000 hours of practice.


If you studied seven days a week for three hours a day, it would take you about 333 days to hit your target. This isn’t “three hours of half-hearted listening to podcasts or watching subtitled movies”. This is “three hours of gulag work camp, 100 percent vein-popping mental self-torture with expensive tutors and learning materials”. After nearly a year of doing this every day, you’d be able to bargain more effectively for mangos.


More realistically, though, it would take you several years to reach this point.


Or you could spend a couple of hours learning Vietnamese numbers and interesting things to yell at taxi drivers, then devote yourself to becoming a better painter or tuba player or dessert chef — to doing something that might enrich the world, rather than assuage your societally conditioned guilt. Then you could take a moment to consider where you’d like to watch the next World Cup.


If your answer isn’t “the same techno-blaring coffee shop I’m in now”, then you don’t need much Vietnamese.

Niko Savvas

Niko Savvas is the online editor at Word. He is biased against your favorite things. Correspond with him via niko@wordvietnam.com, an electronic mail address on the World Wide Web.


  • Comment Link Chase Chase Jul 14, 2018

    I understand the viewpoint of the author, since that was my stance for the first 8 months I lived in Vietnam, but I would also like to highlight some of the hidden positives of learning such a challenging language (from the perspective of someone currently learning it). About 4 months ago, I began serious study of Vietnamese and have found it immensely rewarding (I will be living here for at least 2 more years). The author mentions the work of Anders Erriccson, which to me has been very inspiring. The core message is that (with very little exception) you can have any skill you desire and develop it to the level you desire, provided you practice proficiently (see his book 'Peak' for details).

    The work of Josh Waitzkin (highly recommended read: The Art of Learning) is also very inspiring, and shows how mastery in one thing leads to enhanced understanding of all things. This is where learning a difficult language proves valuable. You are forced to constantly stretch and develop your skills. As a learner conversing with native speakers, the limitations of what you can say and understand are always present. This provides feedback which shows you where you need to improve, just as a tennis player who loses a match can analyze their game and find weak points in their ability. Compare this to a more 'hobbyist' skill like woodworking. There are less external demands that will push you to become a world class expert woodworker (unless you have a deep passion, or a challenging job to do). The external demands present in language learning naturally push us towards deep mastery. And it is my belief that deep mastery of something (anything!) is deeply rewarding and has many branching benefits (both externally and internally) in this human life. See Josh Waitzkin's work for more on deep mastery.

    So in summary, I do agree with the author that learning Vietnamese takes a good deal of time, and that people need to be conscious of how they spend their time. I also feel all people would be deeply rewarded by working towards deep mastery of some skill (think: 1 hour of practice daily over a number of years, constantly expanding skills, and working with skilled teachers who provide feedback). If you're like me and enjoy language, you will find that Vietnamese isn't actually that hard and is a worthy challenge. After a couple months of good study, you will understand why most foreigners struggle so much, and will simply practice the difficult things until they are not so difficult. Then you will begin to extend your practice outside the classroom during all hours of the day (if you live in Vietnam) as you listen, speak, and read with the world around you.


  • Comment Link Rob Rob Dec 12, 2017

    DavidT, as many of the comments proof, Niccos thoughts and opinions are not typical Angle Western, they're just his. The Net is a democratic space, where we can express our opinions, without being labeled, criticized, condemned by the global thought - storm-troopers. Most of the thought-landscape in this blog portrait the opinion that when you visit or reside in a foreign country, you have to, you must, you better learn that language, so no body will think that you are a Western Imperialist, redneck colonialist, heartless racist or even a money grabbing capitalist. That's the typical Anglo-Western-White thinking today. So don't worry, DavidT, but be happy, the majority agrees with you, smile. Growing up in Germany I speak like a German. Later, wanting to become an American citizen ( oh NO, how terrible) I immigrated in my twenties and speak fluent California-American English, because I wanted to and also had to. Being a Magyar by birth, I also speak that language. Spending a bunch of my growing years in Castile I also speak Spanish like a Castilian.
    I do not play the piano nor the guitar, because I did not want to practice, my choice. Does that make me a music hater, a hard hearted nincompoop, a hater of those who do play ? You be the judge.But I love Baroque music, Tiepolo is my favorite painter and I graduated with three degrees in art from UCLA. I've been living in Vietnam, for two years now, loving the people, the culture, mentoring college students, sponsoring young post-polio-survivors and picking up a few words from Hanoi, DaLat, DaNang, HCM city. But, after 2 years, I am being told that my pronunciation is wrong. I get the greatest kick when I listen to two, three or more people, from different parts of this country, trying to understand each other. When I point that out to my friends, asking how they expect me to figure out the correct pronunciations, they just start laughing. Oh, one more thing, DavidT, when we want to show respect to people, of another country, we spell their country and language capitalized.

  • Comment Link Van Van Nov 13, 2017

    If I, a Vietnamese kid who moved to Australia at the age of 15 with no prior knowledge of English, can win my high school's English literature award for the highest achievement, then you can learn basic Vietnamese.

    P.S. You obviously aren't very aware of Vietnamese literature and poetry. They are very rich, especially before the emancipation of 1975. Check Xuan Dieu, Nguyen Binh, Ho Xuan Huong and Luu Tong Lu -- they'll educate you better about the culture of Vietnamese society.

    Unfortunately, most things are censored now due to the government, but once you study deeper about the culture, that's when it will hit you how incredible it is.

  • Comment Link Ali Ali Sep 16, 2017

    It's very expensive to learn. I am currently in HCMC. All Vietnamese language institute asking for 700 USD per level. In order to speak with good pronunciation you need 3 to 4 levels. The 1st level stat with 1200 USD and as you go advance it gets more expensive.

  • Comment Link DLR DLR Oct 11, 2015

    I agree with the last comment from J-Dog. Don't discourage people from learning Vietnamese because you simply gave up on it. The language has plenty of value outside of Vietnam within Vietnamese communities, especially in fields like interpreting and customer service/sales type positions.

  • Comment Link DLR DLR Oct 09, 2015

    I agree completely with an earlier post I read here. Typical Anglo-Western thinking, that you should just assume that the (lingua franca) is all you need and you should not bother learning someone else's language. Vietnamese ( WILL ) take you far in life if you use it in the right niche within Vietnamese communities throughout the world. For example, using it as an interpreter or in a customer service role handling international clients, it comes in very handy. There are fewer speakers throughout the world when compared with Mandarin and Spanish, but this in no way diminishes the importance of the language. If you have traveled to Vietnam, you will see that the vast majority of the population speaks limited to no English (outside of major hotels and businesses, etc...).

    My advice: Don't discourage people from learning languages just because you have the typical, lazy American mindset of "wherever I go, everyone should speak to me in English".

  • Comment Link geo geo Jul 12, 2015

    thanks for assuaging my reluctance to learn vnmese.....my current excuse is that the language hurts my ears, too loud and the words sound like they're fighting...why would i want to learn to talk like that?

  • Comment Link NikoWord NikoWord Jul 04, 2015

    Interesting suggestion, Tong. It's clear that your understanding of Vietnamese etymology is surpassed only by your mastery of English syntax.

  • Comment Link L Tong L Tong Jul 02, 2015

    Pretend to learn Vietnamese "seriously" then you begin to see why the Chinese, French, English Words do not arrive to make Vietnamese words disappear ...

  • Comment Link NikoWord NikoWord Jun 18, 2015

    Thanks for coming down off your cross to share your wisdom, G! Have a nice day :)

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