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.
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.