Over 80 million people currently use Vietnamese as their primary language. To put that into perspective, there are more Vietnamese speakers in the world than Italian speakers, for example, and almost as many as there are German speakers. Although Vietnamese is still a far less common choice for a language to learn than these European tongues, it is gaining popularity.
Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam, a relatively small, but densely populated country in Southeast Asia, just south of China. No wonder that the Chinese culture and language dominated in the Vietnamese cultural landscape for such a long time. In fact, Chinese was once the language commonly used in Vietnam by the educated people (many of them Buddhist monks) and those belonging to the ruling class. Naturally enough, Chinese characters were initially used to write down Vietnamese. The language also absorbed a large number of Chinese words that still comprise an important percentage of the vocabulary (more than one half, according to some estimations).
In the 17th century, French Catholic missionaries began coming to Vietnam to preach and convert the locals. Although conversion of the Vietnamese to Catholicism had limited success, the missionaries translated the Bible and other Christian literature into Vietnamese using a modified Latin script for that purpose. During the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, when Vietnam was a part of French Indo-China, it was switched to the Latin script. The modern Vietnamese writing is characterized by a surprising amount of accents and diacritical signs, denoting tones widely used in Vietnamese. A sample of a short text in Vietnamese may look as follows (this is the beginning of The Lord's Prayer):
Lạy Cha chúng con ở trên trời, chúng con nguyện danh Cha cả sáng, nước Cha trị đến.
These signs mainly refer to pitches or tones that influence the meaning. Depending on the dialect there are five or six varieties of them in the language.
Due to emigration, Vietnamese is widely spoken outside Vietnam with the largest concentrations of Vietnamese speakers in California and in Texas, where it is the third most popular language (after English and Spanish). It is also spoken in Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic, and other countries. From the viewpoint of the linguistic classification, Vietnamese belongs to the so-called Austroasiatic or Mon Khmer language group along with the Khmer language of Cambodia. A good starting point for learning Vietnamese is this website. If your primary goal is to communicate with the locals, you may want to consult this extensive Vietnamese phrasebook. Please let us know at 24HourAnswers.com if you have any problems and we will be happy to help you with Vietnamese.
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