I have spent four years learning Vietnamese.
From my personal experience, here are a few aspects to learning a foreign language and time must be dedicated to each of these aspects of language learning.
Many people do not progress beyond the basics of language learning because they spend too much time in one aspect and fail to develop the entire process of language learning.
Of course depending on your aim for learning the Vietnamese language you will choose to spend more time in a particular aspect of language learning.
1. Learning to pronounce and to speak
Many people want to jump straight into this first aspect of being able to speak.
They spend a lot of time trying to talk to Vietnamese people.
If you are staying in Vietnam, that is the ideal way to start your learning of the Vietnamese language.
Of course, you have to convince your Vietnamese friends that they have to spend at least 50% of the time conversing to you in Vietnamese.
Otherwise, most of them will only be interested to learn English from you.
You will find that Vietnamese people are very eager to learn English and it is not easy for them to find someone to learn from and to practice their English with.
So be patient and remind them regularly and gently that you would like to learn Vietnamese from them too.
2. Learning to read
The Vietnamese language is not difficult to read because it is Romanized, i.e. it is in “a, b, c” which is similar to the English language.
From what I gather, we (English speakers) have to thank a Christian priest for having introduced the conversion of the Vietnamese characters to the current “a, b, c” a few hundred years ago.
Personally, I feel that you should not in the beginning spend too much time reading by yourself as you may end up reinforcing the wrong pronunciation into your mind if you are not reading it correctly.
I try to listen to my teacher and repeat after my teacher.
Otherwise, I try to listen to audio recordings and repeat after them.
As an advanced learner now, I try to read the Vietnamese newspapers with my teacher regularly.
I find reading the Vietnamese newspapers the best way for advanced learners to progress in their language learning.
3. Learning to write
Not everyone needs to learn to write depending on your aim in studying the language.
For example, I have a secretary to do most of my writing and typing in Vietnamese, so my ability to write Vietnamese is not as good as it should be.
As Vietnamese is a tonal language, I find that I am able to write more accurately with the correct accents when I am able to speak correctly.
Practice makes perfect.
So, if you want to be able to write Vietnamese well, there is no easy way out.
You just have to write articles and get your Vietnamese teacher or friend to correct for you.
If you are learning from outside Vietnam and have no Vietnamese to help you, try getting a Vietnamese Pen Pal and explain to your pen pal that you would like him/her to help you correct your mistakes.
4. Building up vocabulary
I find that the best way to build up my vocabulary in the initial phase was to use flash cards with one side Vietnamese and the other side the English translation.
I would test myself on the flash cards once in two days.
As I progressed in my language study, I had too many flash cards.
So I had stopped doing that.
Now, I try to build up my vocabulary by reading consistently.
I started reading novels in Vietnamese about a year ago.
As the novels are interesting (they have Tom Clancy and John Grisham’s books translated into Vietnamese too!) it is easier to build up vocabulary that way as compared to reading language textbooks.
Definitely you will find it difficult reading your first few novels in Vietnamese.
It gets better with each novel! It is important to have a good bilingual dictionary (recommended dictionary)and a dictionary software (recommended dictionary software) too.
In order to improve your vocabulary, you should check up a new word every five minutes of reading.
5. Beyond advanced Vietnamese
Going beyond advanced Vietnamese can only be achieved if you are within a Vietnamese community.
For me, I am currently staying in Vietnam, so I breathe, live and eat Vietnamese.
This is the only way to be really good at the Vietnamese language.
Many people have asked me if I have a Vietnamese wife.
No, I have only one Singaporean wife and I plan to keep it that way.