Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Vietnam

Over the past couple of weeks we've explored the linguistic diversity of the Asian countries of Japan and the Philippines. This week we're turning our focus to Vietnam, a Southeast Asian country that is home to over 90 million people.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese, an Austro-Asiatic language that is spoken by the majority of the country's population. It has been heavily influenced by the Chinese language throughout its history and was originally written using Chinese characters, though it is now written using the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet.

Hạ Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Vietnam
The Colonial Language

The French language is spoken by a considerable number of Vietnamese people, especially by older generations and those who are highly educated. The country was under French colonial rule for many decades as a part of French Indochina, a federation of colonies in Southeast Asia. As a result, the French language was used for education, government, and business purposes for many years. While it used to be the most popular language taught as a second language in schools, in recent years the country has made learning English as a second language obligatory instead.

Minority Languages

Vietnam is also home to several minority groups who have their own indigenous languages. Khmer and Muong are two Austro-Asiatic languages spoken by minority groups in Vietnam. Khmer is the official language of neighboring Cambodia and has approximately 16 million native speakers, while Muong is a group of closely related dialects spoken by about 1 million Vietnamese people.

There are around 100,000 native speakers of the Cham language in Vietnam. Also spoken in Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia, Cham was the language of the Champa kingdom that ruled parts of present-day Vietnam from the 7th to 19th centuries.

Two members of the Tai-Kadai language family that includes the Thai language are spoken in northern Vietnam. Tày and Nung are both spoken by approximately 1 million people. In addition, the Hmong language of the Hmong ethnic group is natively spoken by around 4 million people throughout southern China and Southeast Asia.