Ok, so I've started learning Vietnamese. It ain't easy, but I suppose nothing worthwhile is.
I've hired a private tutor at the Indochine Vietnamese Language School for a beginner course that runs 100 hours. Her name is Miss Thuy ("twee" is a very rough approximation of how to pronounce her name -- the "th" sounds more like an aspirated "t" and the "-uy" sounds more like a short "oi" in English). Thuy has glacial patience and a good sense of humor; both are necessary during our thrice weekly 1.5 hour sessions as I skewer her native tongue.
The first thing I noticed about Vietnamese is that the use of a modified Roman alphabet is deceptive. Many of the letters have entirely different sounds in Vietnamese than they do in English. So pronouncing words as you would read them using English pronunciation rules pretty much guarantees a blank stare from the person with whom you're trying to communicate (I know this from experience).
The first phase of my language course focuses on learning the different sounds and tying them closely to the written language. This ain't easy either, because there are sounds in Vietnamese that just don't exist in English. Trying to pronounce them is like taking up a new sport and exercising muscles you never, ever use. Just like learning a good golf swing, you gotta get your mouth, tongue and throat muscles used to contorting in ways that make them recoil in fear and confusion.
Another big challenge is the Vietnamese tonal system. There are six tones in Vietnamese, and they freaking matter. For example, you can say the word "ma" using six different tones and it means six different things. I'm sure you can already anticipate the many gaffes that tones, or rather misuse of tones, lead to as foreigners learn the language. I can only hope that using the wrong tones doesn't turn the phrase "Excuse me, where may I find the restroom?" into "I have a fine selection of stolen merchandise in my van". It's a comfort to know that already one of my friends has offered to pull a Chuck Norris in case I say the wrong thing and end up in a cage somewhere.
Those challenges aside, Vietnamese grammar is ridiculously easy. I don't know much yet, but I do know that there is no verb conjugation (sweet!), no definite/indefinite articles, no plural and no possessives. For example on the possessives -- you say "mother me" to indicate "my mother". That applies to everything that might be yours. Cake. Another example is nationalities. There is no word for "American" or "German" or "Chinese" -- they simply say "person America" (nguoi my) or "person China" to indicate nationality.
To get a sense for the sounds of the Vietnamese language, check out this site. Give your mouth muscles a workout and try to pronounce some of the words. (Note: You will need Shockwave in order to play the sounds.)
Till next time, tam biet!