Southeast Asian languages give young people an edge

Koen van Lent, 21, from SOAS, reads an Indonesian text book in the SOAS Library.

Koen van Lent, 21, from SOAS, reads an Indonesian text book in the SOAS Library

Southeast Asian languages give young people an edge

18 February 2014

By Stella Schito

Despite having more than 80 million speakers across the world, the Vietnamese language is still considered a niche language. Yet it has more speakers than than those fluent in Italian or Dutch.

So what makes Annamese, better known as Vietnamese, a language worth learning?

Some may be fascinated by the millenary culture of the country where it is spoken, others may be drawn into studying it due to the alluring job prospects of a growing economy. 

“Vietnamese language beginners may be intimidated by the initially extremely steep learning curve,” says Seb Rumsby, 24, a UK graduate in Vietnamese and Development Studies currently reading an MA in South East Asian Studies at SOAS.

Few people study Vietnamese which means good job opportunities

“However there are very few people studying Vietnamese, which translates into very good job opportunities,” he adds.

After obtaining his BA in 2011, Rumsby has worked and interned both in the UK and in Vietnam.

“Studying Vietnamese at SOAS was possibly the most useful part of my degree for finding work,” he says. “Whilst interning I was able to use my language skills to translate and interpret part-time, despite not having a translating qualification, because it’s a rare language so there are hardly any Vietnamese interpreters around. I have the option of moving to Vietnam whenever I want, and am very confident of finding a job.”

Dana Healy, Senior Lecturer in Vietnamese and Head of the Department of South East Asia at SOAS, talks through the process of learning the language.

“The six tones of Vietnamese often prove to be a challenge for British learners, but the grammar is simple and easy to master,” she adds.

When asked why one should be interested in learning Vietnamese, she points to the history of the country.

“It has been so closed to the West that it represents an exciting opportunity not only in terms of economic gains but also on the cultural level. From discovering a new species in the Vietnamese jungle to translating a piece of literature from Vietnamese, no matter what your interest is, you will feel like a pioneer in that area.”

Unlike Vietnamese, which has adopted a Roman alphabet writing system, Thai uses a less familiar script that has its roots in Khmer (Cambodian) and ancient Indian prototypes.

Aydan Stuart, 23, has studied Thai at SOAS and is now living in Thailand teaching English and working as a gallery assistant in Chiang Mai.

“After studying Thai, I realised that the tones were harder to grasp than I thought but the lack of spaces were easier to get my head around than I thought.”

Stuart went to Thailand as a volunteer between school and university, where he had his first encounter with the language. He said it is important to learn the language of the country you live in because it gives you preferential access to people and situations

Thais see it as a great compliment if a foreigner can speak Thai

“Thais almost unanimously find it brilliant that I can speak Thai. I think they take it as a compliment to their nationality and country as well, due to their great sense of national pride,” he said.

Career-wise, a good knowledge of Thai certainly gives you the opportunity to work in very particular fields.

“I know of an ex-SOASian who studied Thai and is now working for the Red Cross in the South of Thailand as a neutral party in Government/separatist discussions. My current job as Gallery Assistant, I got due to my knowledge of both Thai and English. I often have to work sales to people of all nationalities, using both English and Thai.”

David A Smyth, Senior Lecturer in Thai at SOAS, regards the study of Thai as “an incredibly valid activity, because it is so completely different from anything we are used to.” He also points out that “the process of learning another language teaches you a lot about yourself and the way you operate.”

“Thai has polite particles. Does that mean they are more polite than us?” he asks. “Their pronoun system is able to reflect hierarchy, intimacy, respect, kinship. What does it say about their society? And in comparison to our society?”

It is a journey of self-discovery that Smyth is referring to. “When learning a new language, you have got to think of your own personality. When expressing yourself you are faced with the challenge of recreating your personality with a restricted vocabulary. So does your personality change, depending of the language you use?” he says.

Learning a foreign language can then be compared to a fascinating process of self-reconstruction.

Dr Smyth admits that tones are not easy to master, but often Thais can understand what is being said through the conversational context.

In 2013 Thailand and Indonesia ranked in the top 10 of the world’s largest growing economies.

Indonesia, the fourth country in the world in terms of population size, is often seen as a ‘miniature Asia’ because of the convergence of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Its linguistic landscape is also very diverse, with Indonesian as the official language but 100s of indigenous languages.

Koen van Lent and Chloe Vatikiotis, students of Indonesian at SOAS, unanimously find learning Indonesian a “very rewarding experience.”

Learning Indonesian is an investment in the future

“Learning Indonesian is an investment in the future,” says van Lent, currently studying towards a BA in Development and Economic at SOAS. “It is less mainstream than Chinese and Indonesia is a large growing economy, so a knowledge of the language can be very useful, it gives you an edge,” he points out.

Vatikiotis, who graduated a few years ago in a Chinese and Development Studies BA at SOAS, took Indonesian as a ‘floater’ (optional language) at SOAS for different reasons.

“I wanted to reconnect to my roots. Although none of my parents are Indonesian, I was born there and my first words were in Indonesian.

“When studying Indonesian, you will notice a quick progress in the initial steps,” says Ben Murtagh, Senior Lecturer in Indonesian and Malay at SOAS. “With a minimum effort, you will get maximum results.”

There are many job opportunities for Indonesian speakers. “From NGOs to journalism, students of Indonesian have found a whole range of careers to get into,” Murtagh says.

Economic integration of ASEAN means the languages of these countries are growing in importance

The Indonesian Government has heavily invested in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Founded in 1967 in Bangkok, ASEAN aims to promote economic growth, peace, collaboration, assistance and scholarship between South East Asian countries.

The 25th meeting of the ASEAN High Level Task Force (HLTF) on Economic Integration, which aims to promote free trade between ASEAN nations, is taking place in Myanmar this week. This is the first major ASEAN meeting this year, the year in which Myanmar holds the chairmanship.

ASEAN now has 10 member states: Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines and Singapore. It brings together a diverse range of cultures, religions and languages.

However, whilst the official language between its members is English, speaking the local language is likely to give foreigners a valuable insight into how these societies works and will greatly help them conduct business there since locals prefer communicating in their own language.

Considering the economic growth of the ASEAN countries, these languages are definitely growing in importance.


If you’re interested in learning a language you can attend our free Open Your Eyes to Asian Languages free workshops – the next free workshops are related to Near East Asia on 15 March, 2014. Young people will get the chance to learn Arabic, Turkish and Farsi. You can find out more about the Asia House and British Council initiative here.


Stella Schito is currently doing an internship at Asia House.