French language in Vietnam

French language in Laos South Vietnam French language in Cambodia

French was the official language of Vietnam from the beginning of French colonial rule in the mid-19th century until independence under the Geneva Accords of 1954, and maintained de facto official status in South Vietnam until its collapse in 1975.

Since the Fall of Saigon and reunification of Vietnam, the status of French has largely declined. In 2018, it was estimated that there were about 600,000 fluent speakers of French in Vietnam, accounting for slightly under 1% of the population.[1] Nevertheless, Vietnam remains the largest Francophone country in Asia and is a full member of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF).

In response to the decline of the language and its historic cultural role, the Vietnamese government has initiated plans (often in cooperation with the French government) to promote and revive French-language education in the country's schooling system since the start of the 21st century, including teacher training and expansion of Vietnamese-French bilingual education.[2]


The French language's presence in Vietnam began in the 18th century when French explorers and merchants began sailing near the Indochina coast. When the French replaced the Portuguese as the primary European power in Southeast Asia in the 1790s by helping to unify Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty and later colonizing Southern Vietnam, they introduced the French language to locals. French became the governing language of French Indochina, which included present-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Many Vietnamese began learning French, which replaced the native Vietnamese and royal court Chinese languages and eventually the Vietnamese language's official script was in the Latin alphabet.[3] The building of missionary and government schools spread the French language among educated Vietnamese and it soon became the language of the elite classes by the end of the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, the French language began spreading to the urban masses and became the primary language of education. A French pidgin called Tây Bồi was developed among Vietnamese servants in French households and those who spoke partial French. Nevertheless, at the French language's height in Vietnam between the 1900s and 1940s, many Vietnamese did not speak French well or learn the language and some revolutionaries refused to learn the colonial language, though ironically speeches and papers written to promote independence were written in French. During World War II, Japan briefly occupied Vietnam and established Vietnamese as the sole official and educational language.[4][verification needed]

The influence of the French language in Vietnam slowly began to decline after World War II as revolutionary movements increased and their works began to be written more in Vietnamese. Poorer and generally, more rural populations began to resist French rule and guerrilla forces, the Viet Minh attacked the French and sparked the First Indochina War. The French language however, continued its presence in government, education and media in areas not held by the Viet Minh. At the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Viet Minh defeated the French and Vietnam gained its independence, though the nation was soon divided into a communist, Soviet-orientated north, and a capitalist, US-orientated government in the south.[5] Fearing persecution by the communist government, hundreds of thousands fled to the south, including French-educated and speaking elite. Despite the Vietnam War erupting shortly afterwards, French continued a healthy presence in South Vietnam, where it was an administrative and educational language.[6][verification needed] The sharpest decline of the French language in Vietnam was after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 as the communist government imposed Vietnamese as the sole official and educational language on the entire nation, including the south, which was in a transitional phase until 1976.

The number of students receiving their education in French in Vietnam declined to about 40% by the 1980s and continued to decline well into the 1990s.[7] Additionally, many French-speakers who were anti-communist fled Vietnam and immigrated to nations such as the United States, France, Canada (most particularly Quebec and Ontario) and Australia. As of 2000, only about 5% of students received their education in French. Meanwhile, the rise of the English language caused a further decline in the status of French in Vietnam as English became seen as the language of international trade, commerce and diplomacy. While English has displaced French as the most studied first foreign language, since the 2000s, a revival of French has been taking place in Vietnamese education.

Citing historic, sociopolitical, and cultural contexts, the Vietnamese government has implemented projects to promote or reintegrate French into education systems, especially at the secondary and higher levels.[2] Notably, many university programs in engineering, science, medicine, and law remain taught in French and an increasing number of schools in urban areas such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Cần Thơ use the language as either the main medium of instruction or alongside Vietnamese.[8] Teacher training programs to enhance the quality of French instruction have been agreed upon with France, Belgium, Canada, and the other Francophone Asian countries of Laos and Cambodia.[9] Vietnam has also become a destination for students from other parts of Asia to come and study the French language.[10] The nation remains a member of La Francophonie. Furthermore, French has somewhat of a diplomatic language position in Vietnam.

The French language in Vietnam today

Despite official figures, French has practically disappeared from Vietnam today. Canadian journalist Étienne Fortin-Gauthier, who reports extensively on francophone issues in Canada and elsewhere, points out at the end of a 3-week trip crisscrossing Vietnam from south to north in January 2020 that "[he] found practically no traces of French" including among older Vietnamese who, he had been told, might still master French. He mentions that, according to people involved with the francophone issue there, the number of Vietnamese who speak French on a regular basis ("locuteurs réguliers") is probably between 5,000 and 6,000, a far cry from the 675,000 Vietnamese speaking French according to official figures.[11]

Dialect characteristics

Vietnamese French is based on standard French, but contains words that have been influenced not only by Vietnamese but also by Chinese and English, the later due to U.S. presence in the south during the Vietnam War. Additionally, the pronoun vous used as the formal and plural form of you can be used not only to address elders but also to adults of the same age unlike Standard French, where tu is used among adult friends of the same age.

Despite these minor differences, the form of French taught at Vietnamese schools and colleges is that of standard French.

Influence on Vietnamese

The Saigon Railway Station sign features a loanword from French.

The Vietnamese language contains a significant number of French loanwords and placenames. The majority of words having French origin are those relating to objects, food and technology introduced to the Vietnamese during the colonial era. Additionally, the Vietnamese alphabet came to be written in a Latin-based script instead of Chinese script traditionally used by the former royal court. It became heavily promoted by the French colonial government, which got rid of Chinese influence on the Vietnamese education system by imposing a French-based system.[12]

Below are some notable words that have made their way into standard Vietnamese from French:

Vietnamese French English
ăng-ten antenne antenna, aerial
ba toong bâton cane
bê tông béton concrete
bi-da bille billiards, Snooker
(bút) bi (stylo à) bille ballpoint pen
beurre butter
búp bê, búp bế poupée doll
cá vạt cravate tie
cà phê café coffee
ca-pô capot hood/bonnet (of a car)
Cam Bốt Cambodge Cambodia
cao su caoutchouc rubber
cặp táp cartable schoolbag, satchel
cờ-lê clé wrench
cùi dìa cuillière spoon
da ua yaourt yogurt
ê-kíp équipe team
ga gare railway station
(bánh) ga tô gâteau cake
(cục) gôm / tẩy gomme eraser
giuýp jupe skirt
(chỉ) len laine wool
Li-băng Liban Lebanon
ma đam madame madam, ma'am, Mrs.
mề đay médaille medal
(khăn) mùi xoa mouchoir handkerchief
ô tô buýt autobus motor bus
(bánh) patê sô pâté chaud (obsolete) savoury puff pastry
(cục) pin pile battery
(đèn) pha phare headlamp
phanh frein brake
phẹc-mơ-tuya fermeture zipper
phim film movie
pho mát, phô mai fromage cheese
(áo) sơ mi chemise shirt
(quần) si/xi líp slip underwear
tăng xông tension hypertension
(táo) trái bom pomme apple
sô-cô-la chocolat chocolate
tuốc-nơ-vít tournevis screwdriver
vô lăng volant steering wheel
xà lách salade lettuce
xa lát salade salad
xà phòng, xà bông savon soap
xăng, ét-xăng essence gasoline
xu chiêng soutien-gorge bra


Despite the decline of French in the late 1970s to 2000s, Vietnam continues to have a French-media market and presence. A small number of French-language newspapers used to circulate in the country, most dominately the now extinct Saigon Eco and the only remaining state-owned paper - Le Courrier du Vietnam. News broadcasts as well as television programs in French are shown on Vietnamese television channels daily. Radio broadcasts in French are also present.[7]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ [1] Discours du Premier ministre devant la communauté Française au Viêtnam (in French)
  2. ^ a b Appui et valorisation de l’enseignement du français dans le système vietnamien, Ambassade de France à Hanoï, 29 Oct 2018. (in French)
  3. ^ History of Vietnam and its French connection.,, retrieved 2010-10-29
  4. ^ Chieu, p. 309.
  5. ^ "La Guerre En Indochine" (video). newsreel. 1950-10-26. Retrieved 2007-05-20.
  6. ^ Karnow, pp. 280
  7. ^ a b La Francophonie in Asia, France-Diplomatie, 2005, archived from the original on 2009-05-02, retrieved 2010-10-14
  8. ^ Education in Vietnam, World Bank
  9. ^ SEA countries popularize French language, Voice of Vietnam, 11 January 2012.
  10. ^ Vietnam promotes French language training, Voice of Vietnam, 2011, retrieved 2012-07-21
  11. ^ Parle-t-on encore français au Vietnam? ONFR+, 9 January 2020.
  12. ^ David G. Marr (1984). Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945. University of California Press. p. 145. ISBN 0-520-05081-9. Retrieved 2010-11-28.