Is it ever too late to learn a new language? Locals and expats are finding the opportunity to take cost-affordable foreign language lessons and appreciate its long-term value in the city. By Ruben Luong. Photo by Vinh Dao.

“I learned English because I had to in school, German because I had lived in Germany, but after that I realised how useful it is when you move somewhere or get a job,” says Spanish expat Sara Gonzalez, 35, who is also the director of Jaleo, Ho Chi Minh CIty’s first and only Spanish school in Phu Nhuan District. “When I was learning languages in school, I didn’t realise, or wasn’t conscious, how useful it was for the future.”

In a way, Gonzalez’s case is not so unfamiliar. A grasp of a second, third or even fourth language can be anyone’s gold. More are finding the benefits of being multilingual in the city, where it’s already customary for many expats from different cultures to know at least two languages to some degree of proficiency. The city has been a convenient resource over the years, endowed with programs and courses offered in different centres around the city at relatively cheap prices. Weekly classes may cost upwards of USD $400-500 a month back home, but general classes can cost anywhere from nothing for Vietnamese classes at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities to perhaps several million dong for Spanish lessons at Jaleo or German instruction at the Goethe Institut, depending on class packages.

“Sometimes I’m really proud to speak English, French, Spanish or Vietnamese in a level that you can communicate with others, you know?” says Gonzalez. “It makes you closer to other cultures.”

Gonzalez started taking French lessons at IDECAF three months ago and hopes to live in Senegal in the future, where ideally the language will bring her opportunities. “I also have a lot of French friends, so I listen to friends quite often. I want to learn so fast to have a conversation, but it takes time for the acquisition of the language, time to settle a new language in your brain. I’m just impatient,” she says.

In the short-term, learning Vietnamese is naturally an interest for some expats in the country. “Most foreigners of course try learning Vietnamese,” says Kanika Singh, 24, an Indian expat who has been here for a year and a half and just started taking Spanish lessons. Her native language is Hindi. “I had gotten Vietnamese lessons last year, but my motivation wasn’t as strong because it’s not a global language and I wouldn’t be able to use it in many places outside of Vietnam. But not a lot of people are aware of the quality of instruction for other languages that exist here as well – not many – but a few.”

There is already a considerable influence of Spanish culture in HCMC – Latin restaurants like District 3’s Khoi Thom and District 1’s La Fiesta or El Gaucho are always crowded, an avid interest in Spanish football leagues continues to deepen and salsa dancing or Latin nights add flavour to the existing nightlife – piquing some interest in learning Spanish for expats who are otherwise discouraged by learning Vietnamese but may be planning ahead to live in a Spanish or Latin American country.

According to Ethnologue, a comprehensive language research site, there are at least three million native Spanish speakers in 44 countries. It also ranks as the world’s number two language in terms of how many people speak it as their first language, with 329 million native speakers. It sits ahead of English (328 million), but behind Chinese (1.2 billion).

“There’s maybe double the demand in Spanish here,” says Spanish expat Gema Rodriguez Luque, 39, a Jaleo instructor and BIS Spanish teacher who arrived a year and a half ago to teach Spanish. “When I first taught, I went to the Humanities University and started with one course. In Jaleo now I have a lot, but also there are more Spanish teachers here now.”

And while expats like Singh are interested in learning Spanish in the hope of using it to travel – she began semi-private group lessons from a Jaleo tutor last month at Ploughman’s Garden vegetarian restaurant in District 2 and later hopes to live in Mexico and teach English – a majority of students at Jaleo’s centre are Vietnamese, and of all ages.

“People know that probably a lot of companies here now are interested in Latin America and need to do business translation or other related work,” Rodriguez Luque says. “I think it’s an economic thing.”

Recently, students from a local tourist company have sought lessons at Jaleo so that they can work as Spanish tour guides and perhaps translators, according to Gonzalez.

“I also work in a small company with about 20 people and I have colleagues who are all fluent in English but know Japanese, Korean or French,” says Mai, 27, a Spanish student. She added that she tried studying Japanese, Chinese and even Dutch before committing to learning Spanish. “Japanese was so difficult. But I traveled to Barcelona once and I loved it,” she says. “I want to come back one day or go to a Latin American country.”

For expats taking any language class, one aspect of learning in Vietnam is that they can share the classroom with Vietnamese students, which not only makes it fun but at the end of the day allows for better learning in all realms, especially if expat language students happen to be language teachers themselves. For instance, Gonzalez says she enjoys taking French lessons with Vietnamese students so she can understand how they learn effectively and adopt teaching strategies suitable for teaching Spanish.

“I think it’s important to realise what your students go through,” says Singh, who currently teaches English at British Council. “I think in a way I try to think from my student’s perspective because I’m having similar experiences as them. It’s beneficial that way.”

Many other expats who teach English find themselves needing an outlet where they can continue to keep themselves interested in language as well.

“My teaching, I don’t think it keeps my mental faculties up to the level that I would expect it to,” Singh says. “That’s with any job, I guess. It’s important to give yourself a challenge now and then from learning a new language.”

“But really it’s not just languages,” she adds. “It’s just continuously learning something new that is important to me. It’s that I’m learning something else.”