Vietnamese is spoken mainly along the coastal plains, river deltas, and adjacent highlands of the eastern portion of the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. The 59 million people who speak Vietnamese (Grimes 1992) live mainly in Vietnam and the adjacent countries of Southeast Asia. Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. As a result of economic and cultural development, particularly in the north, Vietnamese is also widely used as a second language by many of the mountain-dwelling ethnic minorities and in neighboring countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, where significant Vietnamese populations exist.
A significant number of Vietnamese speakers live overseas, notably in the United States (600,000), France (10,000), and, to a lesser extent, in Canada, Australia, Senegal, and Cote d'Ivoire (Grimes 1992).
Vietnamese is one of approximately 150 languages belonging to the Austro Asiatic family of languages. The question of Vietnamese's classification is still being debated (Earle 1975). One of the three branches of the Austro Asiatic family is Viet-Muong (or Annam-Muong), to which Vietnamese and its sister language Muong (spoken in the Midlands) belong.
There are three major dialects spoken within Vietnam: Hanoi (Northern Vietnamese) dialect, Hue (Central Vietnamese) dialect, and Saigon (Southern Vietnamese) dialect. The Northern dialect forms the basis of the standard language and is the prestige dialect.
Vietnamese is written using modified Chinese characters, derived between the second century BC until the tenth century, when Vietnam was a province of China. During the medieval period, between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, Buddhist scholars and priests developed a writing system based on Chinese characters, called chu nom.
In the mid-seventeenth century, Catholic missionaries introduced Roman script, modified by diacritics to mark tones and certain vowels. The developed orthographic conventions were influenced by Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and French. This writing system, called chu quoc ngu, was not widely used outside of the Catholic church until the end of the nineteenth century, when the French administration encouraged the use of chu quoc nom by all segments of society. After the revolution that ended the French colonial regime, a movement developed that advocated the study of national languages and the development of national culture. Vietnamese was made the official language of the Republic of Vietnam. Thereafter, Vietnamese had to be used in all official business communication, including education and the media.
Vietnamese is a tone language; that is, the meaning of words and sentences is affected by the pitch in which they are spoken. Sentences in Vietnamese have subject-verb-object word order.
Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam and is used throughout its entire educational system. In schools, all levels of science and technology education is taught in Vietnamese, including higher education. Inside Vietnam, there has been an active campaign to preserve the clarity and purity of the Vietnamese language.
Source: UCLA Language Materials Project Language Profiles