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...as long as you already have some knowledge of the language. Look, it may be called Elementary Vietnamese, but it's a textbook for a university course, and it's meant to be delivered by a professor who answers questions, demonstrates pronunciation, cajoles, encourages and explains. If you're a complete beginner, you're likely to be overwhelmed, but it's nonetheless good for serious home study, as long as you already have some Vietnamese under your belt, and you're willing to make a considerable effort.
(First, a quick paragraph about my knowledge of Vietnamese, so you can better judge my review against your own situation: I'm a native speaker of English, and I also speak fluent French. I've been teaching myself Vietnamese for two-and-a-half years now. I did the 30 Pimsleur Viet lessons (excellent), and I've been through all 105 L-Lingo Viet lessons once (pretty good). I often use the Tuttle Compact English-Viet dictionary, and I also have Quinn's book, Beginner's Vietnamese, but it's dated and slow going. I try, but mostly do not succeed, to read an article in an online Viet newspaper daily. I have also used fun learning aids, such as Sing n' Learn Vietnamese.)
The name of the book notwithstanding, Elementary Vietnamese is more advanced than anything else I've used, and it moves at a very rapid pace. For example, whereas Pimsleur lightly touches on tense markers during 30 lessons, Elementary Vietnamese covers them thoroughly, about eight of them, with usage notes, exceptions, etc., in just one lesson, with very little hand-holding. And the book uses proper terminology for everything, as a course textbook should, so be prepared for predicates, relative subordinate clauses, velar fricatives and the like. It introduces new words at a furious clip, but as a home learner, you of course have the option of taking your time.
A few practical notes: The book has fifteen chapters. The first fourteen chapters introduce basic grammatical structures and lots of vocabulary. Each chapter has a dialogue or three or four, a vocabulary list, grammar instruction, usage notes, a proverb, interesting (and useful) cultural notes, and lots of drills and exercises. The final chapter, divided into eight units, covers pronunciation. There is also a fairly extensive V-E and E-V glossary at the end. That's crucial, because the drills and exercises lean heavily on the vocabulary you've learned, and if you constantly had to flip through previous pages, randomly searching for a word you'd forgotten, you'd be in trouble. The book also comes with a very good CD that contains numerous recordings (more about the recordings later).
On the whole, the book does a good job of presenting basic structure and grammar, and explaining numerous aspects of the language, such as qualifiers, ways of asking questions, the ever-thorny problem of how to address people, usage, pluralisation, tense markers and time, numbers, word formation, making requests, placement of adjectives and adverbs and the effect on meaning, etc. And at twenty pages, almost an hour of recorded instruction and 1.5 hours of recorded drills, it has the best (though very technical) pronunciation guide I've run into yet. The pronunciation section also has drawings to show how you should pronounce various sounds.
If you're a complete beginner, however, you'll likely feel lost, even if you try to go slowly. Learning Vietnamese is not like learning French, at least not for me. It's not so much the grammar or vocabulary or tones, but the method of expression. French and English speakers express themselves in essentially the same manner, and share lots of vocabulary. Not so Vietnamese. And it's difficult to teach that to home learners through a book.
In addition, the level of technical detail about pronunciation is far beyond what a true beginner needs, or can even understand. But the thing is, you don't absolutely have to pay too much attention to that: the pronunciation drills are excellent, and the speakers in the recordings are clear (though they speak rapidly). Who cares if you understand the notion of the voiced glottal fricative? Just imitate the guy/woman in the recordings.
With regard to the recordings, there are about 175 of them, in MP3 format (and I'd swear the main male demonstrator is the same person who did the Pimsleur recordings). The recordings include everything from sample dialogues, new vocabulary, grammar notes, usage instruction and pronunciation guide/exercises. The grammar notes and usage recordings are word-for-word readings of a considerable portion of the textbook, which might seem odd, but it has the advantage of making the course semi-portable. I can re-fresh my memory by listening to a lesson on the train, for example. However, it doesn't always work terrifically well as a portable audio course, since it really wasn't designed that way. As I mentioned at the top, it's a course that was designed to be given by a professor to students who have the book open in front of them.
There are tons of exercises in the book, which is great, and you can write to Tuttle to get the answer key. Unfortunately, the answer key is slender, and only contains answers to a limited number of exercises. Tuttle, the publisher, would probably respond that you don't need an answer key to all of the very simple drills, but I think that's an error: they underestimate how difficult it is to be a home learner, with no one to answer your questions. But there once again, let's be clear: this is primarily a course textbook. If you're using it for home study, you've got to expect that it can't respond to your every need, and that in some respects, you're on your own.
Starting in chapter seven, there are narrative sections to introduce vocabulary. These are sizable chunks of text (in the book and in the recordings) that would be daunting for the complete beginner, but I find that the narratives are a good opportunity to listen to a person speak at length in Vietnamese, with the text laid out in front of me. A male and a female reader read the text, and I find that I learn a lot by listening and re-listening while following along. There are quite a few a-ha! moments, as I realise `that's how you say that!' I've only done two narratives so far, but they've been very helpful. Sooner or later, I'll take a crack at listening and writing down the text without looking at the book - a homemade dictée. Still, it's not for the complete beginner. There is vocabulary help for the narratives, but no translation. It might be nice if Tuttle included a complete translation of a few of the narratives in the answer key. Interestingly, one of the readings is a poem, which is a nice touch, and pretty rare for Viet instructional material. Some of the narratives are also original newspaper clippings.
I know it's vitally important for many people to know whether the book teaches Northern or Southern pronunciation. To me, this is a non-issue, as most of us will be lucky to master a halfway decent pronunciation of anything, never mind the regional differences, but for what it's worth, and as the intro explains, it mostly uses Northern pronunciation, the superset of the language, but actually employs some regional variation here and there in various places.
For me, this is a very useful book, and the perfect complement to my other studies. I'm about halfway through the first fourteen chapters, and I've been through the pronunciation chapter several times. But it's really not for the complete beginner. It's a generally thorough book, but there are nonetheless times that I want to raise my hand and ask a question, as the instruction can be cursory, and assumes that you are very quick on the uptake. I would strongly suggest doing all 30 Pimsleur lessons before beginning Elementary Vietnamese. Pimsleur has almost no written material at all, so the two systems complement each other nicely. Mind you, Pimsleur is quite pricey by comparison.
I'd give it 4.5 stars, but Amazon doesn't do halves, so four out of five.