Pronunciation Challenges for Vietnamese Learners Dang Duc Minh, M.Ed. ...
Pronunciation Challenges
for Vietnamese Learners
Dang Duc Minh, M.Ed.
Seven common problems faced in helping Vietnamese students with
English pronunciation.
The difficulties reported in this article are those that
currently have relations with foreign countries. One
have been experienced by myself and my students.
directive from the Prime Minister requires that all gov-
Since I have been learning English for 13 years, and
ernment officials at the central and provincial levels be
teaching English for eight years, this represents a signifi-
“intermediately fluent”in English. Also, in many types of
cant pool of experience. I have focused here on identi-
workplaces, English proficiency levels are taken into
fying difficulties, but in some cases have also suggested
account when considering issues such as pay raises and
possible solutions. The target audience for my article is
promotions.
Vietnamese learners, and I have therefore tried to
The learning and teaching of English has also
remain learner-friendly and pragmatic.
expanded to the media. Vietnam Television reserves
one channel (VTV2) for educational purposes. “English
The Popularity of English
for Businesspeople” and “English for Children” are
taught on this channel on a daily basis. In addition to
The context for my article is the current popularity
television, the Voice of Vietnam Radio runs a daily 30-
of learning English in Vietnam. In the last ten years,
minute “English Teaching Programme.” Many weekly
there has been an “English fever” going on in the coun-
newspapers and magazines also have a column devoted
try. The English language is taught at most levels. In
to the learning of English.
urban areas such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and
In short, there currently exists an “excess demand”
Haiphong, English is a compulsory subject at primary
for English learning in Vietnam. Although other lan-
and secondary schools. In most rural areas, it is not
guages such as Russian, French, Japanese, and Latin are
taught until the secondary level as there are not yet
also taught, the most preferred language is undoubtedly
enough teachers. At the tertiary level, English is a
English. This “excess demand”calls for more effort to be
required subject at most universities.
directed toward English learning and teaching.
Additionally, English has recently been made one of
With a view to that end, this article discusses sever-
the three compulsory subjects at the high school gradu-
al challenges faced by Vietnamese learners of English.
ation examination. Until 1998, this exam in Vietnam con-
When helpful, a brief contrastive analysis with
sisted of four subjects: math and literature were com-
Vietnamese is offered. When possible, solutions are pre-
pulsory, with the other two subjects selected from year
sented around or through these difficulties. My hope is
to year. Now the exam consists of five subjects: three
that in some way this discussion will contribute to the
compulsory, and two changing yearly.
learning and teaching of English in Vietnam. To a lesser
In addition to formal and full-time learning, there is
extent, it might be of some help to foreigners learning
informal and part-time learning. There are hundreds of
Vietnamese.
language centers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City alone.
These centers operate mostly during the evenings and
Seven Pronunciation Challenges
take in all sorts of learners. It is quite normal to see in
such a class a primary school pupil sitting side-by-side
Alphabet
with and helping a middle-aged learner in his late 40s or
early 50s. Then there are in-company or on-site classes
Vietnamese speakers are more fortunate in this
organized by companies or institutions which plan to or
aspect of learning English than speakers of many other
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2000

Asian languages, including Thai, Chinese, Laotian,
R‚u Ùng R‡ng r§t rßm r’p.
Japanese, Korean, and Cambodian. Vietnamese uses a
(Mr Rang’s beard is very bushy.)
Roman script as does English, and Vietnamese speakers
She sells seashells on the seashore.
should find little difficulty in writing and recognizing
the letters which make up the English alphabet.
H‡ Nam Ninh c§y l°m l˙a n™p.
The only letters the Vietnamese alphabet does not
(Ha Nam Ninh grows a lot of sticky rice.)
have are W, J, F, and Z; however, these letters are gaining
Ra ch˛, mua con c· rÙ, v´ r·n, Ân væi raudi™p.
recognition.
(Go to the market, buy an anabas [fish], fry it,
On the other hand, Vietnamese letters and spelling
and serve with lettuce.)
are phonetically consistent, while English is not consis-
tent in this area, especially in regard to spelling.
Unvoiced Explosive Endings
Vietnamese learners need to adjust their expectations in
this area.
Explosive endings in English are completely new
phenomena for speakers of Vietnamese. Learners tend
English Sounds Without Equivalents
to omit the unvoiced endings or to make them all
voiced. For example,“mount”is often mispronounced as
In Vietnamese, several sounds made in speaking
“moun” or “mounter,” and “park” as “parker.”
English do not exist, and thus cause much difficulty for
The distinguishing ending sounds of English words
teachers and learners. First is the “th” sound, either soft
are another related problem for Vietnamese learners.
or hard, as in “thin” or “that.” Pronouncing this sound
For example, it is difficult for them to distinguish
correctly in either case is a big problem, as is distin-
between “sing” and “sink,”“thing” and “think,”“seats” and
guishing between the two. Second are the pairs “j” and
“seeds,” or “ceased” and “seized” because the only differ-
“zh,” as in “language” and “pleasure,” respectively. “Sh,” as
ence between these pairs is the pronunciation of the
in “show,”is difficult for learners from Hanoi, and “r,”as in
final sound, which is not a phenomenon in Vietnamese.
“run,” is often mispronounced by learners from Hanoi,
To overcome this problem, a lot of pair-word practice
Hai Duong, and Nam Dinh as “z” (as in “zipper”).
is needed.
Particularly tricky for learners from Hai Duong and Nam
Dinh is the distinction between “l,” as in “lame,” and “n,”
Linking
as in “name.” The pronunciation of “ch,” as in “chair,” is
also difficult for learners from Hanoi, Hai Duong, and
Nam Dinh, but not for those from Thai Binh, where that
Linking does exist in Vietnamese, but it is not as
sound is pronounced exactly the same as in English.
prominent as in English. One example is that when a
t‡ aÛ
Added to the non-existence of some English sounds
person says “
” (flap of a blouse) very quickly, it
in Vietnamese is the difference between long and short
t·o
sounds very similar to “
” (apple). Another example is
vowels. Vietnamese learners find it quite difficult to dis-
a riddle fairly popular among Vietnamese youngsters.
tinguish “beat” from “bit” and “heat” from “hit,” for exam-
M t anh v‡ m t ch∏ h©n g£p nhau.
The riddle says:
ple. Thus, a student might want to say,“The man beat the
Anh con trai fla ra m t c·i chai, ch∏ con g·i fla ra
dog,” but instead actually says, “The man bit the dog.”
qu‰ chanh. Hˆi: H˜ muØn nÛi gÏ væi nhau?
This misunderstanding is significant, and in some situa-
(A boy
tions this type of mispronunciation might even be a
and a girl meet each other. The boy shows the girl a bot-
social disaster. Other pairs such as “set” and “sat,”“seat”
tle and the girl shows him back a lemon. Question:What
and “sit,”“pool” and “pull,”“get” and “gate,” and “man” and
do they want to say to each other?) Answer: The boy
“men” are also challenging.
wants to ask who the girl is waiting for and the girl
These difficulties can be best overcome by practic-
wants to say that she is waiting for him. This is possible
ing sound pairs and sentences with a high density of the
ch∂ ai
problematic sounds, in either Vietnamese or English. For
because in Vietnamese, when “
” (literally, “wait
chai
example, I often ask my students to practice the follow-
who”) is pronounced quickly, it sounds like “
” (bot-
ch∂ anh
ing pronunciation “tongue twisters”:
tle), and similarly, “
” (literally, “wait you”)
chanh
becomes “
” (lemon).
George enjoys learning engineering.
In English, linking is very common. For instance, it
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2000

is quite normal to hear someone say,“I’ve been waiting
mind and to consult the dictionary whenever they are
for an hour and a half,” as, “I’ve been waiting foran
not sure of the pronunciation of a word. That is one of
houranda half.” Linking, though not a major problem,
the purposes for which dictionaries are compiled! My
does cause some confusion for Vietnamese learners in
students often want to know “the rules” and I tell them
the initial stages of studying English. Some years ago, I
that they will draw out the rules for themselves as they
was having dinner with a friend of mine at my house.
go on learning—in my own case, I have seen several
We were eating and drinking when I said, “Would you
rules or patterns. For example, when a word with no
like some more ice?” My friend, quite a quick-witted
fewer than three syllables ends with “ty” (pronounced as
man, replied,“Both, please.” I did not understand what
“tee”), the stress always falls on the third syllable, count-
he was getting at and asked, “Why ‘both’? I was just
ing backward:
offering you some more ice. What’s the other stuff?” He
laughed and told me he was expecting some more ice in
producTIvity
his beer and some more rice in his bowl! In other
famiLIArity
situations, misunderstandings such as this can result
in embarrassment.
staBIlity
Word Stress and Changes in Pronunciation
When a word ends with “tion” or “sion,” the stressed syl-
lable is bound to be the one immediately preceding:
With Vietnamese being a monosyllabic language
while English is polysyllabic, Vietnamese learners are
revoLUtion
likely to find word stress another difficulty to overcome.
compreHENsion
In Vietnamese, there is no such a thing as word stress,
while in English word stress is very important. To make
imMERsion
matters worse, there are not many explicit rules regard-
mispronunciAtion
ing word stress. That is why a standard English diction-
ary always tells how a word is pronounced. In addition,
There are so many such mini-rules that no one has
the stress of an English word often changes when its
attempted to write a book on the subject. I believe that
form or part of speech does.
For example, when
learning all these rules would be more confusing to
“expert” is a noun, the stress is on the first syllable, but
learners than just taking a dictionary and looking up the
when it is an adjective, the stress is on the second. Here
right pronunciation of a word one is not sure of. As
are some more examples:
a teacher, I therefore leave students with their own
helpful dictionaries to discover the rules gradually
IMport (n.), imPORT (v.)
for themselves.
eCOnomy (n.), ecoNOmical (adj.), ecoNOmics (n.),
eCOnomize (v.)
Intonation
phoTOgraphy (n.), photoGRAphic (adj.),
phoTOgrapher (n.), PHOtograph (n.)
Vietnamese is a tonal language, that is, it uses pitch
differences to convey meanings. Vietnamese has five or
ADjective (n.), adjecTIval (adj.)
six tones, depending on the particular dialect under con-
‚y
sideration. For example, the word/syllable “
” has six
What suggestions do I make to my students? I often
different meanings, depending upon with which of the
‚y
§y
advise them to keep this particular phenomenon in
six tones it is pronounced: “
” = “here”; “
” =
“Would you like some more ice?”
“Both, please.”
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2000

ßy
•y
¶y
“there”; “
” = “cover”; “
” = “full”; “
” = “push”;
Áy
pour-poor
and “
” = “fattish.” Thus, intonation in a Vietnamese
sentence is mostly predetermined by the tones used and
so-sow-sew
by the final tonal word, and it is visible in the sentence.
ware-where-wear
This can be illustrated with the following sentences:
aloud-allowed
Anh i ‡? (surprised,yet indifferent)
bored-board
Anh i sao?
see-sea
(surprised with disbelief, talking to oneself)
Anh i fl?
one-won
(surprised, want to keep a guest)
Anh i h‰?
Conclusion
(challenging or threatening)
Anh i ’. (saying good-bye politely)
Anh i nhÈ.
I have been trying to describe some real and poten-
(saying good-bye in a friendly way)
tial difficulties Vietnamese learners of English might
encounter. Most of the challenges I have identified and
All five of these sentences can be translated into English
described are real issues that I and my students have
as “Are you going/leaving?”, but each conveys a different
experienced.
affective, attitudinal meaning determined by its final
Difficulties are unfortunately numerous, and thus I
word. Vietnamese people usually speak Vietnamese
suggest that what I have been able to offer in this paper
without being aware of intonation. To put it differently,
is not exhaustive. Rather, I have only provided some
we express our attitudes by choosing different words.
“ground-breaking” comments to introduce learners to
In contrast, intonation in English is invisible, which
key issues.
is the source of the problem for Vietnamese learners.
I hope this article will be of some help to
Take as an example:“Are you sure?” This question can be
Vietnamese speakers and, to a lesser extent, to foreigners
spoken in a number of ways depending on the attitudi-
who want to learn Vietnamese. As the saying goes,
nal meaning(s) the speaker wishes to convey. The form
awareness is half the victory!
of the sentence itself does not indicate what intonation
is appropriate to the attitude a student wishes to
OOOOO
express. Thus there is no way for learners to escape
Dang Duc Minh (M.Ed.,TESOL, Edith Cowan University)
from learning about intonation.
has been an English lecturer at Hanoi Foreign Trade
University since 1990. He is currently involved in syl-
Homophones
labus design for the Business English major there.
OOOOO
Homophones, which I sometimes call “wolves in sheep’s
clothing,” are word pairs (or trios, etc.) which are pro-
nounced similarly but spelled differently. They are
another difficulty for Vietnamese learners, especially
when they are taking dictation or following the
teacher’s instructions.
For example, students might
write “sun”instead of “son”or “flour”rather than “flower.”
Teacher’s Edition is sent to you
Only when learners’ command of grammar and contex-
free of charge by the English
tualization is improved can this difficulty be overcome.
Language Institute.
Listed in the next column are several more examples of
homophones:
For more information, please
no-know
see page 60.
write-right-site
which-witch
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2000