10 characteristics of the Vietnamese langauge

These are 10 things an absolute beginner must know before getting started with learning Vietnamese.

  1. Pronunciation & Accent
  2. Tones
  3. Prosody
  4. Accent & Dialects
  5. Pronouns (I, you, he, she, they, them)
  6. Particles
  7. Classifiers
  8. Grammar
  9. Writing System
  10. Loanwords

1. Pronunciation and Accent

Consonants, vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs.

Knowing what these 4 terms mean can help you further your studies in Vietnamese from other Vietnamese language books.

Consonant refers to a speech sound where you block the flow of air. (For example: m, n)
Vowel refers to a speech sound where you do not block the flow of air. (For example: o, u)
Diphthong refers to a sound of two vowels combined into a single syllable. (For example: boy, buy, cow )
Tripthong refers to a sound of three vowels combined into a single syllable. (For example: fire, hour, lower )

There are slightly more letters (consonants and vowels) in the Vietnamese alphabet compared to English.
Some vowels, including diphthongs and tripthongs, that have completely different pronunciation with one another can sound the same to the untrained ear. For example:
ay versus ây
ôngversus ong
oi versus ôi versus ơi

Drilling Vietnamese pronunciation is a must

Reading Vietnamese words to derive the pronunciation is quite similar to reading the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For example, the IPA spelling for the word congratulations is /kənˌɡɹætʃəˈɫeɪʃənz/ . If you have never learnt how to read the IPA letters, you won’t have the ability to pronunce the words just by reading the IPA.

Similar to learning Vietnamese pronunciation, on top of learning how to pronounce the consonants, vowels, dipthongs and tripthongs, you need to drill it into your muscle memory such that whenever you see a word like mây (noun: cloud) and may (verb: to sew; to stitch), you will be able to pronounce them accurately.

What you think you sound like is not what you actually sound like.

It is recommended that you take lessons with a Vietnamese teacher on platforms like iTalki to develop your pronunciation skill. In the English language, if a non native speaker pronounces the vowels a little bit off from the standard pronunciation, at times it can be hard to understand, but more often than not, the meaning doesn’t really change. However, for Vietnamese, if your pronunciation is ever so slightly off, you end up saying a different word with a different meaning altogether. It can be easy to fall in the trap of thinking that your pronunciation is correct.

One good method of checking your own prounciation is to do an audio recording of your own voice, play it back and compare it with a native speaker, like those free Vietnamese video lessons on YouTube. But even then, you might not really know if you can even tell whether or not your pronunciation is accurate.

Change of accent

Depending on which part of the globe you are from, the accent of your voice may be drastically different than that of the Vietnamese accent. In other words, when you learn to speak Vietnamese, try to avoid sounding like your own native voice as that might prevent you from getting an accurate prounciation of the words. During your lessons with your teacher, you may be expected to move your mouth in shapes that might look silly to you in order to derive an accurate pronunciation. Please do not shy away from doing that as Vietnamese has certain sounds that require a certain mouth shape which you might have never spoken with in your native language.

You can visit alyglot.com to learn more about the Vietnamese language.

2. Tones

If you already know some tonal languages such as Chinese, Cantonese, Thai or Lao, you can skip this segment.

There are many different schools of thought on what “tone” means in a language.
The simplest way to see it is, the pitch of your word, and the change in pitch of your word, and the overall pitch movement when you speak.

Tone marks are used in Vietnamese to indicate the pitch of the word. For example:

ba (with no tone mark; represents the mid level tone) father

(with the low falling tone mark) grandmother

bạ (with the mid falling tone mark) any

If the above three words sounds exactly the same to you, fret not, as you progress in your learning journey, you will start to be able to differentiate them.

The best way to learn a tonal language is to always practice saying aloud atleast two or more words together rather than a single word because tones are always relative in pitch to one another. It is better to say two words really slowly together, with the correct tones bánh mì, rather than one by one quickly bánh . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The word bánh mì which typically refers to a type of short baguette. As you practice saying the pair of words together, on top of training your brain the relative pitches of the words, you are also practising the prosody. Saying them one by one does not help build your prosody in the language and might also unintentionally develop bad habits in your prosody.

It is extremely important that you master the prounciation of the consonants and vowels first before attempting to work on your tones. You can of course work on your tones with words that are easier to pronounce and those that you can already pronounce very accurately.

Unlike the tones found in Chinese or Thai, the variations in tones for Vietnamese can vary quite wildly across the country and dialects. A more detailed explanation of Vietnamese tones can be found in the reference section.

Important pitfall to avoid!

If you have never learnt or spoken any tonal languages before, you might be misled to think that speaking a tonal language is like singing a song. This is because of a lot of learning materials for foreigners utilises tone and pitch charts, something that native speakers never grew up with, and probably had no idea about the existence of these charts until speaking with a foreigner at a much later age. Some tone charts even utilise the notes of the piano, or a musical staff to illustrate the movement of the pitch of the tones.

If the mid tone is the note “C”, and the rising tone starts from note “D” and slides up to note “G”, then every time you see a word in mid tone, then just pronounce it at the “C” pitch. And every time you see a word in rising tone, then start the word from “D” and glide your pitch up to “G”. Easy right?

NO! That is in fact not how native speakers speak at all in tonal languages. When you analyze a spectrogram of a native speaker, you will realise that the exact same word used in the same sentence, that are theorectically supposed to have the same tone and pitch, is in fact pronounced at a different pitch depending on the context. Two separate words with the same rising tone, is pronounced at different pitch but in a rising contour. Well, in fact in many cases, a word that is supposed to have that particular tone is in reality pronounced with a different contour or tone altogether, relative to the sentence. If you try to speak tonal languages like learning how to sing a song, you will end up speaking very unnaturally and struggle with attaining fluency of the spoken language.

The solution to overcoming this bizarre phenomenon of tonal languages is to master the prosody while learning tones.

You can visit alyglot.com to learn more about the Vietnamese language.

3. Prosody

Prosody refers to the rhythmic pattern and intonation of speech in a language.

If you were to make a conscious effort to listen to a native speaker speak at their natural prosody, you will begin to realise which parts of the sentence the speaker will tend to stress, and which parts they would glide past, or join multiple syllables of different words to sound as if it’s a single word. You will also begin to realise multiple instances of vowel reduction where they might swap out an open vowel with a close vowel when speaking very quickly. Sometimes even if you slow down the audio to half its speed, you might not even be able to tell that the speaker said a particular word in that phrase.

Prosody also refers to the overall shape of the spoken sentence to express a certain kind of feeling such as surprise, anger, happiness and sadness. For example, the front part of the sentence slow, and the back part fast.

This is an aspect that many new language learners tend to neglect because in almost all beginners’ language books, they don’t talk about it. Usually for beginners’ language books with audio recording, the audio recording is spoken in a very well-articulated manner, sometimes with the same amount of stress for each and every word in a sentence. Unfortunately, in real life, all native speakers speak with some kind of prosody. It can be hard for you to understand them or for them to understand you if you haven’t been developing your prosody during your language learning.

Some language books do have audio recordings of conversations which are spoken at a natural pace with great prosody. This can be something you should look out for when selecting the next book to purchase.

The best way to practice prosody is to practice Shadowing. To put it simply, Shadowing means you turn on an audio of a native speaker and you repeat exactly they say even if you don’t understand the meaning. Shadowing can be done at different levels of difficulty based on your current proficiency in the language:

You can visit alyglot.com to learn more about the Vietnamese language.
  1. Find a simple audio of a story with the transcript. There are a number of great videos on YouTube with native Vietnamese who speaks really slowly with good prosody. Shadow the native speaker one sentence at a time. Listen to the sentence, pause the video, and say that sentence aloud.
  2. Shadow the native speaker in the similar way as above, but instead of a single sentence, listen to two sentences, pause the video and say the pair of sentences aloud.
  3. Read aloud at the same time together with the speaker. Slow down the audio if you need to.
  4. Read aloud at the same time together with the speaker without looking at the transcript. You will probably be speaking a little behind the speaker unless you’ve already memorised all the words in the transcript.

Be sure to audio record your voice and review it constantly to check your progress.

You should only start practicing shadowing once you’ve mastered the Vietnamese pronounciations and tones.

4. Accent & Dialects

When learning Vietnamese, you will come across the terms Vietnamese Accent or Vietnamese Dialect. They more or less refer to the same concept.

If you are just starting out Vietnamese without knowing of the existence of the accents, you will end up struggling to comprehend why different YouTube videos teach the same word with different pronunciations, and why one of your teacher says that you are pronouncing it correctly while the other says that you pronouncing it wrongly. Bare in mind, that “pronunciation” that I’m referring to here not only includes the consonants and vowels, but also the tone, pitch and prosody of your words and sentences.

Broadly speaking, the Vietnamese language is categorised into two accents. The Northern Accent or giọng miền Bắc (Hanoi accent) and Southern Accent or giọng miền Nam (Saigon accent). The Northern accent is the standard accent of the country since Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. Most news outlets throughout the country read the news with the Northern accent. Also, if you were to enrol into a Vietnamese language at your local univeristy, chances are you will be taught the Northern accent.

If we were to be more specific with the accents of Vietnamese, then we will have to consider the Central Accent or giọng miền Trung. Also within these 3 aforementioned categories, they can be categorised into more subcategories like giọng miền Tây (accent from the Southwest of Vietnam, around the Mekong River Delta region), giọng Huế (accent from the Hue province), and many more others.

What’s the difference?

If you are a native English speaker, you might be able to tell apart the differences of the American, British and other English accents. The different English accents vary in prounciation and vocabulary, just like the different Vietnamese accents. The differences between the three main accents (North, Central and South) are too many to be listed here. Some differences are:

  1. Pronounciation of consonants and consonant clusters
    • In the north, the consonant r in words like rất (adverb: very), is pronounced as “zert” where as in the south, it’s pronounced as “rert”.
    • In the north, the consonant q in words like quên (verb: to forget), is pronounced as “quehn” where as in the south, it’s pronounced as “when”.
    • In the north, the consonant cluster gi in words like (pronoun: what), is pronounced as “zee” where as in the south, it’s pronounced as “yee”
  2. Pronunciation of ending consonants
    • In the north, the ending consont n in words like ăn (verb: to eat), is pronounced as “ahn” where as in the south, it’s pronounced as “ahng”
    • In the north, the ending consont nh in words like anh (noun: elder brother), is pronounced as “anhg” where as in the south, it’s pronounced as “ahn”
  3. Pronunciation of vowels
    • In the north, the vowel ê in words like nên (verb: should), is pronounced as “nehn” where as in some parts of the south, it’s pronounced as “nerhn”
    • In the north, the ending vowel iếng in words like tiếng (noun: hour), is pronounced with “tierhng” where as in the south, it’s pronounced as “tiing”
  4. Vocabulary
    • For some common words like what, as in (What’s your name?) Bạn tên là gì?, in the North and South, it’s while in the central, it’s chi ~ Bạn tên là chi?
    • For some objects, such as a drinking glass, a different word is used in different regions. In the north, it’s cốc while in the south, it’s ly.
    • For other words such as dĩa, they refer to a different object in different regions. In the north, it means a fork, in the south, it means a plate.
  5. Tones
    • In the north, there are 6 distinct tones, while in the south there are 5 distinct tones, with 2 tone markers sharing the same tone.

We are just scratching the surface here. You need to undergo the proper exposure and instruction if you are really keen on diving deep into the different dialects. Even native Vietnamese speakers have trouble listening and understanding each other’s accents. Just asking a simple question Bạn tên là gì? (What’s your name?) in the three different accents can seem like three totally different and unrelated questions to an untrained learner.

As a beginner, depending on where and how you intend to use your Vietnamese skills, you should decide first on either the Northern or Southern accent to learn to avoid confusing yourself. You should avoid the Central accent as a beginner as it’s known to be a lot harder than the two main ones. Once you’re more confident in your Vietnamese proficiency, you can venture out to the other dialects.

5. Pronouns (I, you, he, she, they, them)

Personal pronouns in English have different types like

  1. Subjective Pronouns (I, you, we, he, she, they)
  2. Objective Pronouns (me, you, us, him, her, them)
  3. Possessive Pronouns (mine, yours, ours, his, hers, theirs)

For Vietnamese, the same word is used in all these types of personal pronouns (tôi, bạn, chúng tôi, anh ấy, cô ấy, họ). At first glance, this looks really easy, however the usage of personal prounouns in Vietnamese is really much more complicated than English because there are more than one word being used for each of the personal pronouns depnding on the following factors:

  1. Age of speaker and age of listener
    • If the speaker is a male speaking to a younger male or female listener within the same generation, the speaker will use the word anh for I and em for you.
    • If the speaker is a male or female speaking to an older male listener within the same generation, the speaker will use the word em for I and anh for you.
    • If the speaker is a male or female speaking to an older female listener within the same generation, the speaker will use the word em for I and chị for you.
  2. Difference in social status between speaker and listener
    • If a speaker is superior to the listener or perceives him or herself to be superior to the listener, the speaker will use the word tao for I and mày for you. This is considered impolite and their usage is generally kept between very close friends when speaking casually.
  3. Regional accent variation
    • The word for they is chúng nó, but in some parts of central Vietnam, tụi hắn is used instead.

For simplicity, we will use tôi for I, my and bạn for you and anh ấy for he, him and chị ấy for she, her in all our examples here on Alyglot. It is important that you take the initiative initiative to change out the personal pronoun to an appropriate one when you are using these sentences to commuicate.

Please visit the Vietnamese Pronouns reference page to learn about all the possible pronouns that you could use.

6. Particles

Particles play a big role in the Vietnamese language, just like how they can be commonly found in many other Asian languages like Chinese, Thai, etc… As a learner of Vietnamese, it is better to learn the particles so that you will be able to distinguish it from the sentence, otherwise, just by inserting one word particle at the end of the sentence, that might throw you off guard and you end up not understanding the meaning of the entire sentence at all.

In English, examples of some particles would be, “yea”, “man” and “you know”. These particles don’t really change the meaning of the sentence, but they emphasize on the feelings and emotions of the speaker. For example, “It’s over there man.” has the same meaning as “It’s over there.” By adding the particle “man”, it could be possible that the speaker is irritated with the listener for not being able to see something the speaker was trying to point out. Particles may also be found at the front of sentences, for example, “Man, that was awesome!” and “That was awesome!” have the same meaning. If you weren’t an English speaker, you would be very confused as to what the word “man” means in these sentences. Some other kinds of particles like “right?”, “yea?” and “no?” functions as question tags.

In Vietnamese, it’s the same! Some common particles are hả, đó, and vậy.

Particles are some of the most trickiest things to learn about a language because they encompass a great deal of emotions and expressions into just one or two words said with a certain mood in a certain context. They are difficult to learn simply because they are very difficult to be explained. Particles are best learned in context of a dialogue rather than a standalone sentence or word.

7. Classifiers

8. Grammar

9. Writing System

10. Loanwords

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