Vietnamese in the US

The Vietnamese community is the fourth-largest Asian community in the US. The countries share a rich history but there are also several important linguistic considerations to keep in mind. Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam and there it is recognized as such in the country’s Constitution. It is spoken by over 77 million people around the world and it’s a mainly tonal language that consists of six different tones. While many of the words are quite short, leading one to the incorrect assumption and Vietnamese is relatively easy to learn, pronunciation is very important in conveying the right meaning and therefore not coming across as incorrect or offensive. With the richness of language, Vietnamese people in the US sometimes struggle with communication in English and there have been several patterns of language misuse that have been identified. We take a look at some of these below.

Simplify initial consonant clusters

There are between 19 and 21 consonants in Vietnamese, and these depend on the area where you find yourself. It is a language peculiarity of Vietnamese to sometimes simplify initial consonant clusters. For example, the word “string” starts with the consonant cluster “st” but a Vietnamese speaker, usually an English as a second language learner (in most cases, adults) would substitute the “st” and replace it with an “s” only to say “sring” instead.

Substitute with Vietnamese consonants

Another interesting aspect is the issue of substitution of English consonants with Vietnamese consonants as this makes for easier transference. One example of this is the “t” in the word “dental”. In English, it’s pronounced as a hard “t” whereas some Vietnamese speakers may substitute it with a soft “th” sound.

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Substitute with Vietnamese vowels

Consonants are not the only culprit as so are vowels. One extended vowel is the double “ee” sound in Vietnamese. In English, the word “chick” has a short “i” sound whereas a Vietnamese speaker may substitute the “i” with a double “ee” sound.

Intonation pattern influenced by tones

Whereas English is not a tonal language, Vietnamese is. This means that Vietnamese speakers who speak in English may find themselves with rising and falling tones on various different individual tones and this is not strictly necessary in English.

Difficulty using words that do not have a direct Vietnamese translation

Vietnamese in the USIt’s natural for languages not to have equivalent words in other languages when translated and the same is true for the relationship between English and Vietnamese. In English, verbs like “to do”, “to work”, and “to make” are actually represented by one verb in Vietnamese (làm). Therefore, it’s not always easy to pick the correct word or to express oneself with the highest levels of accuracy if there are no comparative words in the language.

Difficulty with endings indicating a change in a word class

A further challenge arises for Vietnamese speakers who may find that they struggle with endings that indicate a change in word class. Let’s take the example of the adjective “boring”. In Vietnamese, it may be common for the “-ing” suffix to be omitted and leave the verb form of the word “bore” to try to convey the same meaning.

Omit word endings for tense

English is full of different suffixes for verb endings to indicate tense. However, this differs in Vietnamese. One example is the verb “walked” in the past tense and “walk” in the present tense. In Vietnamese, this verb in its two different forms here would be written as “đi bộ” only to signify both tense types.

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Omit word endings for the plurality

In English, many words in the plural form end with an “s”, but this is not a direct translation into Vietnamese where plurality is not always indicated clearly. For example, it may be easier for a Vietnamese speaker learning English to say “two dollar” instead of “two dollars”.

Omit word endings for verb agreement

Conjugation of verbs is crucial for correct subject-verb agreement. Yet, it’s common for verb endings and conjugations to be entirely omitted in Vietnamese and this reflects in attempts to use rules of Vietnamese and substitute them for English. An instance of this is a speaker referring to a female who walks as “she walk” instead of “she walks”.

Omit auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs are those that are used with another verb to show the verb’s tense, aspect, modality, voice, questions, etc. Some Vietnamese speakers may completely omit these verbs from sentences or questions to result in statements like “You hungry?” instead of asking the full question “Are you hungry?”.

Place adjectives after nouns

The English rule of thumb is to place adjectives before nouns to give the noun a description and add more life and details to a sentence. In Vietnamese, on the other hand, adjectives are placed after the nouns they describe and this ordering of words can create sentences that may be incorrect in English. For instance, a Vietnamese second language English speaker who is in the early stages of learning English may substitute the Vietnamese rule for the English one and say something such as “car big” instead of “big car”.

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Difficulty with word order in questions

The final challenge we’ll explore for this language group as it relates to the English language is the difficulty with word order when it comes to questions. Therefore, the question “What do you want to eat?” in English may have the word order changed by a Vietnamese speaker to read “You want to eat what?”.

The Vietnamese face many language-specific challenges

Vietnamese is a complex language and Vietnamese language speakers who are in the process of learning English may face some or all of the above challenges when learning the new language. It is commonplace for people who speak two languages to sometimes substitute the rule of their primary language into the new target language to try and create a meaningful statement, albeit incorrect grammatically. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring these challenges to better identify where areas of improvement can be addressed, especially for those who deal with Vietnamese-English speakers and students, whether children or adults or for those involved in the translation industry.