Vietnamese vs English

If you are teaching English in Vietnam, or teaching English to Vietnamese speakers, you may well face a few problems when your students use English.

Let’s take a simple example. Your Vietnamese students may well say things like this:

* Yesterday he go school.
* Tomorrow I go doctor.

* an asterisk at the beginning means it’s grammatically wrong

If you know nothing about Vietnamese you may well wonder why your students make this error; however, if you know a little about Vietnamese grammar (and also English grammar of course) you’ll realize immediately that they are simply transferring Vietnamese grammar across to English.

So knowing a little about how Vietnamese contrasts with English will let you spot not only the mistakes your students make but also why they make them. This helps you understand your students better which in turn lets you help them more.

This article, then, looks at major differences between Vietnamese and English.

A Quick Introduction to Vietnamese

As you probably already know, Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. It’s spoken by about 75 million people in and around Vietnam plus a few million living overseas.

The biggest overseas Vietnamese population is in the USA and in fact Vietnamese is the 6th most widely spoken foreign language in the USA (and, can you believe, the 3rd most widely spoken foreign language in Texas).

For over 1,000 years Vietnam was occupied by the Chinese and this had a huge influence on the language. For a start, Vietnamese was first written using a subset of Chinese characters. During this time also many Chinese words crept into Vietnamese and this means that approximately 30-50% of Vietnamese vocabulary is derived from Chinese.

In the 17th Century Jesuit priests from Portugal started writing Vietnamese in the Roman alphabet, albeit with Portuguese influences and a few extras diacritics to take into account sounds not in Portuguese.

By the time of the French occupation (1862-1945) the alphabet was settled with 29 letters in all:

A a – Ă ă – Â â – B b – C c – D d – Đ đ – E e – Ê ê – G g – H h – I i – K k – L l – M m – N n – O o – Ô ô – Ơ ơ – P p – Q q – R r – S s – T t – U u – Ư ư – V v – X x – Y y

You’ll notice there’s no F, J, W, or Z and sometimes pronunciations are very different so that one letter may represent several different sounds. In addition you’ll see some letters with tone marks on them to show the 6 different tones in Vietnamese (more on this later).

While the French were in Vietnam they also introduced new vocabulary as well though obviously not as much as the Chinese who had come before them.

After the French it was the turn of the Americans who brought with them new English vocabulary for more modern terms. More recently still the influence of the West has been through mass media and the internet with new words being introduced into Vietnamese from English.

summary of influences

So to sum up, here’s how the history of Vietnamese will affect your teaching:

  • Vietnamese beginner students will often have a basic set of English words which they already know even if they are pronounced differently
  • Although the alphabet looks similar to the English alphabet, there are a great many differences and this can lead to problems of reading and pronunciation amongst Vietnamese speakers


One of the major problems all teachers with Vietnamese students talk about is pronunciation.

In general, Vietnamese students have poor English pronunciation and it takes a lot of practice and effort to overcome this and help them.

The reasons are fairly straightforward:

  • many school emphasize speaking from the word go and push their students into speaking English before they are ready
  • there is a lack of native (or near-native) English speakers teaching in Vietnam and students get little exposure to live language
  • students get too little input in good English in general; they simply don’t hear enough English to pick up the rhythms and intonation patterns

More specifically:

  • some sounds do not exist in Vietnamese: the glottal stop, plosives and voiceless consonants for example and these can prove difficult
  • grouped consonants are almost non-existent in Vietnamese: eXCLamation, eNGLish, aBSTRact and so on are difficult
  • Vietnamese words are almost exclusively short and of one syllable only; longer English words can prove problematic
  • because Vietnamese words are short this means word stress is not an issue; in English the opposite is true

6 tones

In addition, Vietnamese has up to 6 tones which means the way in which a word is said can change its meaning. These tones are shown as diacritics on the letter, for example:

example – tone – meaning

là – start low and remain low – be

lạ – short and low – strange

lả – with a rising intonation – exhausted

Bearing in mind that English is not tonal this means Vietnamese students often have problems with sentence intonation (e.g. at the end of a question).

short vowels

There are no short vowels in Vietnamese. This means students will pronounce:

beach as bitch
sheep as ship

and so on.

help in pronunciation

Here are a few ideas to help your Vietnamese students with English pronunciation:

  • Give them as much input as possible; this means let them listen to plenty of good spoken English for them to copy (even subconsciously). This means not only your own voice but podcasts, tv shows, radio interviews… anything in fact which features good English pronunciation.
  • Don’t push them to speak until they’re ready.

And more specifically:

  • Explain exactly HOW various sounds are made – use diagrams of the mouth which show the position of the tongue and lips, etc. Often these sounds will be completely new to the students.
  • Introduce them to the IPA so you will be able to write how words are not only spelt but also pronounced; this is important because English spelling is not phonetic.
  • Break longer words down into individual syllables and then, once your students are confident, build them up into the full word.
  • Work with minimal pairs to help them get individual sounds.

Grammatical Issues

Vietnamese grammar is very different from English grammar. This section covers a few major areas you’re likely to encounter teaching Vietnamese native speakers.


Vietnamese does not inflect (that is, words don’t change to show grammatical case or plurals or possession, etc).

This means you must explain very carefully and specifically how words change and why. For example:

  • possession is shown by ‘s
  • plurals are shown by -s
  • I as a subject and me as an object

and so on.


In Vietnamese verbs do not conjugate like English verbs do to show tense. Instead time is often shown simply by using adverbs:

I go to the market yesterday.

Because the sentence contains the adverb yesterday it’s obvious that the event took place in the past so there is no need in Vietnamese to conjugate the verb and put it in the past tense. If the context is obviously in the past, present or future then Vietnamese doesn’t bother with conjugation.

But you need to explain that in English it’s imperative to conjugate!

Very generally speaking beginners will have a lot of problems with making and using correctly the different verbs and forms in English. Intermediate students will be able to handle past & present and future but the big issue is always between simple and progressive tenses.

Another area of difficulty when it comes to verbs is making and using the passive voice which, in Vietnamese, is made and used very differently.

Again you need to break it down and keep it simple!

word order

Although there are similarities between Vietnamese and English in regards to word order, in Vietnamese it’s a lot more flexible.

This means that, for example, question words (who, what, where, etc) can end up at the end of a question rather than at the beginning which must happen in English.

Again, you need to keep things simple and stick to SVO with beginners and make sure they do. Syntax needs to be carefully explained and rules applied till your students are more than confident with them and can handle the exceptions!


In Vietnamese there’s no difference between the definite and indefinite article so you’ll hear students confusing them:

* Would you like the apple? I’ve got several here.
* Will you see a new film with Stallone? It’s out this week!

missing pronouns, possessives and plurals…

Pronouns and possessives are not generally used in Vietnamese.

Again, this need for pronouns and possessives needs to be stressed in your teaching.

Plurals are optional in Vietnamese but – as you know – obligatory in English.


One of the major issues specific to writing for Vietnamese students is spelling.

Vietnamese vocabulary tends to consist of single syllable words. When Vietnamese students write English they often have spelling issues with longer words.

There are also issues with spelling words which include sounds not present in Vietnamese, e.g. ʃ, θ, ð, dʒ, ʒ.

Vietnamese doesn’t include all the ending consonants we have in English so students will sometimes leave these off the ends of words as they don’t “hear” them when they write.

help in writing

Help with these problems is fairly straightforward. Your students will need plenty of writing practice but rather than make it longer essays, especially for lower level students, make the writing very controlled with specific vocabulary which they’ll need.

For example,

  • write short sentences which include problem words
  • play with anagrams of problem words to help with spelling
  • spelling games and activities

In other words, keep things simple and only when your students are confident with spelling their current vocabulary do you move on to more complex or problematic vocabulary in writing.

Useful Links

Teaching English in Vietnam‏‎ – a guide to finding work and teaching in Vietnam

Basic English Grammar Course – if you need help with your English grammar to make your teaching better

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Posted in Foreign Languages vs English, Teaching Around The World.

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