Why don't Vietnamese understand Vietnamese spoken by a foreigner?

Having lived in Vietnam for 6 years and studied Vietnamese at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities it never ceases to amaze me that if I speak and pronounce a Vietnamese phrase perfectly to most Vietnamese, they don't understand me. Every time I check out my groceries I say to the clerk, "Khỏe khng?" after that is not understood, I say, "Em c khỏe khng?", still no comprehension. About this time somebody in the line will say in a whisper, "Khỏe khng?" and then the clerk repeats what I just said and apologizes. So I have asked numerous times if my pronunciation is clear or not? My instructor and everyone says I speak well, so what is that?? Even if a Vietnamese speaks to me in poor English, I understand what he/she said but it seems not to work the other way around. Some people say they must have thought I was speaking English; why would I speak English to a Vietnamese? I have a few theories but will be interested in others thoughts. It truly boggles the mind that more than half the population doesn't understand their own language if not spoken by a Vietnamese.

To let Vietnamese people understand what you are speaking, you MUST:
1. Pronounce exactly at least 60%
2. Do not try to speak FAST when you haven't speak good yet.
3. Right rhythm between each word, there is a big gap between little up, down, point, question symbols.
4. No mix with your country's tongue!
===> HARD!

I've pronounced perfectly and been answered

"Cow hoo"

I do believe :

Having lived in Vietnam for 6 years and studied Vietnamese at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities it never ceases to amaze me that if I speak and pronounce a Vietnamese phrase perfectly to most Vietnamese, they don't understand me. Every time I check out my groceries I say to the clerk, "Khỏe khng?" after that is not understood, I say, "Em c khỏe khng?", still no comprehension. About this time somebody in the line will say in a whisper, "Khỏe khng?" and then the clerk repeats what I just said and apologizes. So I have asked numerous times if my pronunciation is clear or not? My instructor and everyone says I speak well, so what is that?? Even if a Vietnamese speaks to me in poor English, I understand what he/she said but it seems not to work the other way around. Some people say they must have thought I was speaking English; why would I speak English to a Vietnamese? I have a few theories but will be interested in others thoughts. It truly boggles the mind that more than half the population doesn't understand their own language if not spoken by a Vietnamese.

You're not alone. Many foreigners seem to have the same problem. I do think that most are not expecting a reply in Vietnamese from a foreigner. If you'll notice a lot times after they realize you are speaking Vietnamese they seem to understand.

I'll ask them to repeat slower, and they do repeat, but not slower.

People I know tell me I speak pretty well, clearly, I make no effort to speak fast, but people who don't know me don't understand me at all. 

This is kind of odd, often frustrating, and I've had several prolonged periods of dscouragement.  The one thing that gets me out of it  ̣(and some of you are not going to like this) is the realization that we are living in Alabama. 

My teacher in the USA was University educated, raised in Hanoi.  I hear the northern dialect, I understand maybe half.  TV news is almost understandable.  Street Vietnamese in Cần Thơ is a mishmash of dozens of village dialects with broadly varying pronunciations; v- could be v- or y-, r- could be r- or g-, du ng and dấu hỏi are indistinguishable. 

And people speak machine-gun fast, so the information density, already much greater than English by virtue of being monosyllabic, becomes superhumanly thick.  When I can get people to slow down, and they're somewhat educated, I can understand pretty well.  When the speak slang at auctioneer speeds I don't understand and don't expect to ever understand.

I am however working at it, trying, unlike so many westerners who never learn a word. 

Some people appreciate this and make an effort to understand, and politely and helpfully correct my mistakes.  Others give me that hand-waggle (I HATE that) and answer like they've had tongues cut out, making no effort, offering no encouragement, and some even tell me I should give up trying to learn it.  Thanks, guys. 

I think in the long term the Hanoi dialect will come to be the standard as Mandarin is in China, so I keep my northern tones and I'll wipe out the hybridization I've picked up.

I've lived in VN for almost 8 years. I took 2 courses of Vietnamese at a local school. I tried my best to pronounce everything exactly the way I was taught, but was never understood. So I just gave up. I get by just fine with English, because most of the people I work or otherwise come in contact with can speak English.  My theory regarding your problem is the same as mine - the locals do not expect to hear Vietnamese spoken by a foreign white guy, so they're not listening for it. When you speak to them, they assume you're speaking some English words they're not familiar with, and just ignore you. I've actually done the same thing to Vietnamese people I didn't know. They knew that since I'm a foreigner I probably speak English, and would attempt to speak English to me. Only half listening, I didn't understand them, because I assumed they were speaking Vietnamese. After I realized what was happening, I asked them to repeat, and then understood.  The other issue, particularly in South Vietnam, is there are so many local dialects that even the locals don't understand each other, so they're certainly not going to understand Vietnamese spoken by a foreigner. This situation is very prevalent in the countryside outside of HCMC, where I work every day.

emmy.vn - great suggestions! Thanks so much. Especially appreciated #3 and #4.

ChrisFox - gee - this is like an encounter group; I'm feeling less frustrated already!

If I ask for something simple and with a very narrow range of options like

c ph đen nng khng đường

and the waitress turns a helpless stare to my partner "what'd he say?" I snap my fingers and repeat it, decisively staccato, like, "god damn it, there wasn't anything wrong with what I just said.  Make an effort."  If they can understand villagers who sound like they're gargling they can understand my scrupulously clear pronunciation.

SaigonMonkey - don't give up! When you are speaking with an intellectually aware Vietnamese they will appreciate your interest in learning their language. I was born and raised English speaking in Canada on the US border near Buffalo and am still learning English. Learning a language, any language is never finished.

I do believe :

SaigonMonkey - don't give up! When you are speaking with an intellectually aware Vietnamese they will appreciate your interest in learning their language. I was born and raised English speaking in Canada on the US border near Buffalo and am still learning English. Learning a language, any language is never finished.

For most Americans it's finished around a thousand words, a fifth of which have to do with automobiles.  Anywhere else you go in the English speaking world you run across words like irrespective and fortnight that not one American in a hundred knows.

Yes, sometimes I feel guilty for speaking sharply to a waitress for what is obvious to me a simple lack of listening. It's pretty obvious I'm a foreigner and if I'm speaking to you in your language................anyway my Vietnamese friend puts her hand on my shoulder and says sternly, "calm down!"  Then I realize the person waiting on me probably has little education working for peanuts and maybe a little afraid they won't be able to communicate with the "Ugly American".
But really how hard is it to understand "c ph sữa d, t sữa"???

Saigonmonkey, with occasional exceptions of the type I mentioned above, I've made leaps and bounds of progress at being understood, and the people who don't understand me appear to be the ummm uneducated.  Since their hear northern pronunciation on TV and national broadcasts, I expect them to understand it.  Half the time there is no difference anyway, they're like 90% the same.

The frustration is in understanding them, not them understanding me.  And I do think it is the ensemble of village accents here, where almost nobody hails from CT, they all come from villages near and far.

Every other language I've studied and mostly forgotten, the four basics (reading, writing, speaking, listening) all came at the same pace, save that I never learned to read and write Cantonese, I only studied about nine months, but that was enough to read lips in Cantonese.  The lag in comprehending Vietnamese is quite perplexing. 

But people do understand me, unless they play dumb.

I do believe :

Yes, sometimes I feel guilty for speaking sharply to a waitress for what is obvious to me a simple lack of listening. It's pretty obvious I'm a foreigner and if I'm speaking to you in your language................anyway my Vietnamese friend puts her hand on my shoulder and says sternly, "calm down!"  Then I realize the person waiting on me probably has little education working for peanuts and maybe a little afraid they won't be able to communicate with the "Ugly American".
But really how hard is it to understand "c ph sữa d, t sữa"???

I don't traumatize them, but I do make it clear that I expect them to listen to me and not give that helpless stare.  Because if my partner repeats is for her, it sounds exactly like what I just said.

It's not just the northern/southern/central sounds, nor the accents. It's the cadence of the language. Without a natural flow (as emmy.vn points out, the gaps), it's difficult for native speakers to properly identify the sound clusters that differentiate between words. In other words, if you don't pause for just the right amount of time between syllables, it becomes muddy, and difficult to decipher. It's almost as important as the tones.

This is true for any non-native language, and particularly true for native English speakers attempting to communicate in romance languages, as the cadence is completely different. My wife's French is easily understood, despite her sometimes poor pronunciation, as she lived in France and she just "sounds right".

That sounds interesting and I will try listening for those pauses.  I figured out a long time ago that the reason so many Americans detest Hindi accents is because they PUT the acCENT on funNY sylLAbles. 

However.  A lot of people here speak so crudely that not even other Vietnamese can understand them.  There is so much variation between people born a few m apart that it completely swamps the effect you're talking about.  My partner grew up here and he can't understand rural Vietnamese only a few km outside the city.

Not to mention, there is this excruciatingly ugly growl and a tendency to break into hysterical yelling that makes listening, much less comprehension, totally out of the question.

I think it definitely has a lot to do with racial profiling as stated before- I speak horrendous Vietnamese, but with my black hair and brown eyes, people always seem to comprehend what I'm saying better than when my white coworkers say the same things (more correctly too.) I was born and raised in America and my Vietnamese speaking is a dead giveaway....but when the (less educated) locals have a hard time understanding me they default to the idea that I'm from some obscure hill tribe that speaks a different dialect of Vietnamese instead of being willing to accept the fact that I'm a foreigner....

There was a time when it was a challenge just to rmember the words and I would blurt them out with the tones wrong.  I addressed that and now I make sure I have every tone right, and people who know I speak some Vietnamese, people I have talked to before, understand me every time. 

I find it very, very, very hard to believe that people can hear their native tongue and not recognize it.  Especially when other people, expecting me to speak Vietnamese, have no trouble.  There's some unidentified factor here.

I find it stunningly odd that so many Vietnamese don't recognize their own language even with cadence and pronunciation correct. I find it irritating whenever i say something in Vietnamese the server or clerk immediately looks at my Vietnamese friend as if to say, "What did he say?"  That's not a completely fair comment as many people do understand me and in fact I get compliments about how clear and advanced my Vietnamese is. I also have people, including some well educated people, tell me how poorly I speak Vietnamese. Go figure. In the US there are about 350,000,000 English speaking people; if you (a person from any country) said, "Hello, how are you?" to any of them, all 350,000,000 would understand you immediately even if poorly pronounced. Not so in Vietnam with Vietnamese. My latest theory is the sound or tone of a foreign voice is different than a Vietnamese tone, in other words a racial difference. Vietnamese singers sound very much the same to me even when different singers are singing different songs, so perhaps Vietnamese with so few foreigners as a percentage of the population; the sound/tone throws a Vietnamese person off.

:)

My Vietnamese is "Lo lo", so not very fluent but people understand me. It's true that we have so many dialects and people speak so fast I don't understand them. However as an Asian they tend to accept that I'm from abroad and repeat it slowly to me. When my friend who is Caucasian speaks Vietnamese they look at me thinking he spoke English because they don't expect him so.

Vietnamese is a very hard language to learn. I studied Chinese and thought this to be much easier>.<

Don't give up, that's how Vietnamese are.

P.S: Irish British English and Indian English is horrible... I couldnt talk to my co-worker from Kork because I simply didn't understand him.

If someone said to me that his faither is fammous it might take me a sec to realize he said his father is famous, but I wouldn't go wide-eyed in lugubrious, helpless incomprehension.  I'd try to understand.  Then I'd correct his vowel sounds, politely.

:)

I would like to witness this. Maybe you will not have problems as the locals understanding me:)

just reading through , and it came to me that maybe its a generall lack of attention or a "she`ll be right mate " attitude,VN time and all that. A friend of mine (VN) only seems to read parts of my mail to her and this causes all sort of missunderstanding,perhaps a prepertory "xin loi" to get the attention and prepare the VN ear for the fact a foriegner is about to speak native lingo would help

Are you in Saigon?

Yes I'm in Saigon

Where are you in Saigon?

My boyfriend and I are leaving for Saigon tomorrow.

Cultural differences, right?

:lol:

@chrisfox -i could write a book on language misunderstandings , it can become bloody frustrating at times . Example 1 hour ago
ME: I am fine thanks , are you ready for TET em ?
HER: Its already
ME: I thought it was January 30
HER:No
ME: Troi oi
HER:Today is 29
ME:I know today is 29 but

hELLnoi :

:lol:
not cultural difference...
timing difference

This was a real conversation, in English, between two people I know, the girl is Vietnamese. 

Sorry, but "am" is pretty unambiguous.  Time is linear for all of us. IS versus IS NOT are not culturally based, heatstroke comes at the same point, sweat evaporates with the same heat of vaporization ...

Happy8888 - I was waiting for you to finish relating the conversation; how did it end?

Continued
But i though Tet started on the 30th
HER :Lunar New Year is 31
ME: So its not TET until 31 January ?
HER: NO , Tet is 31 january
ME"So if TET is in 2 days why did you say its already ?
HER:I mean everything for TET is already
ME:No wonder i get confused when i talk to you ,. What you are trying to say is "it is all ready " . When you say it is already , that means it has happened or started
HER :Because you ask me if "are you ready for TET " Yes i am , i already , OK
ME:All you had to do is say "Yes I am "
HER: Crazy when i talk to you
ME:It is not "I Already " , It is "I am all ready "
ME:Its only crazy because you dont use the right words , and i have no idea what you are talking about
HER:I dont want to talk to you anymore , bye

Welcome to my everyday life

At least you could avoid the sound-alike in Vietnamese, chuẩn bị / sẵn sng vs. rồi.   That won't help me:

Where are you going?

(*silence*)

Hey, where are you going?

(*silence*)

I asked you, where are you going?@?

STOP ASKING ME THE SAME QUESTIONS!!!

MY world

SMS from GF

GF:Can you call me please

ME:Sorry i cannot , i have lost my voice and i cant speak

GF:Oh no , where did you lose it , when you find it , can you ring me

OR

SMS TO GF

ME:What are you doing

GF:I am looking at an egg

Me :What do you mean

GF:Whats wrong with you , dont you know anything

OR

ME:Do you know how many people are in Vietnam

GF:Yes , 6 billion

Me :Actually there is only 88.5 million

GF:That is stupid , didnt you go to scholl

Freind

ME: Would you like to go to Europe one day

Friend: Whats a Europe

______________________________

After living in HCM for 24 years , i asked a friend [viet] what the name of the river here was when i first arrived

FRIEND:I dont know , why do i need to know that , it is not important

________________________________________________________________________________

Going to meet my son at the airport , i used a 72 year old xe om as my usual one was busy

He had no idea where it was
I could write a book about this type of thing

So after 4 years , i have given up , shrug my shoulders and say "Welcome to Vietnam "

Explaining baseball;
Me: Nicknames, nicknames. Now, on the St. Louis team we have Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third--
Her: That's what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of the players on the St. Louis team.
Me: I'm telling you. Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third--
Her: You know their names?
Me: Yes.
Her: Well, then who's playing first?
Me: Yes.
Her: I mean the fellow's name on first base.
Me: Who.
Her: The fellow playin' first base.
Me: Who.
Her: The guy on first base.
Me: Who is on first.
Her: Well, what are you askin' me for?
....................
I wonder if there is any non-native speaker who will understand the above? Ha Ha Maybe even native speakers won't know this one. Sounds similar to the conversations of ChrisFox and Happy8888.

Bud & Lou classic

Friend: I am going to Kampuchea next week

ME: Yes i like Cambodia

Friend:What has Cambodia got to do with Kampuchea

ME:iT IS NOT kampuchea anymore , it is Cambodia

Friend : Really , who changed the name

ME:Are you going to the Killing Fields

FRIEND:Why would i want to kill a field

Happy8888 :

Continued
But i though Tet started on the 30th
HER :Lunar New Year is 31
ME: So its not TET until 31 January ?
HER: NO , Tet is 31 january
ME"So if TET is in 2 days why did you say its already ?
HER:I mean everything for TET is already
ME:No wonder i get confused when i talk to you ,. What you are trying to say is "it is all ready " . When you say it is already , that means it has happened or started
HER :Because you ask me if "are you ready for TET " Yes i am , i already , OK
ME:All you had to do is say "Yes I am "
HER: Crazy when i talk to you
ME:It is not "I Already " , It is "I am all ready "
ME:Its only crazy because you dont use the right words , and i have no idea what you are talking about
HER:I dont want to talk to you anymore , bye

Welcome to my everyday life

Sounds like you are in trouble now. Better go out and buy her one of those little tangerine trees for tet. Seriously though miscommunications like this happen all the time between native and non native speakers around the world. My ex-wife lived in America for 20 years or so before I met her and we still had situations like this.

Personally I think understanding what each other is saying is more important than getting the correct grammar. I know when someone says "I eat chicken yesterday" they meant "I ate chicken yesterday" but if they don't understand the question "what did you eat yesterday?" what's the point.

hahaha I was just reading through... good to hear I'm not the only one to experience those freaky moments.
Last time a guy asked me in Vietnam how old I was. I easily understood his question and replied to him in Vietnamese "hai muoi tam" (28). But no way, he couldn't figure out what i meant. I tried to repeat many times with many different accents but impossible for him to understand. Then he said in English: "peak englik, peak englik...". I was so frustrated that I angrily replied "heyy buddy, you don't even understand your own language and you want me to speak English???"
And then a Vietnamese woman, probably smarter than the average, said "hai muoi tam" with a local accent that wasn't so different from mine and the guy said "haaaaaaaaaaaaaaa HAI MUOI TAM!!!!". Actually after checking with my Vietnamese friends, he thought my "tam" meant "tooth pick"... yeah that makes sense buddy, you ask my age and I reply "20 tooth pick"...
Another "funny" moment, I was asking for a "banh mi" to a lady who probably made "banh mi" for more than 30 years but she couldn't figure out what I was asking for. After repeating many times, a guy sitting 20m far away, understood that I wanted a "banh mi" so he shouted "banh mi!!" and the lady said "ohhh banh mi??". I said "yes, banh mi..."
And yeah, a little bit like you "I do believe", most of the time, when I say something in Vietnamese, the guy looks at my Vietnamese friends as if to say "What did he say?".
Beside I've also noticed that most of the Vietnamese who can understand a bit my poor Vietnamese are those who speak another foreign language such as German, English, French...
Well, I love this country so I try not to give up and attempt to master one word per month.

Well one thing I have to say in their defense is that a lot of westerners think the tones are secondary features of the language, almost optional.  I have a friend from the USA studied with the same teacher who lives in Saigon ... I was blown away at how well he spoke Vietnamese back in 2009, wow, the words just come out!  "Tay a!!" 

Later I noticed he wasn't getting a lot of traction at being understood .. and later still I learned the tones and noticed he wasn't really using them at all.  I knew the tones were fundamental and worked hard at them, and most of the time, exceptions noted with clenched fists above, I am understood. 

If you say "banh mi" without the right tones, you might as well be saying "sell noodles" or "American friend."  They WILL not understand and they aren't being insular or snotty. 

But I say the tones right.  Now: where it gets sticky .. for us the tones sound like a modification, like retrofitting a garage onto a house, in reality they are the foundation.  All the words I learned wrong before taking up the study of the language are words I still have problems with, mostly words connected with food.  It's hard to break the habit of saying "nương" without the dấu sắc, "nướng."    My friend in Saigon has hundreds of words he has to learn to say right.

This happens in the US also, my teacher who is 83 is teaching me that tones are very important, but like others have stated.  Vietnamese people are 'tuned' to hearing Foreigners speaking Vietnamese.
My teacher is teaching me the 'old way' from what my (Vietnamese) wife says, which takes longer but I have noticed that when I do say something my Vietnamese friends 'do' understand.
Intonation in Vietnamese is very important.

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