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

ChrisFox :

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.

Totally agree with you. Vietnamese is all about the tone. A word can have 5 meanings.

As a foreigner you can learn how to write and read perfectly but its hard to hear and speak tonal differences.

In your eyes you believe that you spoke it correctly but just a slight tonal change can have another meaning. This might cause all the confusion.

My American Friend started to talk Vietnamese and I didn't understand him because he didnt pronounce it correctly. He studied it for a whukeand its really good(written and vocabulary) but hard to understand if you dont concentrate.  Locals dont focus on what you are saying since they are surprised.

Your teacher and friends might understand you because they focus but dont expect any other here.

My recommendation: go over your tonal pronunciation.  Its hard but dont give up.even I as a viet kieu have problems hitting the ton.

Ordered a "oil" smoothie instead of a strawberry smoothie... Luckily the lady understood me since im a regular.

ChrisFox and theKat, I totally agree with you. Tons are very important in this language. But when you make Banh Mi for more than 30 years and all day long customers order Banh Mi, maybe you can expect a stupid westerner asking that as well? Maybe if i wanted american friends I would ask somewhere else? Same for noodles? That's what I reproach to them, it seems they can't do any efforts to figure out what a westerner can mean with his shitty Vietnamese.
On the other hand, a Vietnamese trying to say some English words will be immediately understood...

tranus :

On the other hand, a Vietnamese trying to say some English words will be immediately understood...

My wife says "ice rain" which most Americans would determine to be either sleet or freezing rain, and since she said it to her sister on a day when there was freezing rain, I understood.
So next time it sleets , I need to see how she 'names' that (sleet).
My wife has so eloquently butchered the English language for the last 15 years it is a constant source of humor... for both of us...  :cheers:

Perhaps I'm the only one but no, I do not always understand what Vietnamese people say to me in English. And I also do that helplessly look at my husband for him to translate even though they are speaking my language look. But on the other hand, my husband can't understand European accents for the life of him, so he does the look right back to me.  :D

I think there are many 2 word combinations in Vietnamese to make a single "word" so it would follow that if you got the pronunciation even a little bit off on 1 or both of the words it could cause a problem.

Like..
mập = fat
cá mập = shark

So when I heard cá mập, i thought.. Fat Fish.. ??? :)

I too find the locals a bit lazy when talking to them. I try my best when they say something in English, I will try and work out what they are trying to say, but find its not reciprocated. In saying that, its a case of just working at it.

I had a similar problem with Spanish, despite five and a half years of education in Spanish speaking universities and taking my first bar exam (3 days of essay) in Spanish. Eventually i figured out that I had to speak a Spanish keyed to the understanding of my clients. El rufo became the roof, and El Lanlor became the landlord. Belittling my clients for a poorer educational level in their own language was futile, and counterproductive. Doing so leads to underestimating their intelligence, and in the end looking down upon them. Neither is conducive to a successful relationship.

After returning to the Army and later civil service career mostly in Latin America, at times being taken for a Cuban-American and once even for an Argentinian, I returned to Puerto Rico and immediatley began getting much of the treatment noted above. I no longer acted and dressed 'Puertorrican', and my face was no longer familiar on the local scene. At first, I was offended when people addressed me in Engish, but then I realized that for some it was a political statement (we like the U.S.) and for others it was simply for many of the other reasons covered here.

If you are frustrated with how your use of the language is being received, you need to relax and put it in their perspective. And if you are offended, you simply need to find somehwere else.

I learn Viet words when I need something, I can't put many Viet sentences together , or have any great desire to so either, but one thing really annoys me, when they start to speak to me in Viet, ( because I used my limited vocab to ask for something ), I then reply with, 'Tôi không hiểu tiếng Việt  ', however this always leads to a torrid one way conversation.

The từ đôi, word pairs, often make NO sense when taken separately.  You just have to memorize them.  A lot of them are simply strengtheners, two words meaning the same thing.  "Sửa chữa" is so common that I refer to all these as "fix-fix" words. 

A lot of the others are actually longer phrases with words simply left out.  So the two (or three, or four) words remaining no longer carry the meaning of the original phrase.  I bet cá mập is one of those.

I have a pretty good vocabulary now, but where I can understand people who speak clearly, most people simply don't.  I was talking to one poor fellow I buy vé số from because I feel sorry for him, could not get one word, in fact I couldn't identify a single consonant in what he was saying.  It's better in Saigon but you really have to learn the northern and then embark on the differences, the southern pronunciation is hopeless.

I looked it up.  Mập has two meanings, fat and shark.  How many meanings does đồng have?

I have lived in Saigon for 11 years and am married to a Vietnamese woman. My theory and I'm pretty sure I'm right, as naive as it may sound, is that most Vietnamese are lazy thinkers. Doesn't matter how well you speak Vietnamese. They see the white skin and don't even listen. They just do that annoying hand flick and maybe you'll hear a loud "NO!". lol It's very obvious they aren't listening. How many times have you said the Vietnamese word, drew a picture, and couldn't be more obvious about what you want, and immediately they call someone's name to come help. It's a mixture of mental laziness, lack of experience with other cultures, and shyness. I'm Canadian so my entire life I have lived with people of different color, different backgrounds, etc. I have a lifetime experience trying to understand what non-native Canadians are saying. Vietnamese have no or very little experience speaking with someone who isn't Vietnamese. I should add that this is my opinion about the typical Vietnamese you meet on the street who have very little education. The younger Vietnamese have very little difficulty understanding us, even when our Vietnamese is pathetic, which in most cases it is. lol.

"That annoying hand flick."

Bless you.  Bless you.  God how I hate that waggle.

I agree with your assessment.  With the uneducated, who are the majority here in Cần Thơ, they don't even try. 

One innarestin' observation ... when southerners tries to help you, they shift, without realizing it, into northern pronunciation.  Six tones, V sound on V, Z sound on gi- and d-, instead of Y sound for all three.  Just as in babytalk in other languages, subconsciously smoothing out irregularities.

CanThoCurmudgeon :

I looked it up.  Mập has two meanings, fat and shark.  How many meanings does đồng have?

without "cá", mập is just "fat". no other meaning

Happy to read all these comments, as I thought I was the only one with that problem.
I gave up learning the language long ago, but know enough to survive on my own.
Vietnamese simply do not listen to foreigners doing an effort to speak their language.

Perhaps for the same reason many English speaking native's can not understand a Vietnamese when they speak English. Novel idea as it may be. Heck there are times with dialect I can not understand some folks from different regions of the USA  when they speak English.

I've had several extended periods of discouragement.  I'm coming out of one now.  But I don't want to be one of those Ugly Americans who's lived here 20 years and still lets someone else translate for him.

One thing we are dealing with in this—let's be candid—is that Vietnam has no real segregation of uneducated and educated and a lot of the people who just waggle at us are uneducated peasants.  Native speakers often can't understand them.  Get I to a genteel area like a coffeehouse full of people with laptops and iPads instead of some place full of yelling smokers missing half their teeth and you'll find people who will make an actual effort to understand your Vietnamese and be happy that you're making the effort.

this might be the reason: "Khoe khong?" is the literal translation of "How are you?"
but it this expression is more likely to be used to check how someone feels after he has been sick for example.
Our everyday "how are you?" would be more similar to "Dao nay, ban the nao?"
sorry I don't write with accents, but it took me a while to understand that too!
I been here 9 years!~

That's idiomatic.  In Spanish one asks "what's happening?"  ¿Que pasa?  In German, "how's it going?"  Wie gehts?  Vietnamese, much like English, how are you, just more explicitly about health.  Khoẻ không?

You don't translate idioms into a new language.  You learn new idioms.  That's why we call them that. 

Vietnamese grammar is supremely simple.  Idiomatic Vietnamese something other.

English: safety first (an toàn đầu tiên)
Vietnamese: An toàn trên hết

Literally, "out of high[er] safety"

You run out of room to be any safer.  Just learn it and keep the ibuprofen handy.

hello there
I am Vietnamese America and I do speak both languages fluently.  Most Vietnamese do not expect an American to speak Vietnamese to them.  Vietnamese accent is very hard to speak,  even my kids who was born in the United State in my house can not speak Vietnamese accent perfectly. Most of the time I do not understand them when they speak Vietnamese so do ot feel bad.  The best way to learn is living with some Vietnamese household, speak to them everyday and hear them speak it everyday, you need someone to correct your accent every time you said something in Vietnamese that does not sound right. Many Vietnamese sound similar yet have different meaning in different sentence so it is very hard for people to understand you especially they do not expect to hear it from a foreigner. Also different area have different accent.  Even thought I speak and write Vietnamese fluently, I sometimes can not understand different accent from different area. Just do not get discourage, you just need to practice more and more,  The best people to learn from are kids, and young adults.  Vietnamese is a very hard language, even my kids have problem speaking it, and they do hear me speaking it to them everyday.

khonho :

hello there
I am Vietnamese America and I do speak both languages fluently.  Most Vietnamese do not expect an American to speak Vietnamese to them.  Vietnamese accent is very hard to speak,  even my kids who was born in the United State in my house can not speak Vietnamese accent perfectly. Most of the time I do not understand them when they speak Vietnamese so do ot feel bad.  The best way to learn is living with some Vietnamese household, speak to them everyday and hear them speak it everyday, you need someone to correct your accent every time you said something in Vietnamese that does not sound right. Many Vietnamese sound similar yet have different meaning in different sentence so it is very hard for people to understand you especially they do not expect to hear it from a foreigner. Also different area have different accent.  Even thought I speak and write Vietnamese fluently, I sometimes can not understand different accent from different area. Just do not get discourage, you just need to practice more and more,  The best people to learn from are kids, and young adults.  Vietnamese is a very hard language, even my kids have problem speaking it, and they do hear me speaking it to them everyday.

And sometimes that doesn't even work, my French friend only speaks his terrible English with his VN wife, although he is very fluent in Viet, ( Been in VN 12 yrs ). He also has problems understanding the peasants around here.

khonho :

The best people to learn from are kids, and young adults.

I agree with this. Most Vnese I learned was from a 12 year old girl and that still makes up most of my vocabulary.  Adults are so quick to throw in the towel with you. :happy:

"Tmassing" has a good explanation of many cases of incomprehension but "bta87" is just plain wrong. When Vietnamese speak to me in English I get better than 95%. I've travelled through most regions of the US and never met a "Yank" I couldn't understand but then I'm Canadian. I think "maxvigier" is also wrong; I live 24/7 with Vietnamese and hear them use the term  "khỏe không" often.

Today in the restaurant I manage in Mỹ Thơ, 3 businessmen came in and I wandered over and said "Khỏe không". All three of them couldn't understand what I was saying and even after using different words and different accents - nothing. I wrote "Khỏe không" in front of them and not one of them figured it out till I was half way through writing the word "không". In this case I knew what their particular problem was and why they hung out together; they were just plain stupid.

I think part of it might be the  way we form our sounds in the mouth. We make a sound with our voice cords then change it with our lips and tongue to create the distinctive English sounds. The Vietnamese create all the sounds in their voice box and change them there also. If you try to recreate those sounds in the mouth, instead of the throat, they won't understand. English is a forgiving language. You can say a word with many different pronunciations, but we will still understand what the word is based on the context it is being used in, Vietnamese language is not as forgiving.

This most likely   is not about your enunciation or tones as much as a couple cultural things.   First this clerk looks at you and both is nervous about her English and seeing you expects to hear English.  Secondly, even the Vietnamese  usually preface their words before they say the meaningful.  Example... You will not hear " Bao nhiều tiền?"  Often.  Usually you will hear " Cho em ...Bao nhiều tiền?". 
Next  time try "Chào em.  Em khoẻ không?".  The " Chào em" sets the persons ear to Vietnamese.

And fundamentally, the Vietnamese are not good listeners...even to their own.

Finally...perhaps your "kh" is too much like our " k". ..soften it.

Hope this helps.   I first studied Vietnamese for 10 months, 6 hours a day with all Viet teachers in 1967... And 8 years ago had to " Relearn".  "In the old days they asked.
"Có mạnh khoẻ không?"  Now only the old nỏtherners know this greeting and every once in a while an old person greets me this way.

Good luck...hope this helps.

Hope this helps.

itismo has some good points. Give your short words some context; I've done it many times and sometimes it helps, sometimes not. One of his/her suggestions was the Vietnamese person is thinking you are talking English. Why in God's name would they think I or any foreigner would speak English to a Vietnamese. I met a guy from Sweden and he wouldn't think to speak Swedish to me and I wouldn't expect him to speak Swedish to me. So what convoluted logic would make a Vietnamese think I would try to talk to them in a language I know they don't understand??

doctorhands :

I think part of it might be the  way we form our sounds in the mouth. We make a sound with our voice cords then change it with our lips and tongue to create the distinctive English sounds. The Vietnamese create all the sounds in their voice box and change them there also. If you try to recreate those sounds in the mouth, instead of the throat, they won't understand. English is a forgiving language. You can say a word with many different pronunciations, but we will still understand what the word is based on the context it is being used in, Vietnamese language is not as forgiving.

Many VN words appear to be nasal as well, ( or is that just my hearing? ), especially when singing at the usual 2000 dcb's.   For me to get them to clearly understand me when talking Viet, it's almost embarrassing for me, I feel like I'm taking the piss out of their language .

Itismso :

.  "In the old days they asked.
"Có mạnh khoẻ không?"  Now only the old nỏtherners know this greeting and every once in a while an old person greets me this way.
.

I have a sweet tooth for little details like this.  Any others you think of, please post or send me privately if some overzealous moderator decides the thread has run its course.

Hi my dear foreigners,
I cann't be happier hearing you foreigners, especially white men, whose tougue or throat structure are different from Asian's, are attempting to practise Vietnamese. If you guys dont mind, I would help you all speaking Vietnamese without requesting exchanging languages.
I appreciate those who are learning Vietnamese a lot.
What a pity that I am not in Viet Nam at this moment to offer my help. Once I am back home, I will defintely do help.

Never give up, all lovely Vietnamese learner.

some of these comments are comical.   Vietnamese are lazy and stupid because they dont understand your Viet speak?   you come to a foreign country and you expect them to think like you?   talk about arrogance.   maybe thats why some locals dont want to speak to foreigners.

Corroboration of "laziness" comes from a huge abundance of unrelated sources.   Sort of like evolution in science.

Waggle waggle.

We're just bigots, right?

Look: I resisted this charge for years.  It seemed, as you say, arrogant and presumptuous.  Here I am, a guest in their country and just imagine the unmitigated temerity of blaming them for not understanding me speak their language.  It was almost shocking.  It is however, what I now firmly believe, and here's why.

When I speak to someone I know, whom I've spoken to before, I'm understood.  When I speak to a stranger, especially someone in the lower class, the bewildered look or the Waggle. 

Now.  What's the variable here?  Am I speaking more clearly to people I know?  No.  In both cases I'm speaking identically, and doing the best I can.  The difference is in the listener.  The ones with whom I've established some sort of relationship, be it the thinnest commercial one or someone I sleep with, have reason to make an effort.  The ones who are new encounters have nothing in it for them and don't bother.

Not bothering for lack of interest.  Is that not a definition of laziness?  Why, it is!!

doctorhands :

I think part of it might be the  way we form our sounds in the mouth. We make a sound with our voice cords then change it with our lips and tongue to create the distinctive English sounds. The Vietnamese create all the sounds in their voice box and change them there also. If you try to recreate those sounds in the mouth, instead of the throat, they won't understand. English is a forgiving language. You can say a word with many different pronunciations, but we will still understand what the word is based on the context it is being used in, Vietnamese language is not as forgiving.

Sadly what you have just said is correct

CanThoCurmudgeon :

Corroboration of "laziness" comes from a huge abundance of unrelated sources.   Sort of like evolution in science.

Waggle waggle.

We're just bigots, right?

please dont put words in my mouth.   if you want to put that label on yourself be my guest.   i said "arrogant."    there are also corroboration of foreigner "arrogance" that comes from a huge abundance of unrelated sources.   i guess that makes it fact.

I embellished my post.  Please re-respond.

CanThoCurmudgeon :

I embellished my post.  Please re-respond.

there are many ethnic groups in VN each with its own language, lifestyle, and cultural heritage.   the service sector that migrates to the cities come from all over VN to work.  its a melting pot of mixed dialects and language.   locals sometimes have trouble understanding each other much less an expat.  you can live here 50 years and go to different parts of VN and have trouble communicating with certain groups.   

Vietnamese are mostly shy, humble and often timid especially the older generation.  the educated and younger generation are slowly overcoming this.   they are more expressive and open.   thats why there are countless english clubs comprising of mostly kids instead of older people.  *side note* - there is a post in another thread by a young Viet girl who saw two foreign women dancing in public to music.   she wanted to do the same but couldnt overcome her timidness.  the older group typically in their 30's and older are less educated, much more conservative and lack the confidence to actively engage in conversation with foreigners.   they grew up with a different view of outsiders and much more reluctant to talk to an expat.   "Doi moi" reform began in the late 80's so they never had contact with foreigners.  this is the same with migrant workers who rarely have had any outside social contact.   lack of exposure to foreigners is the key.  if you were to meet this person on a consistent basis you will find that they often overcome their shyness.   if you meet them in a group setting then you will observe that they look at each other to see who will take the lead as they dont want to appear foolish in front of their friends.   pride is a big deal here with the older group.   then ofcourse there are a few who just dont want to do anything with foreigners period.   

i plan to visit the Mekong Delta region sometimes this summer.   i hope to meet with you and have some coffee.  if you want i can evaluate your speaking skills.   im straight forward and honest so i wont hold back any punches :)

DP

I'm afraid this idea of people of one race or another having differently structured tongues and mouths is a myth or a fantasy. The evidence? Ethnic Vietnamese people who grow up elsewhere--learning French, German, English, Chinese, or whatever--speak fluently like a native speaker.

This is the same myth that causes some parents in South Korea to get (damaging, traumatizing, and unnecessary) tongue surgery on their kids: they actually believe that Korean tongues are shorter and less flexible. (Which: well, meet one Korean-American and that myth's blown out of the water.)

I speak of Korea because I lived there for a little over a decade, learned enough Korean to have a so-so conversation, and hit the same wall: people would look at me like I was spewing Greek or Martian at them. Koreans who knew me could understand me perfectly well, even if they thought my accent was "cute" or "funny." But strangers would constantly try to confirm what I'd said with any Asian at the table. (Which was amusing if I was out with non-Korean Asian friends. Once with a couple of Chinese exchange students, who spoke no Korean. I was like, "They're Chinese, they don't speak Korean." But it didn't matter: people would try confirm what I said with them anyway.) And Korean doesn't even really have tones, or much of a cadence: it's more like long flat strings of phonemes till you hit either a conjunction or a conjugation, then the next string, then the next. The cadence is easy. I found that mumbling actually helped, as did lowering my voice. (I mostly learned Korean from female teachers, and got a habit of speaking in a higher pitch than English, but adjusting down helped.) But there were still tons of blank stares,and people responding in English even when my (far from perfect) Korean was better than their English.

I think it comes down to what was said above about people just having limited experience hearing their language spoken with a funny foreign accent. In a place like Canada, you hear non-native speakers all the time. (In my own immediate family, even: my mom is a non-native speaker of English.) But when you're talking to the first person you've ever met who isn't a native speaker of your language? It's not easy. That, and probably some people just sort of have a little brain implosion when a foreigner speaks the language. Like, wait, those words and this face don't go together, do they? I don't know about Vietnamese people, but Koreans are gripped by an English phobia that kicks in with white faces, even when it's Korean words coming out of the white face. The anxiety still kicks in. There's also some resistance to it: some Koreans felt shamed meeting a foreigner who spoke their language. Fluent speakers of Korean were sometimes told maybe they should go back where they came from, they knew enough already. I got told it a couple of times, and I'm far from fluent. 

But also: there are little subtle things that give away non-native speakers. If you're convinced that it's all down to your white face or someone else's "laziness"--if you really believe that your pronunciation and speech are impeccable--you may or may not find it humbling to try the following litmus test: talk to a stranger on the phone, and see how long it takes before they figure out you're not Vietnamese, and see whether their comprehension changes when they do figure it out.

I'd wager for most people who learned Vietnamese (or Korean) as an adult, there will be little intangible cues that give them away pretty quickly. I'd also wager that, on the phone, there's less struggle to establish communication despite that. That's my experience in Korea, at least.

Thanks OBB. I have lived in many countries. Many countries where Americans were guests. Their high minded arrogance always abounds. While I like W-1 and he is a very intelligent man, to know with his scientific facts that this issue is attributed to laziness I think might be over the top. I can offer no clue exactly why it is. I suppose I'm lazy because I can always understand the VNese persons English. It is rather sad that we must bash people over a language shortfall. Myself I find most of the Vietnamese very kind and welcoming. Yes there might be some jerks or lazy or whatever label you choose to use. Yet are there not these people everywhere?
Americans in particular are very Pius and tend to look down their noses at everyone who is not an American. Funny that these people want to come to another country and set up shop and be so miserable with the native speakers.
These ones that are so great at speaking or teaching English why don't thy go back to the USA and teach?

I am reminded of when I lived in another foreign country when I hear someone say "what can my friends understand me and a stranger can't" so the stranger is labeled lazy. I spoke the language of this country pretty well. Had some wonderful friends. Used several specific words for years and they acknowledged me so I presumed they new what the words meant. Come to find out it was not a word even in their language nor mine. They just were polite and tried to understand what I was saying in the context of the language. They thought these words they did not understand were simply English words interspersed in to the conversation. No, they were not lazy only being kind. So perhaps the scientific conclusion that W-1's friends are not lazy and strangers are is misplaced. Perhaps his friends are just being gracious.

bluenz, you're right about the nasal sounds. The voice box produces the sound and then it is usually projected into the nasal cavity. This is a technique that I learned while studying Classical Voice Method (classical music singing) although I still have trouble transferring that skill into speaking rather than singing.

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