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

This discussion has been very interesting with some good comments. As usual there is more than one correct answer. Unfortunately there has been an occasional ad hominem incident. For instance if someone is venting their frustration or stating an opinion on a given subject/incident it is really nasty to suggest that the expat you disagree with should go back to the US even if he isn't from the US. In my country of Canada we always bash the Americans but in truth they aren't much different than us and when we travel there or meet an American we don't think negative of them, in fact most are very interesting. Of course we all know of examples of the iconic American's pride coming across as superiority but that is not the norm. Just as I find many Vietnamese don't understand my Vietnamese, I find many that do, old or young, poor or rich, friends or new acquaintances. Negative generalities are counterproductive and we know that any society's people are not homogenous. Vietnamese people as a rule are friendly, helpful and intelligent as much as anyone. Of course a developing nation's people won't have the same social standards of the educated Westerner but in many cases that is part of the charm of Vietnam. It's OK by me if they want to put the most succulent morsel of food in my bowl.

OBB :

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.

If they want to act like ' us ', perhaps they should start to think more like  ' us '???
One of the main reason the locals won't speak to Foreigners, is their xenophobic tendencies, ( especially where I live ), but no different than the attitudes of some of ' us ', towards Foreigners in our countries.

bluenz :
OBB :

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.

If they want to act like ' us ', perhaps they should start to think more like  ' us '???
One of the main reason the locals won't speak to Foreigners, is their xenophobic tendencies, ( especially where I live ), but no different than the attitudes of some of ' us ', towards Foreigners in our countries.

who are these people that wants to be like 'us?'   the educated young or the uneducated migrant workers that some members have labeled as lazy and stupid?   these dirt poor peasants who often work 10-14 hours days and if lucky get 1-2 days off per month is inherently too lazy to engage with foreigners in conversation?   i can guarantee you that they are more worried about putting food on the table and sending home whatever is leftover to their families than caring about how to be like a foreigner.  the lack of sympathy and respect for the destitute working class is sad and apalling.

OBB :
bluenz :
OBB :

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.

If they want to act like ' us ', perhaps they should start to think more like  ' us '???
One of the main reason the locals won't speak to Foreigners, is their xenophobic tendencies, ( especially where I live ), but no different than the attitudes of some of ' us ', towards Foreigners in our countries.

who are these people that wants to be like 'us?'   the educated young or the uneducated migrant workers that some members have labeled as lazy and stupid?   these dirt poor peasants who often work 10-14 hours days and if lucky get 1-2 days off per month is inherently too lazy to engage with foreigners in conversation?   i can guarantee you that they are more worried about putting food on the table and sending home whatever is leftover to their families than caring about how to be like a foreigner.  the lack of sympathy for the destitute working class is sad and apalling.

You must have to go up into the Mountains to see these ' dirt poor people '?, I live amongst these ' poor peasants' , ( Central coast ),  since they have worked out they can get 3 crops of rice a year now, ( instead of the 1 crop under the old communist regime ), they are living high off the land, in the 3 years I've been living here, many farmers and fisherman have built big, new houses, bought new m/b's, and household appliances, etc,  their land is worth heaps now also. These are the rude and xenophobic ones I've been talking about, even given the opportunity to learn English for free, doesn't interest them.

ofcourse because most rural peasants have big houses and drive new cars/motorbikes even though theyre supposedly lazy and stupid - insert eyeroll here.

OBB :

ofcourse because most rural peasants have big houses and drive new cars/motorbikes even though theyre lazy and stupid - insert eyeroll here.

Where does it say that I said they are lazy and stupid?,( and definitely no mention of motorcars, thank god, they are dangerous enough on m/b's ), once you come to VN , you will be able to see for yourself????

I wonder how many native American farmers, with big homes, new cars etc. would jump at the opportunity to learn Vietnamese in the U.S.

bta87 :

I wonder how many native American farmers, with big homes, new cars etc. would jump at the opportunity to learn Vietnamese in the U.S.

I know what you mean, I should have said the opportunity was for their children.  The rich don't need to learn English because they have VN subtitles on their 80 plus cm flat screen TV's.

bluenz :

I know what you mean, I should have said the opportunity was for their children.  The rich don't need to learn English because they have VN subtitles on their 80 plus cm flat screen TV's.

I know of many Vnese that have no desire to learn English but still fork out money to send their kids to English classes. Just because I have no desire to improve my math, does not mean I have the same desire for my child. Vnese are kind and warm, but also wary of change and new things, English intimidates those of the older generation.

bluenz :
OBB :

ofcourse because most rural peasants have big houses and drive new cars/motorbikes even though theyre lazy and stupid - insert eyeroll here.

Where does it say that I said they are lazy and stupid?,( and definitely no mention of motorcars, thank god, they are dangerous enough on m/b's ), once you come to VN , you will be able to see for yourself????

ive been to VN for the last 6 years ive seen plenty of poor people most of whom do not have big houses  and new motorbikes.   what percentage of the rural population have big houses and new bikes?   so a fortunate few makes it big and that applies to most peasants?  and if by the grace of god or luck a poor Viet strikes it rich why is he/she required to learn english?

So the rich American farmers children will stand in line to take Vietnamese lessons in Minnesota? I wonder why they would do that if they are living in an English speaking country.

Who says they are required to learn English????
    Many of the so called rich like to learn English , i.e,  for when they go overseas to visit their relations, or they come here, many think it is showing off how intelligent/rich they are, also it improves job prospects , not all want to continue living in VN. I've also seen students that are forced to go to English classes, ( judging by their attitudes ), with wealthy and not so wealthy parents.
OBB there are more than a fortunate few, like many Western countries, if they stopped pissing up and gambling with their hard earned money, they would be a lot better off, even up in the hills the Minorities all have TV's and motorbikes, the kids also wear nice clean school uniforms.
  Of course there are the unfortunate ones, same in any country, the VN Govt ( and Commune members ), help these out as well.
  Coming to VN for 6 yrs, in no way equates to actually living here. Especially amongst the many different VN's in my Province. ( Fishermen, Farmers, business people , Govt workers , etc , etc ).
   bta87, the rich American farmers children are more likely to learn, Italian or some other European language they can use it on their sabbaticals, or summer breaks or whatever Americans call them these days.

Not sure why your even comparing learning English compared to Vietnamese bta87,, is Vietnamese used worldwide in business. Its such a ridiculous comparison.

NinaVamp :
bluenz :

I know what you mean, I should have said the opportunity was for their children.  The rich don't need to learn English because they have VN subtitles on their 80 plus cm flat screen TV's.

I know of many Vnese that have no desire to learn English but still fork out money to send their kids to English classes. Just because I have no desire to improve my math, does not mean I have the same desire for my child. Vnese are kind and warm, but also wary of change and new things, English intimidates those of the older generation.

Not only English, practically any change at all by many older VN's, living in the past, but want all the modern amenities, technologies, and comforts.
  Lets just hope your children do not need to improve their maths, it is the cornerstone for any educational ambition in VN.

OBB, travelling in a country and living in a country are two totally different things, if you think you know Viet Nam you are in for a big shock. My brother who used to come here for visits of 3 months at a time over the  years has now been spending around 9 months of the year living here. His opinion of the locals has changed since living here, so once you spend some long periods of time here your opinion may also change.

I run into the exact same problem. My wife (VN) tells me that I say things correctly but they don't understand. I will even repeat the words a few times and they just stare with a blank look. My wife also says that they expect me to speak English. I say BS to that. I think that because my wife is used to my voice, she understands what I am saying. I think my intonation is slightly off for the rest of the population. That doesn't mean that I think they try hard enough to understand the foreigners that are making an effort to learn Vietnamese. I also think it would be helpful to have a "musician's ear" to learn Vietnamese as a second language. Anyway, I also get discouraged and I let my wife do most of the talking. That's what women do, isn't it?

my partner is Vina and tells me speak my Vn words out a little slower - might not help, but assuming your intontion /pronunciation is correct may be worth a try

Yes VN women do love to chat, like most women of the world I presume.

bri597 suggested those that have a musical bent might learn Vietnamese faster. I think that is dead on but have no proof. Sometimes I get invited to Karoke singing nights and my Vietnamese friends push me to sing, they say,"There are lots of English songs!" and indeed there are. So finally I pick something innocuous like Greenfields and have a go; they never ask me again......Therefore my very slow progress learning the language is more than just poor study habits; I don't have a bent for language learning. I will keep trying regardless. In a similar vein, I wonder if those Vietnamese with vocal talents also have good listening skills not including language skills. What I'm suggesting is some people are skilled at listening, some speaking, some both. Therefore, since Vietnamese is a tonal language it will take me a hundred times as long to learn as another foreigner with inherent apptitudes.

Try to find a motivation and... Good luck!

bri597 :

I run into the exact same problem. My wife (VN) tells me that I say things correctly but they don't understand. I will even repeat the words a few times and they just stare with a blank look. My wife also says that they expect me to speak English. I say BS to that. I think that because my wife is used to my voice, she understands what I am saying. I think my intonation is slightly off for the rest of the population. That doesn't mean that I think they try hard enough to understand the foreigners that are making an effort to learn Vietnamese. I also think it would be helpful to have a "musician's ear" to learn Vietnamese as a second language. Anyway, I also get discouraged and I let my wife do most of the talking. That's what women do, isn't it?

Do not give up, that your wife can understand your Vietnamese means all Vietnamese women can also understand :). It is not very logical but true. The thing is that you still have not spoken well enough. This makes Vietnamese different from other languages. You must pronounce perfectly. I have a Singaporean friend, 24, he self-studyed Vietnamese and has never officially stayed  in Vietnam but we can communicate in Vietnamese (in Singapore). He impressed me. In conclusion, you can do better than him since you have more chances to practise than him.

It is interesting reading the discussion. I showed my wife the discussion and she said there is a misconception of the whole topic.
First, Việt are not talkative to people they don’t know.  They can be very noisy and loud (when they are around the people they are comfortable with) but change their demeanor quickly when a stranger joins in. They are very task-oriented (get the work done first). If you pay attention when going shopping in the supermarket, you find that most of the times, the transaction between a customer and the cashier is done without a word spoken.  In order words, there are no hello, no how are you, no thank you, and no see you again. The cashier’s task is to get the items out of his/her counter and to the customers as fast as s/he can.  Chit-chatting is “frown upon” by their management.  So, s/he is not treating you badly, s/he treats you same like everyone else.  Customer service (being friendly and smiling) is not a high priority in the business (though I think it has improved a lot). 
Second, Việt terms – Khỏe không?” is used when you know a person and who is in the same or lower status than you.  “khỏe không?” is the new term coined from “how are you?” which Việt don’t normally use unless a person is willing to spend some time hearing the other person to go through his/her list of illnesses. The term “em” should not be used to address a young woman from a man unless she gives you the permission to do so.  The correct term is “cô” (as in cô em). “So, instead of starting with “khỏe không?”, please use “chào cô” and not “chào em” to get the person’s attention (it shows that you have class =D). If you are learning Vietnamese from a northerner, ask him/her about the addressing ways.  They are more thorough in classifying addressing terms for people (same as other Asian countries, Korea, Japan, China, Thailand) – based on generations, ranking, respect.
Third, accents – Việt was under France’s colonizing for about 100 years between 19th and 20th centuries, France controlled through the “divide and conquer policy” by encouraging distrusts among Việt people, segregation through different communication styles, making the distinction between the North (BắcKỳ), Central (Trung Kỳ), and South (Nam Kỳ). So, it is easy to find people in the Central and the South don’t understand you JUST because you speak with northern accent.  By the way, do you know that there is a Saigon accent (which is lighter than Northern’s and have some unique terms only used by Saigonese)?

My suggestion is to get the person attention first through saying “hello” but remember nobody has an obligation to be friendly with you. If you get brushed off, just smile and move on (be graceful).

Peace!!!

nicely put.

So to get the attention of a young female waitress at a restaurant your suggesting"cô em ơi"

colinoscapee :

So to get the attention of a young female waitress at a restaurant your suggesting"cô em ơi"

I wonder what ' hey you ' , sounds like/translates to, in Viet?

rhinoq :

They are very task-oriented (get the work done first).

I'm in stitches.

ssuprnova :
rhinoq :

They are very task-oriented (get the work done first).

I'm in stitches.

I also haven't been to that part of VN .

bluenz :
colinoscapee :

So to get the attention of a young female waitress at a restaurant your suggesting"cô em ơi"

I wonder what ' hey you ' , sounds like/translates to, in Viet?

depends to who youre talking to:
It should be " Co oi (to ladies), Chu oi (to gents) etc "

Adding an "Oi" is similar to Hey!

bluenz :
ssuprnova :
rhinoq :

They are very task-oriented (get the work done first).

I'm in stitches.

I also haven't been to that part of VN .

Not sure anybody has found that area yet!

I had an interesting small incident happen at my restaurant; one of my employees was asking for change and nobody speaks English here. He said a word I didn't understand and I asked him twice to repeat the word; then I realized he was saying the English word "four" and in Vietnamese "thousand". Now I know when I say a sentence with both English and Vietnamese words, the listener gets more confused than if I just stuck to my bad Vietnamese.

It's just simply because Saigon people speak Vietnamese with different accents. Depends on where they come from (North, South, or Central region). What you think 'perfect pronunciation' might sound ridiculous to southerners for example. A southerner might ask you 'khoe hong' instead of 'khoe khong' the 'k' sound is swallowed! Or you might notice that Saigon people add the 'g' sound to all syllables which end with 'n'. ect....
Cheers,

:dumbom:

OBB :
colinoscapee :

OBB, travelling in a country and living in a country are two totally different things, if you think you know Viet Nam you are in for a big shock. My brother who used to come here for visits of 3 months at a time over the  years has now been spending around 9 months of the year living here. His opinion of the locals has changed since living here, so once you spend some long periods of time here your opinion may also change.

i married an ethnic minority and have been living with them 3-6 a year in the central highlands.   when im there i volunteer to teach english to the local poor children.  my next visit i will get my certificate to make it official.   i share a tiny room with my wife and daughter until i expanded a little bit 2 years ago.   so i do have a little knowledge of the mountain people and its culture and will never bash them for being poor.

Your wife's family must be one of the lucky ones, many Minority lost their land during the ' American ' war, ( not only Minority , American sympathisers, etc, as well ). Your wife's family may be poor , but I'll bet they are happier than the poor trying to survive in the cities.
  Just curious about this Certificate to make things Official, is that for Teaching or residence?

IF a Vietnamese can't understand you. One reason:
You don't speak like a native.
Trust me: Vietnamese is not easy to learn
But some can do that and they really made me suprised.
youtube.com/watch?v=Q9ShVsLaGSU

hoangkim :

IF a Vietnamese can't understand you. One reason:
You don't speak like a native.
Trust me: Vietnamese is not easy to learn
But some can do that and they really made me suprised.
youtube.com/watch?v=Q9ShVsLaGSU

That's just an admission of mental laziness. After all, there are hundreds of millions non-native English speakers in the world, and I'd wager that most of them succeed in getting their point across when talking to a native speaker.

I'm genuinely at a loss as to why we have a hard time being understood. Sometimes I'll say something to a coworker (all of whom, notabene, hold university degrees) and all I get are blank stares. Other times, I'll use my paltry vocabulary to talk to the parking lot attendant or one of the neighbors and they'll get it on the first try. My best guess is that people who are actually interested in understanding you will do so, while the rest won't make any effort, no matter how hard you try.

What is perplexing to me is the proportion of people who have zero interest in trying at all. Although this is purely anecdotal, I've recently had more success in getting my point across in Cambodia and Thailand, even though I would only need the fingers of one hand to count the number of words that I know in their languages. I guess this is one of those things that is best explained by the broad "cultural difference" moniker.

I do believe :

... I was born and raised English speaking in Canada on the US border near Buffalo ...

I went to University of Buffalo ... been to 'the nice side' of the falls many times ;)

When I get to Vietnam in June, maybe we can meet up for coffee or a beer and chat sometime.

Thanks.

I would not blame the laziness of the locals but Vietnamese is a DIFFICULT LANGUAGE. It's all about the right tone. If you don't hit the nail it's not understandable. That's it.
As a expat here in Vietnam I credit your tries but I would stick to the language I'm fluent. Maybe Vietnamese is not your language...

ssuprnova :
hoangkim :

IF a Vietnamese can't understand you. One reason:
You don't speak like a native.
Trust me: Vietnamese is not easy to learn
But some can do that and they really made me suprised.
youtube.com/watch?v=Q9ShVsLaGSU

That's just an admission of mental laziness. After all, there are hundreds of millions non-native English speakers in the world, and I'd wager that most of them succeed in getting their point across when talking to a native speaker.

I'm genuinely at a loss as to why we have a hard time being understood. Sometimes I'll say something to a coworker (all of whom, notabene, hold university degrees) and all I get are blank stares. Other times, I'll use my paltry vocabulary to talk to the parking lot attendant or one of the neighbors and they'll get it on the first try. My best guess is that people who are actually interested in understanding you will do so, while the rest won't make any effort, no matter how hard you try.

What is perplexing to me is the proportion of people who have zero interest in trying at all. Although this is purely anecdotal, I've recently had more success in getting my point across in Cambodia and Thailand, even though I would only need the fingers of one hand to count the number of words that I know in their languages. I guess this is one of those things that is best explained by the broad "cultural difference" moniker.

Ok
I agree that someones are not good at listening or trying to understand.
Otherwise Someones are quite good at that ( your parking lot attendant or one of the neighbors...)
The same in your country. Some are good, some are bad.
So may be it is not "Cultural" thinghere.
I understand how hard it is when you wish people to understand but they don't
Complaining can't help you
One solution: you need to master Vietnamese (big adventure: not anyone can do)
The basic words: "Cảm ơn" means "thank you". 90% of you guys speak wrongly. You guys say: "Come on"
The important part in Vietnamese is Mark (' ` ~ . ). They make "tone": wrong tone- different meanings. So In short, speaking Vietnamese is like singing a song. Hope you good at singing...
Tips:
1. Stop complaining
2. Speak slowly, clearly
3. None of your friends or the ones you know will be suprised if you always try to speak Vietnamese with them. This won't work if you are afraid of making mistakes
4. Watch people who master Vietnamese so you got motive to continue your learning...

hoangkim :
ssuprnova :
hoangkim :

IF a Vietnamese can't understand you. One reason:
You don't speak like a native.
Trust me: Vietnamese is not easy to learn
But some can do that and they really made me suprised.
youtube.com/watch?v=Q9ShVsLaGSU

That's just an admission of mental laziness. After all, there are hundreds of millions non-native English speakers in the world, and I'd wager that most of them succeed in getting their point across when talking to a native speaker.

I'm genuinely at a loss as to why we have a hard time being understood. Sometimes I'll say something to a coworker (all of whom, notabene, hold university degrees) and all I get are blank stares. Other times, I'll use my paltry vocabulary to talk to the parking lot attendant or one of the neighbors and they'll get it on the first try. My best guess is that people who are actually interested in understanding you will do so, while the rest won't make any effort, no matter how hard you try.

What is perplexing to me is the proportion of people who have zero interest in trying at all. Although this is purely anecdotal, I've recently had more success in getting my point across in Cambodia and Thailand, even though I would only need the fingers of one hand to count the number of words that I know in their languages. I guess this is one of those things that is best explained by the broad "cultural difference" moniker.

Ok
I agree that someones are not good at listening or trying to understand.
Otherwise Someones are quite good at that ( your parking lot attendant or one of the neighbors...)
The same in your country. Some are good, some are bad.
So may be it is not "Cultural" thinghere.
I understand how hard it is when you wish people to understand but they don't
Complaining can't help you
One solution: you need to master Vietnamese (big adventure: not anyone can do)
The basic words: "Cảm ơn" means "thank you". 90% of you guys speak wrongly. You guys say: "Come on"
The important part in Vietnamese is Mark (' ` ~ . ). They make "tone": wrong tone- different meanings. So In short, speaking Vietnamese is like singing a song. Hope you good at singing...
Tips:
1. Stop complaining
2. Speak slowly, clearly
3. None of your friends or the ones you know will be suprised if you always try to speak Vietnamese with them. This won't work if you are afraid of making mistakes
4. Watch people who master Vietnamese so you got motive to continue your learning...

Excellent example, most VN's don't know what thank you is anyway, ( along with excuse me, please, and ,' is this the back of the que? ' ), maybe that's why they don't understand?
When the words have no other meaning,  the pronounciation shouldn't have to be exact, and they still make no attempt to understand, that is just laziness, or ignorance????
My wife must speak different Viet than you, ' come on ', is exactly how she tells me to pronounce, Cảm ơn, I'm well aware of it, because every time time I call my dog, ' come here,  Mate ', I think they must be wondering why I am always thanking my dog?????

Then your wife explained it totally wrong to you. Maybe she said its similar to "Come on" but honestly it's not. It is "Kam oen" (not the American A but the soft British a like in ANOTHER). And "On" is exactly as the "O" in other, very soft...

confusing i know but i would stop saying come on because its not correct

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