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

It has been my experience that your speech in foreign lands will usually be "corrected" by locals because your don't use their specific dialect and because they want time to scope you out.

I had an eye-opening experience today. My SO refers to us as "hai con khỉ già" which means two old monkeys. I thought I was pronouncing the phrase correctly but when I spoke it to Google translate it only got part of it right. Google translated my SO's spoken phrase 100% of the time. So, I obviously need to work on my pronunciation and I have a way to measure my success.

I have noticed and commented on this phenomena myself.

i don't have great skills, but i can say certainly basic phrases well enough to be understood.

my guess is that is sort of a' culture shock': Viet people just don't expect Caucusians (or non-Viet) to speak tieng Viet, so they sort of don't even hear or register it.

it is cultural elitism really.

so course we have trouble with the tones, but even when we get them right, they seem to have this cultural deafness.

BTW, have you noticed one of the most significant problems with tieng Viet is that it simply does NOT have enough distinctly different words.

this shows up in the fact that a word or expression in tieng Viet will usually be double the length of the same English expression; but the other (weird) distinction is that instead of having eight different words, they take one word and add multiple accents just for fun to make eight different 'words'.

many examples, but take 'co'. if i remember correctly, it is has eight different variants ONLY distinguished by different accents, all with quite different meanings.

WHY NOT JUST HAVE EIGHT DIFFERENT WORDS???

Yes, I was also curious about the thing that 'Why differentiate by the tones for the same word and not have new words?"

I'm learning Vietnamese language by Duolingo and Youtube videos. It sure is challenging trying out those 6 different tones. Progress sure is encouraging but yes, need a lot of practice.

Now coming to the question, on why some languages have tones and others don't, I found an interesting article.

https://www.theatlantic.com/internation … in/415701/

Now English is a monotone language, in that if someone said a sentence without any tone, the listener will understand the message completely. But that is not the case in tonal languages.

On the reasons on how it originated, hypothesis is that "Tone languages are spoken all over the world, but they tend to cluster in three places: East and Southeast Asia; sub-Saharan Africa; and among the indigenous communities of Mexico. Why there and not elsewhere? One thing these regions might have in common is heat, though it’s hard to imagine how that would make people speak more melodically. Yet environment may not be entirely unrelated to the phenomenon—according to one hypothesis, tone languages are less likely to develop in dry environments because dry air deprives the vocal cords of the suppleness required to produce subtle differences in tone."

Also, there is another informative paragraph in the article shared above, on how it originated:-

Imagine: “Brother” is “prother,” “bat” is “pat,” “big” is “pig.” Things like that happen in languages all the time, and if it happened to English, then instead of “pay” and “bay” there would just be “pay” and “pay”—except there would still be that difference in the tone. “Pay” with a neutral tone would mean “pay,” while “pay” with a low tone would mean “bay.” The tone alone would convey the difference in meaning. This is exactly how a tone language happens, and in some places you can even see the steps in the process. For example, there is a language called Khmu spoken in parts of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and China. In one dialect of Khmu, pok means “bite” and bok means “to cut down a tree.” In another dialect, though, b has become p, and all that’s left behind is the difference in the tone, as if the Cheshire Cat had left behind his smile. Thus in that dialect, pok on a high tone means “bite,” while pok on a low tone means “to cut down a tree.”

Anyway, these languages are closely related, so if one masters the tonality 'somehow' then everything else is a piece of cake... (not a peace of cake) :)

And regarding the foreigner speaking the language and not being understood, I think the native Vietnamese people don't expect the foreigner to speak their language, and even it they did, the tone would be definitely different from what they are used it. There are SO many idiosyncrasies involved, but sure they will take it as a compliment if a foreigner is learning their language. They are helpful about it.

Personally I feel that most of the posters here who say that they are pronouncing things perfectly and are still not understood are simply not as accurate at they think they are.  See post #82 above.

Also have you ever noticed that almost all those you-tubers and other Westerners who appear on Viet TV are all in their 20's.  Particularly in urban environments there is real but gradual hearing loss as early as the 30's.  Most people posting here probably suffer some loss whether they know it or not.  You might ask, what about elderly locals.  They are using context clues to compensate.

I once asked one of my TA's how does a Vietnamese who is deaf or partially deaf learn to speak.  His answer was rather bluntly that they don't.

I have noticed, even in simpler Chinese, u can pronounce a word wrong (spelling) but ppl will still understand if the tone is correct.

PPl here just look at me in contempt/confusion when I try to speak Vnese. Partly my tones/ pronounciation. partly they r ****s.

Thaiger :

I have noticed, even in simpler Chinese, u can pronounce a word wrong (spelling) but ppl will still understand if the tone is correct.

I had a Singaporean in HCMC tell me the opposite.  That is he said that in Chinese you can get the tones wrong and still be understood, while simply sounding odd.  He affirmed what many have observed, that in Vietnamese wrong tones can, and usually do, change meaning of the entire word.  He said he had given up on learning Vietnamese despite having a Vietnamese wife.  Their common language was English.

Thaiger :

PPl here just look at me in contempt/confusion when I try to speak Vnese. Partly my tones/ pronounciation. partly they r r*****s.

This may be true but it is still offensive, expressed this way.   :mad:

"He said he had given up on learning Vietnamese despite having a Vietnamese wife.  Their common language was English."

This line was quite discouraging!  :sosad: 

But still the fighter in me says... "Game on!" :)

THIGV :

Personally I feel that most of the posters here who say that they are pronouncing things perfectly and are still not understood are simply not as accurate at they think they are.

I tend to agree with you. Just over the week-end I tried to speak a little bit of Vietnamese to a South Vietnamese friend and said "Anh có thể ... khong" (can I do this or that) and she told me to emphasis the hook on the thể, a bit more down and up. I thought I was doing it right, but a subtle difference can make all the difference.

Jatinder05 :

"He said he had given up on learning Vietnamese despite having a Vietnamese wife.  Their common language was English."

This line was quite discouraging!  :sosad: 

But still the fighter in me says... "Game on!" :)

He has plenty of company.  My husband speaks 3 languages (English, Italian, Spanish), one of them he learned on his own (Italian) but he has given up on Vietnamese.  My niece's SO speaks 4 languages (German, English, Italian, French), but he has also surrendered.  They both cannot master the pronunciation and intonation.

But just because almost everyone who tried to learn Vietnamese encountered the same problems doesn't mean it would also happen to you.  (I'd say it's more than likely but not definitely.)  Maybe you would be one of the few who sees Vietnamese is "dễ như chơi" (that's the first idiom for you to learn.)

Ciambella :
Jatinder05 :

"He said he had given up on learning Vietnamese despite having a Vietnamese wife.  Their common language was English."

This line was quite discouraging!  :sosad: 

But still the fighter in me says... "Game on!" :)

He has plenty of company.  My husband speaks 3 languages (English, Italian, Spanish), one of them he learned on his own (Italian) but he has given up on Vietnamese.  My niece's SO speaks 4 languages (German, English, Italian, French), but he has also surrendered.  They both cannot master the pronunciation and intonation.

But just because almost everyone who tried to learn Vietnamese encountered the same problems doesn't mean it would also happen to you.  (I'd say it's more than likely but not definitely.)  Maybe you would be one of the few who sees Vietnamese is "dễ như chơi" (that's the first idiom for you to learn.)

"As easy as playing" ??

Google Translate, so I'm likely wrong...

Jatinder05 :

"He said he had given up on learning Vietnamese despite having a Vietnamese wife.  Their common language was English."

This line was quite discouraging!  :sosad:

... then this should be quite encouraging for you  ;)  Ignore the kids, for them it must be a cakewalk.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRJfo58tacU

TBH, every time I go to an Indian restaurant I see the floor managers and cooks communicating with their VN staffs in easy Vietnamese. Apparently little problem in mutual understanding.
So cheer up and keep going! :top: 

Unfortunately it didn't work for me right from my Hanoi days, eight years ago ... just a few words and phrases for survival, that's all ... and I think I know why.
Very different from my experience with Chinese and Japanese languages.

senwl :

TBH, every time I go to an Indian restaurant I see the floor managers and cooks communicating with their VN staffs in easy Vietnamese. Apparently little problem in mutual understanding.

I wonder if that staff has developed some kind of pidgin or creole for communication of key concepts needed to do their work.  (There is a formal difference between a pidgin and a creole language but it escapes me now.)  That is how such languages generally come about.  Although historically it may be more common in agriculture, there is no reason that a creole could not develop in a restaurant.   In many European style restaurants in the US, the top chefs are European or American while the bottom tier of help is monolingual Spanish speaking Central American, yet they manage to work it out.  This could be an interesting project for a graduate student in linguistics.

THIGV :
senwl :

TBH, every time I go to an Indian restaurant I see the floor managers and cooks communicating with their VN staffs in easy Vietnamese. Apparently little problem in mutual understanding.

I wonder if that staff has developed some kind of pidgin or creole for communication of key concepts needed to do their work.  (There is a formal difference between a pidgin and a creole language but it escapes me now.)  That is how such languages generally come about.  Although historically it may be more common in agriculture, there is no reason that a creole could not develop in a restaurant.   In many European style restaurants in the US, the top chefs are European or American while the bottom tier of help is monolingual Spanish speaking Central American, yet they manage to work it out.  This could be an interesting project for a graduate student in linguistics.

For some of those managers and cooks it could very well be a pidgin solution that serves their immediate purpose, I agree, May be it's a needs-based limited vocabulary they have mastered to survive in their business.
For some others, I doubt it's anything like that.
I say this 'coz I know at least two such managers/owners who could easily discuss the finer nuances of  an order for a delivery in details with my wife in fluent V'namese over the phone ... but failed to discuss it properly with me in English.
Again, that could be needs-based learning, very different from learning a language in a comprehensive way ...
Whatever, they seem happy to use their limited Tieng Viet with strangers without any hesitation.
Same with that guy who is now a mini celebrity in Hanoi for his Clean Hanoi campaign.

Astute observation and a very intelligent answer.
It is all pattern recognition and experience.
The holographic nature of intelligence is becoming very clear to me now.
Any answer to a complex question is a "fit" in at least three dimensions.
I used to entertain myself with thoughts of a computer where the instruction set was a variable.
That could be very neat and useful but the optimal set would be holographic.

The interaction of the chefs and the staff can be expressed holographically.
One needs to arrange that hologram so that it aligns itself along the axis of commonality.

This is a "cop out" just like saying "Google it" without specifying a narrow search term is a cop out.

Ciambella :

...
But just because almost everyone who tried to learn Vietnamese encountered the same problems doesn't mean it would also happen to you.  (I'd say it's more than likely but not definitely.)  Maybe you would be one of the few who sees Vietnamese is "dễ như chơi" (that's the first idiom for you to learn.)

Yes, hopefully I will be the one who learnt it! :)

I was on a 4 day streak on Duolingo Vietnamese but after reading that message, I skipped a day as felt if it was all futile...

I'm back to learning again... :) I got reminded of  the story in which there were two frogs which were trying to climb out of a hole. The onlookers were discouraging by saying 'You will fall. You will fall and die.'

Then one of the frogs eventually fell down in the pit and died. But the other frog miraculously kept going and eventually climbed out of the hole.

He was deaf. :)

senwl :
Jatinder05 :

"He said he had given up on learning Vietnamese despite having a Vietnamese wife.  Their common language was English."

This line was quite discouraging!  :sosad:

... then this should be quite encouraging for you  ;)  Ignore the kids, for them it must be a cakewalk.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRJfo58tacU

TBH, every time I go to an Indian restaurant I see the floor managers and cooks communicating with their VN staffs in easy Vietnamese. Apparently little problem in mutual understanding.
So cheer up and keep going! :top: 

Unfortunately it didn't work for me right from my Hanoi days, eight years ago ... just a few words and phrases for survival, that's all ... and I think I know why.
Very different from my experience with Chinese and Japanese languages.

Now... This sure was encouraging! :)

it is not quite true to say that English is monotonal

tone in English DOES make for different meanings.

but, in tieng ang, we would use the word 'emphasis', not 'tone'

you should know that, depending on where we put the 'emphasis', ie which word, can change the meaning a lot eg "i shot the sheriff"  :-)

dec123 :

it is not quite true to say that English is monotonal

tone in English DOES make for different meanings.

but, in tieng ang, we would use the word 'emphasis', not 'tone'

you should know that, depending on where we put the 'emphasis', ie which word, can change the meaning a lot eg "i shot the sheriff"  :-)

I think a good test would be to speak English in monotone and speak Vietnamese in monotone. I know which one would be understood better by a native speaker of each language.

THIGV :

Personally I feel that most of the posters here who say that they are pronouncing things perfectly and are still not understood are simply not as accurate at they think they are.  See post #82 above.

Also have you ever noticed that almost all those you-tubers and other Westerners who appear on Viet TV are all in their 20's.  Particularly in urban environments there is real but gradual hearing loss as early as the 30's.  Most people posting here probably suffer some loss whether they know it or not.  You might ask, what about elderly locals.  They are using context clues to compensate.

I once asked one of my TA's how does a Vietnamese who is deaf or partially deaf learn to speak.  His answer was rather bluntly that they don't.

I found your suspicion of hearing loss from the age of 30 plausible.

However, I noticed the following last week:
I was on the balcony and hung the clothes to dry.  The neighboring apartment is only about 3 meters opposite and the windows and balcony doors are permanently open.

As so often there was karaoke at the neighbour's house.  And as so often, there was constant acoustic feedback, starting with whistling and ending with humming.

I (well over 30  :) ) had to cover my ears because the high whistling tones in my ears hurt and I was afraid of permanent hearing damage.

But the karaoke singer (about 22 years old) continued singing after the first acoustic feedback with loud whistling until the acoustic feedback with loud humming.

Then I remembered your theory and asked myself why the very high tones hurt me even though I have an age-related hearing loss.  But the young Vietnamese didn't disturb the high tones at all (and she was closer to the source of the noise).

So I wonder if the Vietnamese don't also have a hearing loss in the upper frequency range.  Or what is the explanation that it does not interfere with the whistling of an acoustic feedback?

I also wonder why the Vietnamese can endure permanent sound beyond the harmful 100dB.  I never noticed that the Vietnamese are very hard of hearing.

I've found that examples of good karaoke are few and far in-between here. And the remedy for poor singing ability is to play it louder. And I found the thing I try to avoid the most over here is a Viet with a microphone.

I came down with an infection that put me in the hospital. And I found one of the highlights of that experience is talking to the doctors and the nurses. That probably because they have a vested interest in understanding me, and I, them. It's been great practice. The staff speaks English but they prefer to speak Vietnamese, and who am I to complain?

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