Blog Archives

Listening: What’s your problem?

Listening is the weakest skill for many learners. To improve your listening, you first need to know what your listening problems are.

As an English teacher, I usually survey my students to find out what kind of listening problems they’re having. Sometimes the root of the problem is not their listening ability.

This is usually my problem in a foreign language – my listening skills are ok, I understand coursebook audio and youtube videos that are at my level and I’m fine at understanding conversations in Saigon. What holds me back the most is unfamiliar vocabulary. So actually I need to improve my vocabulary, not my listening.

So first let’s check if your listening ability is your top problem.

The is the simplified checklist I’ve given to learners.

Problem 1 – There are too many new words

This is what I was referring to above. The real problem is not necessarily your listening ability. Either you need to increase your vocabulary or choose easier listening materials.

Problem 2 – People speak too fast

Here I’m getting at the changes that happen in fast, natural speech. In English we use a lot of connected speech and miss out a lot of sounds.

Problem 3 – I can’t hear what people say

This is one of two things – the extreme version is where it’s just a stream of sounds and you can barely pick anything out.

Another problem might be that you’re unable to hear familiar words. This could again be because of changes we make to words when we say them in fast, natural speech.

Problem 4 – I can hear but I don’t understand

This is where you can hear a lot of words but you’re not getting the overall message, or you’re missing key words and so not understanding.

It might also be because you’re focusing too much on trying to hear and understand every word, instead of using listening strategies to compensate when you don’t hear everything (just like we do in our native language!)

Listening Processes

If you’re experiencing Problem 2 or 3, you’re struggling with what we call Bottom-Up listening processes. This relates to the very sounds of speech and this is where we need to focus to improve your listening.

If you’re experiencing Problem 4, you might benefit from working on what are called Top-Down listening strategies. This is where you draw on your existing knowledge, background and experiences (including borrowing from how you listen in your native language).

When we listen, we use both processes together (called interactive processing) in order to understand.

Over to you: Which of these listening problems is your number one issue?

This is the first post in a series on Listening. In the next article we’ll be looking at listening Problems 2 & 3 – issues with the sounds. Specifically I’ll be showing you a way to discover what problems you are having.

Check back next week for the next article, or subscribe so you don’t miss the notification!

Learn new words and phrases from videos

Passively listening to music or watching TV isn’t going to make you speak Vietnamese overnight but by actively engaging with the content, both music and movies can be a useful learning tool.

Today we’re going to look at one way of using films or TV shows to improve your vocabulary.

The basic premise of this technique is that you use the video to find authentic, interesting phrases or words that you want to learn. After watching the show you use Anki to learn (or ‘internalise’) those new expressions.

What’s needed?

You need a video or film with Vietnamese subtitles.

I tend to prefer TV series over full-length films because of the continued storyline and repetitive vocabulary. Also because they’re shorter than full length films. It’s much easier to find time to occasionally watch a 30-60 episode of something or a 5 minute short story like Qùa Tặng Cuộc Sống.

Step 1: Find new words

You watch the video on your computer, with subtitles. When a new word or interesting phrase you want to learn comes up, pause and take a screencap. I usually quickly look it up in a dictionary or online to get approximate understanding of the meaning, then hit play and continue watching.

Work on your question form by learning phrases from a film.

Work on your question form by learning phrases from a film.

Top tip: Don’t spend too much time looking up words while you’re watching or you’ll spend 2h+ watching an 1 hour long show (or give up part way through). I usually have google translate open on my phone to get the gist of new vocab and take a screencap so I can look into it in detail later.

Step 2: Fully understand the new words

After the whole show, I go through my screencaps with a dictionary to accurately understand the meaning. Even if you think you know what it means, it’s really important to check so you’re certain.

For example, when using this method with French I assumed sans doute meant without a doubt but actually it’s more like maybe (sans aucun doute is without a doubt). That’s a big, fundamental difference!

Step 3: Make your flashcards

Put the sentences and screencaps into Anki or another customisable flashcard program.

An example recall flashcard

A recall flashcard for the video method

The flashcard contains the sentence translated loosely into English and this is what prompts me to recall the sentence.

Top tip: I usually do this in batches to break up Step 2. While working through the phrases with a dictionary I take a break every 5-10 minutes and put the cards into Anki.

How to Learn Spanish have a detailed video showing how this method works. It’s 90% what I do, though I differ from Andrew in that I keep the information displayed on my cards to a minimum and I use both Learn and Recall cards in Anki.

Advantages and disadvantages of this method

The advantages of this method are that it’s really enjoyable because you’re watching something you’re interested in and it’s authentic because you’re learning words and phrases in natural spoken contexts.

The context is very strong because you have visual and audio to go with the new vocabulary. You don’t just learn new vocab, you feel it. Often when prompted to recall a card, I imagine the scene where the line was said which helps me to remember it.

Disadvantages are that it can be hard to find enjoyable subtitled materials, the language can be very informal or even vulgar (a good dictionary should alert you of this) and you have to be careful when looking up and translating new words you learn this way. If you make a mistake and learn the wrong use of a word, it will be hard to relearn.

This last potential problem is one reason why I recommend this for intermediate learners or above, because at that stage you have a better feel for the language, you’re able to discern things about the language and better judge what is and isn’t useful to learn. Alternatively you could go through your sentences with a tutor or bilingual friend to ensure you’re correct.

However if there are also subtitles in your native language, you can use them to make your cards.

Over to you: Have you ever tried to ‘study’ a film or TV programme?

Is it worth watching Vietnamese films and TV shows when you’re a beginner?

If you watch a Vietnamese film or TV show when you’re a beginner, you’re obviously not going to understand it all. But is it still worth watching?

To be honest, I wasn’t convinced there was any value until recently. But then that all changed…

A short case study

I started learning Vietnamese as I arrived in Vietnam, so I’d never really thought about listening practice as a beginner because Vietnamese has been all around me from Day 1.

However, since the spring I’ve taken up Korean (again). I’m not surrounded by Korean, I don’t have any Korean friends and the only real listening practice I get is the one or two lessons I listen to each week at Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK).

I do from time to time watch Korean dramas though. I’d watched them before I started learning Korean (simply because I enjoy them). As a total newbie I didn’t learn any vocabulary from watching them or understand anything at all. I was completely dependent on the translated subtitles and honestly, the dialogue was just background noise.

But last month something changed. It was the first time I watched a drama since finished TTMIK Level 1 and found myself able to pick out some words.


기드리… wait? waiting? waited? He definitely said something about waiting.

Now, this doesn’t sound revolutionary but bear in mind that young children spend years listening to their native language before they start speaking. Gradually all that ‘noise’ they hear turns into words… Sound familiar?

Anyway, back to learning Vietnamese.

Will watching films teach me Vietnamese?

No, watching Vietnamese programmes (with foreign subtitles) as a beginner isn’t going to teach you to speak Vietnamese. But if you pay attention to the dialogue, you can start to pick out familiar words.

Singling out key or familiar words in a sentence is a skill you’ll use all the time when having conversations in Vietnamese. People will say things to you and you’ll miss or not understand half of what they say. Being able to use the words you heard to guess the meaning of the sentence is an vital skill that you’ll use over and over again as you have conversations in Vietnamese.


I watch Korean dramas because I like them. It’s an added benefit that I’m training my ear in a language I’m a beginner in.

However, watching dramas is not an efficient way to learn. If you only have an hour of free time, you’d be better off using that time to watch a Vietnamese lesson on Youtube and then practise what you just learnt.

But… if you’re going to watch a movie anyway, make it a Vietnamese one (occasionally at least). 😉

Over to you: Do you watch any Vietnamese TV shows or films? Do you find it useful listening practice?

Learn how to pronounce written Vietnamese

Vietnamese is a very phonetic language. The pronunciation and the spelling of words closely match up. This means you can learn to ‘read’ Vietnamese (ie. read aloud) very quickly.

Vietnamese uses a Latin alphabet and many letters are pronounced as you’d expect like b or m.

Although just like European languages, there is some variation on the basic Latin alphabet. Spanish has letters like ñ while Vietnamese has letters like đ and ư and some letters that have a different sound (eg. Vietnamese th- sounds more like an English t-). But you simply need to learn how these sound because đ always sounds like đ, th- is always th- so on.

How to learn the rules

Learn to read When I was a beginner I learnt how to pronounce written Vietnamese by using the phonetic guide in my phrasebook. There are other phrasebook guides online, including ones with audio.

Learn which letters make which sounds, brush up on your tones and accents then get practising. You could practice by reading aloud the words from this list of 120 beginner words, then comparing with the audio.

In no time at all you’ll be able to pronounce written Vietnamese – allowing you to read aloud signs, addresses and even poetry if you wish!

Granted, this won’t teach you what any of it means but knowing these rules will help you pick up new words that you see and also help you with spelling.

Over to you: How did you learn to pronounce Vietnamese words? Do you find it easy to read Vietnamese words aloud (even if you don’t know what they mean)?

Photo credit: hvaldez1

Having a foreign accent

A few articles have appeared over the last couple of weeks on pronunciation and why it’s ok to have a foreign accent.

Such as:

I have to agree. While I post a lot of things on here about improving your Vietnamese pronunciation, they are aimed at improving how clear and understandable you are.

If you want to aim for a native speaker accent, good for you. Go ahead!

Banderas has an accent

Pic: Yes, I have an accent because I come from Spain. Sheesh!

However, it’s not a requirement. Thinking about English for a minute, there are so many people who speak fluent English with foreign accents from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Antonio Banderas. There’s a difference between having an accent that is hard to understand and having an accent where words are pronounced intelligibly but with a foreign twist. Heck, many people even find Banderas’ and similar accents attractive.

Having an accent just indicates where you’re from, even native speakers have regional accents. There’s no such thing as “accentless” English or Vietnamese.

If languages are about communicating with other people, expressing a meaning, sharing ideas, connecting with people then there’s nothing wrong with a little accent.

Over to you: What kind of accent are you aiming for? Do you think a native speaker accent is necessary or desirable?