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How an afternoon in a park taught me to pronounce ng-

Readers have been asking me questions about Vietnamese pronunciation. It’s an important part of learning Vietnamese but ‘pronunciation’ is a big topic. I was wondering how to tackle it until I read this pithy article last week about how to deal with your huge language problems.

The short answer? Get specific. Then tackle it one little bit at a time.

So today I’m going to tell you how I learnt to pronounce ng and how you can do it too.

some Vietnamese ng words

I started learning Vietnamese just a few days before I arrived in Vietnam. In some ways this was great because I was surrounded by native speakers from the beginning. If I didn’t pronounce something correctly, I’d be met with a blank look.

Even so, one month in there was one consonant sound that was still troubling me… ng-

I wanted to be able to say ngon (delicious) but my attempts to say the ng- sound were really hit and miss.

It all changed in an afternoon

One afternoon I was in a park in Saigon and chatting in English to some university students. During the conversation, I mentioned that I was learning Vietnamese. They encouraged me to say something so I said “Tôi là người Anh” (I’m English).

As you may have guessed, I didn’t pronounce người right. One student decided to teach me to say it.

She modelled the sound for me, showing me how her mouth was positioned as she simply said ng. After she did this a few times, she encouraged me to try.

Me:  ng
Her: Yes!
Me:  n
Her: No.
Me:  n
Her: No.
Me:  ng
Her: Yes!

This went on for a couple of minutes.

Little by little I started getting more yes’s than no’s. I also started hearing the difference myself and being able to tell when I was saying it correctly and when I wasn’t.

I kept practising for the rest of the week. One day it just clicked and since then I’ve had no trouble pronouncing ng. I’ve even taught other people to say it correctly.

How you can learn to pronounce ng- too

Start by listening to the sound ng, paying attention to how it should be formed in your mouth and how it should sound.

This video by Stuart Jay Raj explains it really well as even though only a few examples are Vietnamese, the Thai and Indonesian examples have a ng sound.

By the end of the video you should be able to say ng correctly, though you may still sometimes get it wrong like I used to. Keep on practising Vietnamese words beginning with ng

Here are some great examples for Vietnamese. If possible, ask a native speaker if you’re pronouncing it correctly.

Although this article is about ng, you can use the same technique with any sound, tone or word you are struggling with.

Over to you: What sounds do you find hard to say? What do you do to practice them?

Syllables in Vietnamese

Thảo ơi, I heard that Vietnamese is monosyllabic. Is that right?

It’s true that in Vietnamese every syllable is written separately, and many words have just one syllable (such as cây, xem, vui). However Vietnamese words can still have more than one syllable. In fact the statisticians say the vast majority of words in Vietnamese do. *

Most of these are disyllabic (ie. they have two syllables). For example đồng hồ is a noun which means clock. Both syllables are needed for the meaning. It’s a word with two syllables which are written separately.

The same can be true of adjectives (eg. thông minh), verbs (eg. sắp xếp) and adverbs (eg. thỉnh thoảng).

To a lesser extent there are compound words where new words are formed by putting other words together. For example mắt trời. In these instances, knowing one of the words can give you a clue what the compound word is about (eg. if you know trời is sky, you can infer that mắt trời is something to do with the sky).

face + sky = sun (mắt trời)

face + sky = sun (mắt trời)

Tackling problems reading new words

As a Vietnamese learner it can be tricky, when reading, to figure out how these syllables combine to form words that have meaning. It can be hard to know what to look up in the dictionary.

Often when intensively reading something, you will find three or four new words all in a row. But should you be looking up four words in the dictionary? Or two pairs of syllables, or some other combination of words?

What should you be looking up out of tác phẩm hồi ký...

Should you be looking up tác phẩm hồi ký? Tác phẩm and hồi ký? Tác and phẩm hồi and ký…?

Enter google translate.

You may be thinking ‘but Google Translate doesn’t do a great job with Vietnamese’. The translations are often very unnatural to say the least.

However google translate has a built-in feature where you can hover over words to see alternative translations. But it’s not the alternative translations we’re interested in, it’s the hover feature itself.

By hovering over each of those unknown ‘words’, you can see if there are any multiple-syllable words.

Hover over the translation to figure out where the words are

Hover over the translation to figure out where the words are.

Now you know how to break down those new words (in this example tác phẩm hồi ký is in fact tác phẩm and hồi ký) so you’re able to easily look them up in the dictionary.

Over to you: Had you given any thought to syllables in Vietnamese before? How do you tackle new words when you come across a few in a row?

Image credit: Billy Frank Alexander Design

* Not everyone agrees on this.

Should you learn northern or southern Vietnamese?

northernsouthernThe question in every Vietnamese beginner’s mind: should you learn northern or southern Vietnamese? Of course within those broad groups, there is more variation. But at this stage there is a choice to be made – just like choosing between British or American English, or different varieties of Spanish. Speakers should be generally able to understand each other but there are differences in the language.

So which should you pick?

Situation A: You live in Vietnam already

If you are in Vietnam already this choice is simpler – pick the one that matches your region. While northern Vietnamese is the ‘standard’, it’s rare to hear it being spoken in Ho Chi Minh City.

If you are not in Vietnam, the choice is a little harder. Let’s look at which kind of Vietnamese you are most likely to encounter.

Situation B: You’re planning to live in or visit Vietnam at some point

If you are likely to go to Vietnam in the future – which part? Again, pick the accent matching the region you’ll be in, or where you’ll be spending the most time.

Situation C: You’re planning to travel up or down the whole of Vietnam

If you’ll be travelling up or down the whole country and are just learning a few basics, be aware of the pronunciation differences. Some food words differ too. On the plus side, numbers are pronounced the same throughout the country (well, except for ‘thousand’).

Perhaps in this case, start with the accent of your arrival city and be prepared to adapt it as you travel.

Situation D: You’re not in Vietnam and not planning to go there soon

Are they any Vietnamese people in your local area? Which accent do they speak with? If you’re in the States, most of the overseas Vietnamese you’ll encounter will have southern pronunciation. Former Soviet countries may have more northern Vietnamese. If you know a student studying abroad where you are, ask which part of the country they come from.

Situation E: None of the above

If none of the above situations apply to you, then choose a course or tutor you like and study whatever accent you hear the most. There are more materials around for northern Vietnamese, but as I’ve lived in the south I try to highlight southern ones here too.

But…

Don’t worry about the decision too much – I spent a couple of weeks in the north first so started with that and switched once I went down south. Admittedly this was very early on in my language journey, but I also had classmates who’d started learning northern Vietnamese in Korea. They moved to Ho Chi Minh City a year or two later and seemed able to make the adjustment to southern Vietnamese.

Over to you: which variety of Vietnamese did you choose and why?

When should you quit language classes?

when to quit language classesClasses can be a great way of getting good, consistent input in your language learning journey. For many people, myself included, learning stagnates without a push to keep going (and there’s nothing like having paid for classes to make sure you go, and therefore learn). But sometimes the classes are not worth your precious time and hard-earned money.

I’m sure everyone, at some point in their lives, has been in a class that was simply moving too quickly or two slowly. Perhaps you aced biology and didn’t get why the teacher was explaining photosynthesis yet again. Or maybe nothing your biology teacher said made any sense, but when you got home and your mum/brother/cousin explained it to you, it all clicked into place.

Mass education is always going to have a mix like this in a class, even if classes are grouped in levels.

And actually, it’s not always a bad thing. For starters, a good teacher will address this issue when they’re planning their lessons, thinking about ways to help the weak students and push the strong ones. Moreover, being a weak student for that level can be excellent motivation to work hard and catch up with the rest of the class. Stronger students can likewise compete to stay at the top.

However, sometimes the pace is not just a bit out of sync, sometimes it’s so far off that you need to stop attending classes.

If your class is totally above your level, you’re going to spend a lot of time feeling lost or confused. You’ll feel like the language is too hard. It’s not. Anyone can learn a language, but we all progress at different rates. You’ve been thrown in at the deep end of the swimming pool before you’re ready. You need a little more practice at the shallow end and before you know it you’ll be able to move up. That’s it. Just like learning to swim, dropping down a level will make you feel more comfortable, as well as broaden your knowledge on details you felt like you whizzed through before, and ultimately increase your confidence learning and using Vietnamese.

On the flip side, if your class is moving too slowly this is also when you should stop attending. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that these classes are still better than nothing, but if you leave every class frustrated and fed up because classes are moving as slow as the slowest student or you’re staring at the clock waiting for class to finish, it’s time to quit.

A different class, a private class one-on-one with a teacher or taking a new approach like a language exchange could be just what you need to spice things up again and keep moving forward.

2 ways of translating words that aren’t in the dictionary

Sometimes you come across a word that you can’t find in the dictionary. Perhaps you’ve tried explaining to a native speaker but you’re not able to describe the exact word you’re aiming for.

What to do?

1. Use Wikipedia

For example, I wanted to know what the skin condition ‘eczema’ was in Vietnamese. I brought up the English Wikipedia page for eczema, then scrolled down to the Languages section of the side bar and selected Vietnamese. This brought up the equivalent page and there it is: viêm da (though actually this seems to be skin conditions in general).

2. Find a picture, then ask a native

Sadly, the Vietnamese Wikipedia is lacking a few articles. Another method I’ve used is pulling up a google image of what I want to describe or drawing a sketch, then showing it to a native speaker and asking what it was.

crochet is đan móc

Crochet is đan móc

Over to you: What do you do when you can’t find a word in the dictionary?