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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 the same 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 nghere are some great examples – and 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?

The Can-do List – Celebrate your progress


Sometimes when learning a language we struggle with motivation. It seems like a never-ending uphill climb. You’re so focused on where you’re going and how you’re progressing (or where you’re failing), that you forget how far you’ve already come.

Something that you once struggled with is now second nature. Because it’s second nature you don’t think about it as a skill or step you’ve mastered. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point it out.

For example last month I was killing time on a flight by writing a diary of the morning, in Vietnamese. A very normal thing for me to do. My friend peeked at what I was writing and told me my level of Vietnamese must be good if I could write freely and easily like that.

There I was cursing myself over the words I couldn’t remember the tones for, completely missing that fact that I can write spontaneously in Vietnamese. I hadn’t thought about it like that. I was looking up the mountain without noticing how far I’d travelled up the slope already.

Sometimes it's good to look back!

Sometimes, when learning Vietnamese, it’s good to look back!

So, inspired by this I decided to make a list of all the things I can do in Vietnamese. A list I can look back on when I’m struggling with motivation and can’t see what progress I’m making. A reminder of how far I’ve come and a little ego boost.

Make your own can-do list

Now it’s your turn to make a list of all the things you can do in Vietnamese. Forget about the top of the mountain for now and just focus on what you are able to do.

Some ideas for your can-do list

Grab a notepad and start with writing ‘I can’, then make a list of everything you can think of – from the little things to the bigger ones.

I’ll give you ten examples from my list to get your inspiration flowing.

Elementary

  • Give directions to a xe ôm or taxi driver.
  • Name foods at the market.
  • Haggle in the market.
  • Read a menu.
  • Write about my day in Vietnamese.

Intermediate

  • Pick out a few words or phrases when watching a TV programme.
  • Read some comics or short stories.
  • Write a short essay on a familiar topic.
  • Pass a driving theory test.
  • Change my accent at will (primarily from the standard southern accent with v’s as v’s to an accent with v’s as y’s).

Remember to think about each of the four skills – speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Over to you: What’s your #1 Can-Do that you’re most proud of? How awesome do you feel reflecting on this?

Photo credit: misbass and H

How I pushed myself to learn more Vietnamese before leaving Vietnam

Pushing myself as time was running outAs my time in Vietnam started running out, I felt an urgency to learn as much Vietnamese as I could. I decided simply attending my regular classes wasn’t enough (especially as the pace was too slow) and I’d been letting myself get stuck in a routine that wasn’t helping me learn or practice beyond my comfort zone. It was time to shake things up.

1. Getting a motorbike licence

For quite some time I’d been toying with the idea of taking the full A1 motorbike test in Vietnam. Most expats get their home car licence translated which exempts them from taking the theory test, so only the practical test is needed to get a Vietnamese motorbike licence. However this kind of licence comes with an expiration date.

I saw it as an opportunity to set and achieve a goal: study for and pass the theory test.

I got a copy of the booklet of questions but left it on the shelf for a while. Sensing I needed a date to work towards to push me to study, I registered to take the test and started working through the booklet with a friend, picking out the vocab I needed to understand the questions. As I do in fact have a UK car licence, I found most of the questions quite straightforward once I understood them, then just memorised the rest.

Two days before the test itself, I went along to the second practice session (I missed the first the day before) which involved taking a practice test on paper then another on the computer. I scraped a pass both times. Confidence now high I was left to worry about the tricky “number 8” on the practical test.

To cut a long story short, I not only passed the theory test but I got 15/15. I’m not sure who was more amazed – myself or the guy who printed out my score sheet.

My Vietnamese motorbike licence

My licence which lasts forever

2. Attending a Korean class…in Vietnamese

Not content with one goal that took less than a week to accomplish, I also attended Korean classes for a month. I was the only non-Vietnamese person in the classroom, teacher included. I certainly didn’t understand everything and I took longer to pick up new structures, but with a bit of effort and preparing for class, I made enough progress.

While I didn’t have a SMART goal for this one, aside from learning some basic Korean the aim was mostly just to stretch myself. To put myself in a unfamiliar, challenging environment using Vietnamese and prove I could step up to it. I struggled, but it was an interesting experience.

3. Stop using ‘Vietglish’

This is embarrassing to admit, but with a couple of my closet friends we don’t actually speak proper Vietnamese. Nor could it be called English. We switch between the two, even in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes it is down to efficiency (even my friend will sometimes say ‘she’ as it’s quicker than choosing ‘cô ấy’, ‘bà ấy’). Often there is no real reason for it, it’s just become habit. But a lot of the time, it is because I don’t know (or don’t want to pause to remember) a word. Uh-oh.

Surprisingly, this has not become a problem when I’m talking to anyone else. Still, it’s a bad habit and I decided it was time to start kicking it.

So I armed myself with a notepad and wrote down every English word I used in a Vietnamese sentence. I went through my list with a friend, and got example sentences for each new word. I’ve put these new words in my Anki deck and I’m learning them. I’m trying not to speak Vietglish with my friends, but I’m aware it’s going to take time to totally stop.

Even after these three steps, I’ve still got quite a way to go to improve my Vietnamese but it was nice to leave on a high, with motivation to keep on learning. After all, I’ll have to come back to Vietnam to make use of that licence. 😉

Learner Interview: Adam Seex

Welcome to the first in a series of interviews with successful Vietnamese language learners. We hope you’ll be interested in and motivated by their stories!
interview
Name: Adam Seex
Nationality: British
Location: Ho Chi Minh City
Profession: Teaching

What level are you?

I would say I’m currently Upper-Intermediate.

When and why did you start learning Vietnamese?

I started learning Vietnamese 3 years ago. The journey started at a small smoothie shop, learning the names for fruits and communicating in pigeon Vietnamese with the owner of that shop. From there I met my first teacher. We agreed to exchange languages and the more I started to learn the more motivating it was and the more I pushed on. From that point I spent most of my time communicating with Vietnamese people rather than actually studying from a book.

Have you ever studied a language before? Do you speak it well?

I studied French and German in secondary school. I sucked at those. I still remember how to answer simple questions like ‘what did you do at the weekend?’ but that’s about as far as my communicative ability goes.

How is Vietnamese similar and/or different to your native language and/or other languages you’ve learnt?

Vietnamese is totally different. Take the word ‘book’ for example. In German it’s ‘buch’, in Dutch it’s ‘boek’ but in Vietnamese it’s ‘cuốn sách’. It couldn’t be further away from any language I’ve learnt in the past.

What do you like about learning Vietnamese?

I like learning Vietnamese because I use it everyday. It’s really super useful.

What do you think is most important when learning Vietnamese?

The most important thing is the pronunciation. Once you get your head round the tones it’s just a matter of adding vocabulary and learning structures.

And what should people try to avoid?

People should avoid learning Vietnamese from books. Vietnamese is a living language just like English – if you learn what they teach you in the books then when it comes to communicating then you’ll either be misunderstood or won’t understand what’s going on. I found that to be particularly true when I heard my girlfriend communicating with her friends; it was nothing like what I had learnt before…but after a lot of exposure, you get it.

Do you have a funniest or most memorable moment?

The most memorable moment is when I said ‘dỉ nhiên’ (of course) but I pronounced the D (Vietnamese) as the English D…which means ‘Nhiên is a whore’.

What’s your favourite word or phrase, and why?

Urm…biết chết liền…

What are your favourite tools/resources for learning or practicing Vietamese?

I like watching movies and reading Conan. I don’t really use this to study…I just enjoy them.

When the going gets tough, how do you stay motivated?

It’s important to remember that you should try to grasp the main ideas rather than understand every word that is uttered. Even in English we don’t listen and understand every word but we still manage to communicate.

Finally, what’s your top tip?

The best thing to do is keep a diary. Try to write a page (I did 2) every day. You’ll find that you learn new words which are appropriate to your life very quickly…and what do we talk about with our friends most often? We talk about what happened in our day! If you practice writing this every single day and talk about it every single day then this is the backbone to learning a language successfully and quickly!

Getting past the expat plateau: a personal story

I was stuck.

I was comfortable ordering food and giving directions to taxi drivers. I could manage my day to day interactions and for any bigger issues (like househunting) I had English-speaking Vietnamese friends.

For months I was content. I did a little happy dance when I could understand something small here or there. I liked being the ‘expert’ among my non-Vietnamese speaking Western friends. I thought I knew quite a lot.

But I started to feel malcontent. If I met someone once I’d be able to make small talk for a short time but if I met them again…I had nothing else to say.

I had ideas to improve my conversation skills. ‘I’ll learn a question a day.’ ‘I’ll start using one of those elementary books my friend gave me when she left.’ ‘I’ll go to the park to practice with the students there.’ But I didn’t.

I was stuck and I was scared. Scared of taking a written placement test for a language school (‘but I can’t remember the tones’, I wailed). Scared of being placed in a class that was too easy or too hard. Scared of the hard work and time it takes to learn. Scared of trying but failing to reach a good level.

Much as I wish it was a better reason, what finally pushed me out of the hole I’d dug myself was the chance to prove someone wrong.

The next step wasn’t revolutionary. It was simply signing up for classes. Paying someone money to make me sit down and learn. No more excuses of ‘tomorrow’. A teacher to ask questions of, a book with exercises, classmates from around the world to practice with and a slot in my day that actually makes me do it.

The icing on the cake came when, after three months of classes, one of my Vietnamese friends said something to someone else in Vietnamese…and I replied. The look of shock on her face was worth all that time studying!

In three months I’d gone from being able to order food to participating in a short but normal speed conversation with native speakers on familiar topics (daily routine, holiday plans). I’ve still got a long way to go but I’m determined not to get stuck again.

Game on!

Over to you: Have you been stuck before? How did you get out of it? Are you stuck now? If so, what are you going to do about it? Tell us in the comments.