Why you should learn to read Vietnamese from the beginning

Đọc đi! Why you should learn to read a foreign language from Day 1 Vietnamese’s romanised script is a little deceptive. It looks familiar but many of the sounds are totally different. Our recent interviewee, Adam, shared one example of where this can go very wrong.

Let’s look at the problems caused by not starting to read early in your learning journey.

Reading problems

When I first arrived in Vietnam, it was as a traveller. I thought I might stay but I wasn’t sure. I had an abridged phrasebook with me and I learnt 1, 2, 3, 10 (chục), rice and thank you on the bus over, before it got too crowded. The following day I learnt the rest of the numbers and some more food items. However, as I had no idea how to pronounce these words with all their ‘squiggles’ I learnt how to say them from the pronunciation guide provided in the book. While this meant I was understood (thanks in part to context, I’m sure), when I later came to study Vietnamese in a classroom, it caused an embarrassing problem…

I couldn’t read numbers written in word form.

I still remember the first time I saw ‘bốn’ on a page. I was shocked. I read it out slowly in disbelief before realising it was in fact the number 4. This phenomenon is not limited to numbers though, I learnt the word ‘khóc’ (cry) from a friend and was similarly staggered when I first saw it written down until I again read it out. It’s a good job Vietnamese is so phonetic!

Pronunciation problems

The second problem with not learning to read, and this will apply to languages that use a different script too, is that you might make errors when transcribing how a word is pronounced.

Again, I can offer an example from my experience. I started some Korean classes recently and this is my first time learning a new alphabet. After a couple of lessons I was able to read, albeit very slowly. My teacher has a habit of calling on people to read things from the book. But because I’m slow at reading, I wrote a phoneticisation next to the sentences in case I got called on.

While this meant I could read a little quicker, it wasn’t until I got home and wrote some sentences on lang-8 that I realised I had misread an ‘o’ for an ‘a’, thus pronouncing the word for ‘I’ totally wrong.

So there we have two reasons, with examples, why you should learn to read in a foreign language from Day 1.

Over to you: Have you had any problems reading Vietnamese? Have you ever learnt a language with a different script?

4 replies on “Why you should learn to read Vietnamese from the beginning”

I agree with you!

However, Korean is somewhat like English in that many words are spelled in a way that is not perfectly phonetic (like Vietnamese?), so I wouldn’t be concerned by not being able to read it out loud perfectly, especially not early on. I have been studying Korean for a few months by listening to TTMIK materials and reading the transcripts, and I find it is MUCH easier to read words that I have heard spoken many times than to try to guess pronunciations based on some spelling rules.

I have learned Mandarin for several years; I found that I was not able to read well even when I knew the pronunciations of most characters. Listening to audiobooks and TV shows helped a lot, because I was able to map what my ears had heard onto what my eyes were seeing without guessing. (Guessing usually means guessing wrong, in my case…)

I think it’s most important to be able to “hear” the text fluently in your head as if a native speaker was speaking it aloud in front of you, and the only way to achieve that is through extensive listening exposure. I’m skeptical of the pedagogical value of having students read out loud in Korean at a low level.

What about Vietnamese? How phonetic is the spelling, actually?

Thanks for your insightful comment!

I was under the impression that Korean is very phonetic, but even so I completely agree with you that at the beginning it’s not a great idea to read aloud. I didn’t pick my class for the methodology but an interesting aside – learning a little Korean through the medium of Vietnamese.

Yes, I think you’re right that you need to be able to “hear” the word as you read. It occurred to me recently that I wasn’t learning to “read” Korean but rather learning to say it aloud. When we read, we don’t actually read each letter individually but rather quickly look at the word as a whole and map it to a sound we know, like you say.

I think the point still stands that there’s great value in learning to how the language sounds and is written in tandem, but I agree that we should be associating the written form with the spoken sound.

Korean in Hangul is very phonemic, but phonetically there is a lot of predictable variation, depending on the surrounding sounds.

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