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The Beginner’s Guide to Vietnamese tones and accent marks

Vietnamese tones and accentsThe first time you look at Vietnamese writing, you might well be surprised at all the accents on and under the letters. Some vowels have not just one but two marks per letter – for example, in Việt Nam. Why is that?

In this post, we’re going to take a look at the Vietnamese tones and accent marks, and how to pronounce them correctly.

Vietnamese tones

Vietnamese is a tonal language. That’s why is can sound musical or melodic. There are six tones (though some parts of the country don’t pronounce them all) and they are represented by symbols that actually quite closely match their sound.

Each tone has a different pitch and intonation, and these tones can a large part of the meaning. So it’s important to learn the tones and try your best to pronounce them well if you want to be understood when speaking Vietnamese.

What are the 6 Vietnamese tones?

Example Tone name* My nickname My notes Some common words with this tone
la ngang high, flat tone Remember this is not toneless, it’s a high, flat tone. anh, em, không, tên, xem
huyền low tone, down tone Start low and stay low. là, gì, và, làm, gà
sắc up tone Start high and go higher. có, nói, sống, cá, nóng
lạ nặng dot tone Short and low. chị, được, một, học, lạnh
lả hỏi question tone Your voice goes up like you’re asking a question. Eg. Really? phải, nhỏ, ở, của, trẻ
ngã tilde tone Similar to đả but there is a short break (see the video below). In the south there is no break – ã is exactly the same as ả. cũng, sẽ, cũ, sữa, mỗi

If you look closely, the symbols used for each of the tones represent the sound they make. The sắc symbol goes up, just like the tone. Hỏi looks and sounds like a question. And nặng, the heavy tone, is the only tone written below the letter.

* The full name for the tones includes dấu (eg. sắc is dấu sắc), but a lot of the time they’re just referred to by the names in the table above (eg. we usually just say sắc).

Are Vietnamese tones hard?

Vietnamese pronunciation can be tricky for foreigners. Tones appear hard but I assure you, they are manageable.

First, it’s important to remember that no language is completely flat. English uses sentence intonation to express meaning. For example, when we ask questions the intonation goes up or down. We also emphasise words in a sentence to show annoyance or surprise.

So, tones are not so strange after all.

That said, it takes some time and effort to get used to them.

Many people give up at this point. That’s a real shame because besides tones, Vietnamese is a relatively easy and amazing language. You will need to practice to improve your pronunciation but if I can do it, so can you.

Resources for Vietnamese tones

Learn more about the tones here:

Vietnamese accent marks

Some vowel letters in Vietnamese are pronounced differently depending on whether or not an accent mark is used. If you’re familiar with a language like French, you’ll have seen accents like é and ê that change the sound of the letter ‘e’.

Vietnamese also has some accent marks to represent different vowel sounds.

Let’s look at an example:

ô, o and ơ are totally different sounds.

ô – eg. bộ (walk) – oh like in the English word ‘go’
o – eg. bò (beef) – o like in ‘hot’
ơ – eg. bơ (butter) – er or ir like in ‘bird’

Mixing ô and o is the most frequent mistake I heard in my Vietnamese classes.

Vietnamese vowels

Vietnamese has 12 vowels: a, ă, â, e, ê, i, y, o, ô, ơ, u, ư.

You can listen to all of these in this alphabet video. Pay attention to the speaker’s mouth as she makes each sound. For example, to make the ư sound, you have to smile a little when you say it.

I absolutely have to mention the name of two of the accent marks in Vietnamese:

ơ, ư, and ă have an accent called móc (hook)
â, ê and ô have an accent called mũ (hat)

Yes, ^ is called dấu mũ – literally ‘the hat accent’!

Why do some Vietnamese words have two accent marks?

So many Vietnamese words have both a tone and an accent (linguists use the term diacritics). But how do they combine?

Here’s a video combining some different vowels (a, o, ô, ơ) with the various tones.

Let’s look at a word as a further example.

phở (Vietnam’s most famous noodle soup)

Smile a little when you say the ‘uh’ sound, ơ, and say the whole word like it’s a question “phở?”.

So as you can see some words have one mark on the vowel (or vowels) and some may have two, such as: Học tiếng Việt hay lắm. (=Studying Vietnamese is very interesting.)

Regional variations

The tones and accent marks used in Vietnamese are the same but pronunciation can vary depending on the region and dialect spoken.

The main difference you may notice is that southern Vietnamese only has 5 spoken tones. Ngã is pronounced the same as hỏi. If you visit central Vietnam, you may notice some vowel differences like ê, but that’s getting well beyond beginner level.

In summary

Vietnamese has a unique writing system that can look a little confusing for beginners. However, with a little practice, you will be able to read, write and pronounce Vietnamese with ease.

If you want to pronounce Vietnamese well, you should practice repeating the sounds and use lots of audio material like Pimsleur* or VPod101*.

Over to you: How did you feel the first time you saw written Vietnamese? Was it reassuring to see a romanised alphabet or confusing to see two accent marks? Are you impressed by how phonetic Vietnamese is?

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?

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