What if you speak Vietnamese with 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?

Language & Culture

Why choosing between Northern and Southern Vietnamese is important

While I’ve already put together a guide about whether you should choose to learn Northern or Southern Vietnamese, I didn’t explain why it’s important.

Firstly there are pronunciation differences. But as long as you have a fairly standard Southern or Northern accent, you can probably get by with speaking that in most places. Your ears will probably always prefer one accent over the other, but with a little effort you should be able to get used to listening to either standard accent.

However where huge problems can, and most often, arise are the different words used for a lot of practical or tangible items. From street (đường/phố) to bowl (tô/bát) to a thousand (ngàn/nghìn), use the wrong word in the wrong region and you might not be understood!

How you order this depends on where you are...
How you order this depends on where you are…

Food words are probably what differs most from region to region. If you want two pineapples in Saigon you’d ask for hai trái thơm but in Hanoi it’d be hai quả dứa. In Saigon chén is the small bowl you eat rice from, whereas in Hanoi chén is a small glass to drink rice wine!

If you’re going to be in Vietnam, you definitely need to know the right words for the region you’re in. One time I was with a native speaker who spent several minutes trying to order an extra portion of plain rice while in Huế. Because in Saigon we’d say cơm trắng (white rice) whereas in Huế they say cơm không. Interestingly that’s how you order a plain baguette (as opposed to a sandwich) in Saigon: bánh mì không.

If you want to dig deeper into these differences, there’s an Android app (or a reference list here).

Over to you: Which form of Vietnamese did you choose to learn? Have you found it makes a difference?

Photo credit: lioneltitu

Language & Culture

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.


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?