by John Baratki,
School of Humanities & Languages
Today, Vietnam is entering the world stage as a united and independent country, eager to learn English, but unable to meet its own standards for English as a foreign language (EFL) education. Vietnamese students are victims to a number of unfortunate coincidences in pronunciation, and often complain that reading and writing are easy to learn, but speaking and listening are simply impossible. Two huge differences in the way these languages differentiate words have made English communication into a “black box” for the Vietnamese, more difficult for them to penetrate than for other Asian peoples. Among these differences are the very small number of shared sounds, as well as tonogenesis, a pitch-based method of differentiating Vietnamese syllables that is not present in English. This essay explains the phonetic problem, and focuses on ten commonly-taught English vowel sounds.
It is worth noting that Latin lettering offers a deceptive shortcut to both teachers and students of the English language. Students in Vietnam frequently mispronounce English words to match similarly-spelled words in their own language. Our similar Latin alphabets conceal a huge number of phonetic differences. In fact, the majority of sounds represented by English letters are not present in Vietnamese, and vice versa. EFL teachers can make great leaps forward by sympathizing with the fact that Vietnamese learners are trained to pronounce Latin characters in a certain way, very different from the correct method of pronouncing English words. Young students must be re-trained, more than students from other countries, to read out loud the English way. Older students must distance themselves from the Latin alphabet and learn IPA, if they wish to avoid misunderstandings in the pronunciation of new vocabulary.
As mentioned above, the phonemes represented by each Latin character in Vietnamese are vastly different from English sound palette. For example, the following is a list of commonly taught American English vowels, and their IPA counterparts:
Monophthong vowels, usually taught as “short vowels:”
|“Short A”||“Short E”||“Short I”||“Short O”||“Short U”|
Diphthong vowels, usually taught as “long:”
|“Long A”||“Long E”||“Long I”||“Long O”||“Long U”|
The five bolded and italicized sounds above are not present or rarely used in the most popular spoken dialect of Vietnamese, the southern dialect. The three underlined and italicized sounds have common analogues in Vietnamese, but those analogues are spoken in a manner that linguists refer to as “long,” while their American English versions are shortened. Out of all the ten “classic vowel sounds” taught by an American EFL teacher, only “Long I” and “Long U” are common in Vietnamese speech: written ài and ừu in Vietnamese.
From a Vietnamese student’s perspective, English sounds like a mist of nearly familiar, but ultimately unrecognizable nonsense. Trying to replicate the EFL teacher’s speech as one reads from the book must be incredibly frustrating. In Vietnamese, there is only one way to pronounce each letter, with each sound differentiated by clearly-marked diacritics. In English, on the contrary, just five vowel letters represent a whole nebula of sounds, out of which less than half are presented in the tables above! Add to this problem the fact that most study time is spent with Vietnamese teachers, subject to the same misunderstandings as their students, and one can begin to imagine the “black box” of English to the Vietnamese ear.
Young children, who cannot conceptualize the idea of a vowel, or that vowels can differ between languages, must be taught to pronounce these sounds through imitation. Exaggerated facial expressions and hand motions are a must. Songs must be carefully considered for the emphasis that each chanted word places on its vowels. The desired result is for students to internalize the fact that English is a whole new world of sounds, and break the Vietnamese habits that they associate with each letter. Realizing the vast differences between English vowel sounds and their own is the first step toward understanding the rest of the English pronunciation scheme, and being able to “pick up English” from communication practice with the foreign teacher.