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Vietnamese Variety Of English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2503 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Vietnam is moving quickly to make itself one of the strong members of ASEAN; and since the lifting of the American’s embargo against Vietnam in the end of the 1980s, the relationship between the two countries has been better. These two factors, not to mention recent endeavour to join the WTO, are likely to have much influence on Vietnam’s economy, culture, and way of life. While the country of Vietnam has gone through “Ðổi má»›i” (renovation) (Denham, 1992: 62) to being a market economy and establishing diplomatic relations with many English-speaking nations as well as signing trade agreements with them, the people of Vietnam have experienced various stages, rushing their way through to learn an international language as a means of relating meaningfully to the wider world.  This has created what could be called “English fever”. 

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English classes have mushroomed.  It is hard to imagine how many public and private schools; and how many centres are running English training courses throughout Vietnam. People can see courses and examinations advertised everywhere. Students as well as public servants who have been approved for overseas training have to improve their English in order to get desirable scores in IELTS or TOEFL to reach admission levels allowing them to study at universities where English is used as the medium of instruction. Recently, more and more government as well as private companies have a tendency to recruit employees with satisfactory scores on TOEIC (Test of English as the International Communication). Judging from the importance of English in Vietnam, one could refer to it as the second language without this being considered an overstatement. However, strictly speaking, it should be referred to as the first foreign language, as would reasonably considered any other foreign languages.  Then, what are the chances for it to become “Vietlish” (Do, 1999), i.e. Vietnamese variety of English? With this in mind, I would like to present some comments on the Vietnamese variety of English, which is now an appealing phenomenon in this country.

Mental Vietnamese in Physical English

Before starting to discuss some misuses of English by Vietnamese, it is necessary to set up the standard for us to compare. The definition of Standard English is, therefore, included in this essay. Jenkins (2003: 30-31) and McArthur (1998: 105-109) introduces a list of possible definitions of Standard English, among which I would like to quote the one by Crystal (1995):

Since the 1980s, the notion of ‘standard’ has come to the force in public debate about the English language … We may define the Standard English of an English-speaking country as a minority variety identified chiefly by its vocabulary, grammar and orthography which carries most prestige and is most widely understood.

It can be argued that the Standard English is a dialect that differs from the other dialects of English in that “it has greater prestige, does not have an associated accent, and does not form part of geological continuum.” (Jenkins, 2003: 32). The list of definitions, although different in terms of geographic use, shares many similarities. Among them, grammar and vocabulary are significantly concerned while accent is not involved in Standard English.

English being used in Vietnam is considered one of the “New English” which, according to Jenkins (2003: 22), was, and still is, “for the most part, learnt as a foreign language or one language within a wider multilingual repertoire of acquisition”. Jenkins (2003) also states that English in Vietnam does not belong to any of the two “Diasporas”. Rather, as global English has been on the ascendancy. This ascendancy now includes Vietnam (Denham, 1992). The available Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training (MOET, 2003) statistics for the month of January 2003 show significant numbers of full-time and part-time tertiary level students taking English as their major or secondary study within their courses. With the population of over 80 million (in 2004), Vietnam has become part of the “Expanding Circle” or “non-institutionalised” variety, and so may be added to the third circle in Kachru’s diagram (1997: 339).

When commenting on English articles carried in various international journals by the European Economic Community (EEC) published in the 1970s, Duff (1981) referred to the type of language used as “the third language”.  He cited some examples as an illustration:

In English, people do not say *ace violinist [1] to describe a genius violinist.  They say top violinist. They do not write *indispensably necessary to describe something which is most necessary.  Necessary is enough, but if it needs emphasis then they write absolutely necessary. When referring to knowledge that is gained, they do not say *knowledge is received.  They say, knowledge is acquired.  When referring to a particular situation which has caused a division or split between some group and another, they do not say *opened a wedge but rather say, caused a rift.  Even if the translator or writer wished to use the word wedge, in English, wedge does not co-occur with open.  A wound can open but a wedge is driven or introduced. When talking about a wound which takes time to heal, people do not say *the wound healed poorly and late, but the wound healed badly.

The “mistakes” cited above were made by non-English-speaking background speakers; and many Vietnamese are among those users of English. Even though they might have a sound knowledge of English, when they write/speak, they think in their mother tongue, then “translated” it into English.  As a result, their writing/speaking does not sound natural nor idiomatic, and is not the type of English that Americans, Australians or for that matter English people would use in such a context. They are collocational mismatches (Smith, 1999).

The fact that English in Vietnam nowadays can be looked upon as Vietlish or “the third language”, as viewed by Duff (1981), is borne out by the many instances of such a phenomenon.  It is possible to express this phenomenon as mental Vietnamese in physical English. That is, Vietnamese people use the English language though the filter of their own language. As “mistakes” can be experienced everywhere in various situations, I would like to focus on the way of English being used in tourist places where there are usual interactions between Vietnamese and foreigners; and this phenomenon has become more and more popular.

Firstly, like many other non-native speakers of English, Vietnamese people have problems with pronunciation. We tend to carry the intonation, accent and pronunciation from our mother tongue into the English speech. Due to the syllabic nature of the Vietnamese language, Vietnamese tend to drop or amplify the ending sound of English words. As a result, “an”, “ant” and “and” usually sound the same. When raising the tone at the end of a question “You did what?” often the last syllable is “lengthened and sounds almost like it is sung” (Wikipedia: Web-based Encyclopedia). Notably, the Vietnamese often ignore the final sounds of words, which causes much confusion. This leads to the lack of plural marking and limited marking of the third person singular present tense form (Jenkins, 2003: 25), e.g.

*Hanoi Hilton Opera is one of the many wonderful hotel.

*He like breakfast here.

Besides, the following sounds: /5/, /8/ and /æ/ are considered difficult to the Vietnamese people. The first two fricative consonants are replaced by stops, i.e. dis (this) and tink (think). Sound /æ/ is also hard because there is no equivalent in Vietnamese. Many people tend to switch to /@/ or /e/.

Another reason that helps answer related questions about Vietnamese pronunciation of English is that Vietnamese contains a number of loan words from French (Riney, 1988: 65). Once these loan words enter the Vietnamese phonology system, people may not be recognized (out of context and sometimes in particular contexts) by the English ear. We speak English like we are speaking … French. That is Vietlish, with no stresses at all.

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The second and more interesting feature of Vietnamese English is the Vietnamese’s misuses of English. Here I would like to combine both grammatical features and word uses, as it is hard to separate these two aspects during the analysis. The examples below are mainly my observation and reflection during my time of working as a part-time tourist guide in Vietnam. It should also be noted that these so-called misuses of English are on users’ purposes for the ease of their business, not because of their English knowledge deficiency.

At the entrance to a seafood restaurant named Phố Biển (Ocean Street) in the heart of Hanoi – Vietnam’s capital city, there was a wooden board dangling in the air and held by metal chain. On this board was a group of words, artistically carved in both Vietnamese and English.  There was a Vietnamese line saying: “Cám Æ¡n sá»± chọn lá»±a cá»a quý khách”.  Below it was the English equivalent: “Thank you for your choosing”. Those who have some knowledge of English know what “choosing” – a transitive verb – means. However, they should automatically ask, “Choosing what in order to be thankful?” If someone wanted to be adamant about this, they could say it was readily understood in Vietnamese, but such a phrase is “abnormal” in comparison with Standard English: “Thank you for your choice”, but for the purpose of using it in a correct context in English, perhaps one should write: “Thank you for your patronage”.

At the base of the board in a famous resort in Danang City, the phrase: “Giờ phục vụ” was rendered into English as “Serving time”.  Grammatically speaking there is nothing wrong with this, and nothing to blame as far as word meaning goes.  “Giờ” means “time” and “phục vụ” means “serving”. In the Inner-circle English speaker’s mind, the term “serving time” suggests the time served in prison or time served in military service.  In this context, according the Standard English, it should be written: “Business hours/Hours of business”, “Trading hours”, “Opening hours”, “Operating hours”, or in the case of an office, “Office hours”.  In the case of “Serving time” at a doctor’s surgery, it would be “Surgery hours” or “Consulting hours”. So, “Serving time” is another example of Vietnamese style of English.

In addition, in a tourist resort in Central Vietnam one can see on the walls of the lift many colourful pictures advertising the hotel’s many facilities. Below these impressive pictures, there is a line saying: “So good to enjoy, so hard to forget”. A Vietnamese would be able to understand what message the hotel would like to convey is: “Guests will enjoy the facilities so much to the extent that they will forever remember and find them hard to forget”. Again, a native English speaker may say “So hard to forget”, but he would not say “So good to enjoy”.  It might be argued that something new can come from something old, and consequently a new catchphrase is created. An English-speaking Canadian tourist, Peter Grevstad, suggested that in order to avoid using such an unidiomatic English slogan, but to retain the words “enjoy” and “remember”, perhaps native speakers might suggest concise and compact phrases such as “Make your stay enjoyable and memorable” or “Have an enjoyable and memorable stay”, or “Helping to make your stay enjoyable and memorable”. Then I asked if he still understood that “so-called” Vietnamese style of English, and he gave no reply, meaning that the phrase can be understood to some extent.

Interestingly enough, the breakfast types in many big hotels are “Buffet”, “American”, “Continental”, and so on. Vietnamese translation of those breakfast types is “Tá»± chọn”, “Kiểu Mỹ”, “Kiểu Châu Á” respectively.  Traditionally, a “Continental breakfast” is a European-type light breakfast, consisting of croissants or toasted bread, served with butter and conserves, accompanied by tea or coffee. The term “Continental” here in Vietnam is referred to as “Kiểu Châu Á” (Asian type). This is a case of replacing the word “Oriental” with the word “Continental”. So European tourists should keep this in mind when they have a chance to visit Vietnam and stay in a hotel.

Finally, the greeting “Welcome to You” instead of “Welcome to Hoian” at the town entrance, and the label “Made in Hoian” attached to many souvenirs of headgear, footwear and the likes, manufactured in Hoian Ancient Town – a UNESCO Cultural Heritage can be regarded as other examples of “the third language” in action in Vietnam.

The Future of “Vietlish”

In conclusion, I have just discussed some features of the Vietnamese variety of English. There are, of course, many other examples that can be experienced by different individuals. The popularity of English in Vietnam cannot certainly be compared with English in Singapore (Khim, 2000), Hong Kong (Davis, 2005) and the Philippines (Lee, 2005) where it is used as the second language. Though it is too early to consider English has now been used as a second language in Vietnam, the tendency influenced by drastic socio-economic changes is proved positive. It is risky to predict the future development of something as personal and public as language, but it seems likely that this Vietnamese variety of English is a trend now in Vietnam. This phenomenon is supported by the recent study of a Vietnamese professor who concludes that 15.8% of Vietnamese people interviewed replied that they liked speaking Vietlish in their daily conversations (Do, 1999) as it is less demanding for them. The trend is also backed up by recent government’s directives about the language policy in educational, politic, economic and social development in Vietnam.


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