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Pronunciation errors made by Vietnamese learners of English

Introduction by Aaron Skudder

I am currently learning to speak the Vietnamese language.  My wife is from Hanoi, Vietnam.  Vietnamese is not a natural language to learn.  Vietnamese is a tonal language; there are six tonal variations, all changing the meaning of a word.  Mandarin, by comparison, has four tonal variations. Vietnamese words are short, containing mostly one or two syllables.  Many Vietnamese words end in consonants.  It is, for this reason, that a native speaker of Vietnamese with sound choppy with English pronunciation.  They would have difficulty with words or tone that end in vowel sounds.  There are fewer diphthongs in Vietnamese, which can make English difficult to learn for Vietnamese people.

In the following sections, we are looking into the different types of mistakes Vietnamese learners often make in producing word stress in English.

Wrong pronunciation of English sounds

I learn that Vietnamese words with the spelling of th are pronounced /t/ as in tuck, not as /ð/ as in the. The spelling ‘tr’ is not pronounced like track; it is pronounced /tʃ/ as in the teacher.  This pronunciation is confusing but also tricky for a Vietnamese person trying to pronounce the or street.

Wrong production of word stress

Vietnamese people often have wrong way of pronouncing word stress in English. They tend to pronounce the stress in a too loud voice or too long sound. It is pointed out by Nguyen (2000a: 79) that in case of bi-syllabic words, the stressed syllable (if known to the speakers) is produced with a greater loudness. It is natural that the vowel is over-lengthened as in:

import /,Im’pɔ::t/);       morpheme  /‘mɔ::fi:m/.

(:: means over-lengthened)

It is proved by Nguyen (2000a) that stress production by Vietnamese learners is a combination of duration and loudness of utterances. From that definition, we can see that the production of English word stress by Vietnamese speakers also lacks pitch height and vowel quality. This point of view is partly shared by Nguyen (2005), who, through her research, finds out that Vietnamese beginners of English fail to produce stressed syllables long enough. The case does not really apply to Vietnamese advanced learners, which may be an indication that Vietnamese students can be trained to produce correct stress in English words. This coincides with the researcher’s experience in teaching English pronunciation: when asked to produce word stress, her students (at elementary level) tend to exaggerate it by making it longer and louder (and certainly lacking pitch height and vowel quality), whereas students of upper-intermediate or advanced levels usually get it correct right from the first time practice.

Stress to all or none of the syllables in English words

Vietnamese learners are inclined to give full stress to all syllables of polysyllabic English words or no stress at all to those. (Nguyen, 1991). In other words, if the word is unfamiliar to the speakers, they tend to place the stress on both syllables with an equal degree. Some of the writer’s students have a tendency of producing stress in all syllables. Let us have a look at the following examples for illustration:

  • in two-syllable words: produce /’prɒ’dju:s/; record /’re’kəd/, money /’mΛ’ni:/
  • in three-syllable words: understand /’Λn’də’stænd/; contradict /’kɒn’trə’dIkt/. encounter /‘In’kaʊn’tə/
  • in compound words: armchair /‘a:m’t∫eə/, rainfall /’reIn’fɔ:l/, rear-end /’rIə(r) ‘end/, foot ball /’fʊt’bɔ:l/, warm-hearted /’wɔ:m’ha:təd/

Yet the other extreme often found in the students’ pronunciation of English words is that they do not give stress to any of the syllables. They just use their flat tone to pronounce all the words the way they speak their Vietnamese words.

It is also observed by many Vietnamese teachers that the older the learners are, the more difficult it is for them to recognize their mistakes and correct them.

Wrong placement of word stress

It is realized by the researcher and many other Vietnamese teachers of English that some Vietnamese people give wrong stress placement. According to Nguyen (2000b), a Vietnamese puts a stress on the vowel he considers to be long. For example: Vietnamese speakers’ pronunciation of “elite” /I’li:t/ is shown in the following table:

VS %
elite /’i:laIt/ 60%
/’i:lIt/ 20%
/’i: ‘laIt/ 20%

(Nguyen, 2000b, p. 78)

It is also noticed by the researcher that students very often make mistakes in producing stress of those words which look the same but are of different parts of speech.  For example, those nouns as produce /’prɒdju:s/, record /’rekəd/, research /’ri:sз:t∫ have the first syllable stressed;  compared with those verbs as produce /prə’dju:s/, record /rə’kɔ:d/, research /rə:’sз:t∫/ with stress falls on the second syllable. They tend to pronounce both the verbs and nouns with the same stress pattern, usually with stress falling on the second syllable, i.e. produce /prə’dju:s/, record /rə’kɔ:d/, research /rə:’sз:t∫/ because this way sounds more familiar to them.

Conclusion

In this article, we have looked into some common problems Vietnamese learners often have in producing English sounds and word stress. There must be shortcomings, but it is hoped that the article, to some extent, will help teachers and learners in their teaching and learning of English phonetics in general, and of English word stress in particular. In other articles on this site, we will look at other aspects of word stress problems for Vietnamese learners of English.

My belief is that there is much more room for further research in this field. Comments and suggestions are therefore welcome for further improvement of the work.

REFERENCES

Nguyen Q.H. (2000a). A Model to Teach English Pronunciation to Vietnamese Learners. Ho Chi Minh Publishing House.

Nguyen, A.Q. (2000b). Tieng Viet cho Nguoi Nuoc Ngoai (Vietnamese for Foreigners). Culture & Information Publisher.

Nguyen, T. & Ingram, J. (2005). Vietnamese Acquisition of English Word Stress. TESOL Quarterly, 39 (2), 309–319.

Roach, P. (1989). English Phonetics and Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Internet links / websites:

Aaron Skudder

10 Comments

  1. Wow! This is a serious paper. You really put a lot into this. It is very good. I liked the part where you explained what words could be mistaken for what other words. It worked well even without audio because I could sound it out in my mind, the way you wrote it. I think this paper would help Vietnamese people who were trying to learn English. Or people trying to understand/communicate better. This is a serious scientific looking paper. Very well done. 

    • My wife Lan wrote most of the content for this article as part of her Ph.D. in Linguistics.  Lan is the co-author of this website.

  2. This is a great article! I’m originally from Kenya where I always spoke english, but I always have to repeat myself as most of my listeners hear something totally different. I love the way you have detailed the Consequences of mistakes in word stress pronunciation and I can fully relate to this. 

    This is helpful to anyone trying to learn a new language. With the world being so interconnected, we all want or forced to pick a new language and with this kind of explanation, it will make it easier to learn. How are you doing with your Vietnamese language, does this help?

    • Hi Zikora.  My wife Lan is Vietnamese.  It really helps to speak like a local when you live with a native speaker of the language.

  3. The Article on the Pronunciation Errors Made by Vietnamese Learners of English in my own opinion are phonetics and their native language influenced the tone, diphthongs and most of all the stresses of the syllables of each English Word. The greatest remedy is exposure to International English pronunciation where there is no regional accent like from the UK or some parts of America or wherever but rather the clear and right stresses and tone, no twangs or other additional regional uniqueness of pronunciation but rather the so-called international pronunciation of English Language. As an English teacher, we could not avoid the regional flavor from the Learner of English as a Second Language including the heavy accented of TH of Egyptians and the habitual habit of Omani of pronouncing all G as in go. For Vietnamese and Chinese I agree with the following remedies through pronunciation techniques, through reading stresses, through games which engender more interest, through follow up by giving homework and additional material such as Audio or books. It is in multiple practices through varied class activities with the guidance of a professional Language Teacher that the pronunciation errors can be at least mitigated. And it would boost the learning process in correcting the pronunciation errors. I am impressed by the deeper understanding of the author on the problems of the Vietnamese pronunciations. It is truly important to be fundamentally good in pronunciation as it may till sounds a foreign language if the spoken word sounds more Vietnamese than English.

    • Thank you for your feedback gr8megawinner.  Stress and pronunciation can be mastered by anyone, however, it can take years of practice.

  4. Good read and interesting definitions for word stress. Vietnamese would be a hard language as the stress you would want to learn it perfectly. However good websites like these as well as apps and books to help you learn and fast! If you’re a fast learner like my wife (she learned piano in a day and was almost a pro at it)then you’re in luck! My opinion is that so much goes into learning a language and your website will help.

    • Thank you Trevor.  You are right, some people have a gift for learning languages.  People should not be discouraged if languages are difficult to learn.  Anyone can learn a foreign language given enough time and practice.

  5. I think it will he a great help for English teachers to teach grammar and pronunciation by motivating the students to unlearn what has been learned. It should be reiterated that two languages are different, and that what may be applied to their language cannot be the same for the other. The problem is that it’s really hard especially for those who have only used one language for a long period of time. That’s why it’s advisable to have their kids learn a different language as early as possible because little ones are more flexible in adapting a different language. It’s also a great help if ESL teachers are native tongue speakers, if not, someone who is really good in speaking the language or else students will just pick mistakes taught by a non english speaker teacher. Here in our county, we have 4 kinds of stress that is identified not by loudness but by either a slow or quick utterance and it could be at the beginning, middle or at the end. It may also have a glottal stop, if the word ends with a vowel and pronounced fast.  All in all, your suggested techniques and activities to identify english stress is really helpfu. Even other languages such as Bahasa, Japanese, Korean, etc. can use these technique to properly learn correct english pronunciation. Thumbs up for a very thorough and detailed explanation on word stress between two languages. Teachers and even parents can learn so much from this article and would be able to prepare themselves on how to teach English better.

    • Thank you for your detailed comments.  May I ask what is your first language?

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