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Vietnamese: tonal structure

Discussion in 'Other Languages' started by palomnik, Jun 29, 2013.

  1. palomnik Senior Member

    I have been working on Vietnamese for several months now, and my pronunciation is at a brick wall. It has to do with the tonal structure.

    Before you assume the obvious, let me say that I am no stranger to tonal languages. I speak Chinese quite well, and Thai passably.

    But Vietnamese is different, somehow. Internalizing the tones seems to be a great deal more difficult. I've come up with a several possible reasons, none of which seem totally satisfactory:

    1. Just as some languages are stress-timed while others are syllable timed, so some tonal languages are "stress-toned", i.e., like Chinese, where some syllables modify or lose their tone depending on the environment, while Vietnamese is "syllable-toned" - each syllable must have its tone clearly articulated;

    2. Vietnamese tones contrast with each other more than in Chinese or Thai;

    3. maybe Vietnamese speakers are simply less able or willing to tolerate tonal mistakes by foreigners than Chinese or Thai are;

    4. maybe I'm just getting too old to learn another language well.

    The fact that the number of tones used in Vietnamese varies depending on the dialect (five in HCMC, six in Hanoi, and a confusing mishmash in between - I'm in Nha Trang, and my teacher insists that there are six tones, although the only difference between two of them is vowel length - I can't hear the difference!) doesn't help matters. In fact, the idea that there is a standard "Vietnamese" is debatable; even TV programs vary considerably, with the news usually in Hanoi dialect and the entertainment in HCMC dialect.

    Does anybody know of any research on this topic? I can't find anything.
  2. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    I am also struggling to learn Vietnamese. The frustrating thing is that every grammar or textbook describes the tones differently. The problem, I think, is that they do not focus on the distinctive (phonological) features of the tones, but give only list of in part random phonetic features. I assume you know Thompson’s “Vietnamese reference grammar”, which has a very detailed description on the tones both in Hanoi and Saigon dialects.
  3. my_serect Junior Member

    Hi guys,I'm so glad that you are putting effort into learning my language, in terms of pronunciation,I think Vietnamese pronunciation is pretty hard for Westerners or even for Chinese to speak properly but please don't get frustrated, if you keep listening to Vietnamese (news,songs,...) an hour a day ,after a certain period of time,you will overcome it or at least,get used to it :) On the other hand,the grammar is quite easy. It's true that the tones used in Vietnamese varies depending on the dialect. Even though Vietnam is a small country, it has many dialects, but we can divide into 3 main dialects : the North,the central,the South and in every region the tones vary a little bit from province to province. I live in HCMC so I speak the south dialect.The central is the most difficult among the 3 dialects,and in this region the tones vary a lot,even to me,when I talk to people coming from the central Vietnam I can barely understand them,especially in the provinces like Nghệ An,Quảng Nam,Hà Tĩnh,it takes me a while to figure out what they are saying. So if you are learning Vietnamese I suggest you should focus on only one dialect first (HCMC or Hanoi), don't get distracted by the others. It'd be much better if you can practice speaking with a native speaker regularly through skype ,... if you have any questions,just post it on this forum, many Vietnamese here will be willing to help you out :) and don't worry, you don't have to pronounce correctly every single word to get a Vietnamese person to understand you, it depends on person,if I talk to a foreigner trying to speak Vietnamese I think I will still be able to understand easily if they make some minor pronunciation mistakes.
  4. palomnik Senior Member

    My_secret: Thanks for the suggestion, but I'm living in Vietnam now! My problem is instant communicating.

    fdb: I've met other people here in SE Asia that say that Vietnamese is unusually difficult to pronounce correctly. And yes, a significant part of the problem is the dialects. I've heard Vietnamese say that when they move to a different area of the country it can take them a week or two to understand the local dialect, and sometimes the dialect varies depending on which side of town you are in!
  5. nwon Senior Member

    Northwestern Ontario
    Inglés canadiense
    Coming from North America, where most people don't even know what a dialect is, this is totally incredible. Very interesting topic.
  6. paul_d New Member

    As a former PhD student in Linguistics and someone who has spoken Vietnamese on a daily basis since the mid 1990s, I'd like to offer a couple of observations :

    1. The difference between the tones hỏi and ngã is more a question of laryngealization than length. The formants also tend to be lower in frequency. Even if you pronounce the ngã with a shorter length than hỏi most native speakers will hear it the other way around as long as laryngealization is present.

    2. While some native speakers (claim they) don't pronounce these differently, almost all can distinguish between them. That said, hỏi vs. ngã is problematic for many native speakers. A woman I know said she made up her own symbol halfway between them and used it on her school papers hoping her teacher would give her the benefit of the doubt. Some Vietnamese IMEs even have a hỏi/ngã lookup function.

    3. With regards to difficulty in pronunciation : yes, Vietnamese is much harder than Mandarin or Thai. However, usually the issue is that Vietnamese has a much smaller phonetic space: the differences between vowels, for example, is VERY small for an English speaker. For example, the words "thay", "thây", "tay" and "tây" are problematic for many non-native speakers. Incorrect tones are a fairly serious problem, but coupled with imprecise pronunciation it becomes much more likely you won't be understood.

    4. Although the Vietnamese love making distinctions between regions (bắc kỳ vs. nam kỳ vs. trung kỳ), educated speakers have no trouble understanding different regions (I hesitate to call them dialects), with the possible exception of trung kỳ. Even if you mix elements from north and south, an educated speaker will understand you if your pronunciation is good ... just try to be consistent.

    Hope that helps
  7. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    Thank you for your contribution and welcome to the forum. My impression is that, at least in Hanoi, the distinctive phonological feature of the second register tones (huyền, nặng, ngã) is constriction/ croakiness/ breathiness (whatever you want to call it), which sets them apart from the first register tones (ngang, sắc, hỏi). Do you agree?
  8. my_serect Junior Member

    In daily conversations, I pronounce these couple words "thay" and "thây", "tay" and "tây" the same, barely have any pronunciation differences. Like paul_d said, the difference is tiny so you can just ignore it, everything's gonna be much easier, apply this pronunciation rule (a and â) to the other words (may,mây; bay,bây;...),they are pronounced the same. Note: However,when it comes to the other vowels (e,ê ; o,ô) ,they have totally different pronunciations.

    Differences of the language between regions are mostly about the pronunciation, so technically, we can't call them dialects, I think they are much like different accents :) (I was reluctant to call them dialects at first ).

    Finally,regarding "hỏi" and "ngã", there's real difference just like paul_d said, but as I see, in a normal conversation, "ngã" is not necessary to be clearly articulated.
  9. paul_d New Member

    Yes. "croakiness" is a good description of laryngealization, which is a characteristic of both nặng and ngã, whereas the "breathiness" is more a chararacteristic of

    You can actually feel if you're laryngealizing by putting your fingertips lightly about where your Adam's apple is. Try pronouncing the same syllable with both hỏi and ngã -- you should feel much more movement when pronouncing ngã.

    Vietnamese has lots of other interesting phonological features (like an implosive/reverse-plosive 'b'), but these wouldn't affect understanding. Also be careful to differentiate between "ta" and "tha" (i.e. don't aspirate the first one) -- this also is somewhat difficult for native english speakers, although if you know Mandarin you probably won't have a problem with this.
  10. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    This is, I trust, a feature of the Southern dialects. In Hanoi the four words are quite distinct, are they not?
  11. my_serect Junior Member

    Yes,I think this is a feature of the southern accent :) Speaking of differences, the south people, especially in the Mekong-delta provinces tend to say the words that start with letter "v" like the ones starting with letter "d". I mean such as : "vui quá", "đi về",... they would say like "dui quá", "đi dề" :)
  12. palomnik Senior Member

    My thanks to everybody for their observations. paul_d, I find your observations very much to the point. Since I've been learning my teacher's south central dialect (and beginning to regret that I started with it), laryngealization and "breathiness" are generally not an issue, although in the local dialect it frequently appears that nặng has two possible variants, depending on whether there is a final stop or not. There also appears to be an additional set of vowels, as locally the distinction between bin and binh, man and manh is expressed more by a vowel variation than a change in the final consonant. The phonetic space is indeed astoundingly small, smaller than any other language I've ever studied - which surprises me, given the dialectical variation; you would think that people would be flexible to considerable variation. for example, in the local (Nha Trang) dialect, the word cá is pronounced /kɛ/.

    Regarding implosive /b/, an amazing number of people here tell me there is no such thing! But it's obvious from their pronunciation.

    I'm still intrigued about the difference in the nature of the tonal structure between Vietnamese and other tonal languages. Any comments?

    I'm also intrigued about how educated speakers tend to pronounce more "literary" words with something approaching the Hanoi dialect.
  13. newname Senior Member

    Tôi tin là bạn bị nói ngọng. Tôi đã từng gặp những người như vậy. Nhưng đó là trường hợp cá biệt.

    Các bạn học tiếng Việt xin chú ý là ở tất cả các miền của Việt Nam âm th và t được phân biệt rõ ràng. Tôi là người nói giọng Bắc nhưng sống ở trong Nam từ nhỏ nên biết rất rõ điều này.

    Tái bút. Tôi không có ý xúc phạm mà chỉ muốn chỉ rõ cho những người không phải là người Việt bản xứ biết để không bị nhầm lẫn mà thôi.
  14. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    In standard (Hanoi) Vietnamese too final palatals (-nh and -ch) affect the quality of the preceding vowel.
    /a/ is a front, or front to central, vowel in Hanoi as well, according to my perception.
  15. newname Senior Member

    A small correction: -ch in Hanoi Vietnamese as in trách, kệch is not a palatal. It is actually pronounced like the unaspirated /k/ in English with the only difference being the final -ch sound is made without breathing out any air whatsoever.

    /a/ from Bình Định to Bình Thuận is pronounced /kɛ/. Hanoi's /a/ is different from Saigon's. To make the Hanoi's /a/ you have to open your mouth. When you pronounce the Saigon's /a/, you just slightly raise your upper teeth, so you can hear a mix of /ɛ/ and /a/ in the Saigon's /a/. That's why we, Northerners, make jokes about the Saigon people being too lazy to even open their mouths to say /a/.
  16. my_serect Junior Member

    Chào bạn,có thể bạn hiểu nhầm ý mình rồi. Ý mình muốn nói là chữ "tay" và chữ "tây" phát âm như nhau ở nơi mình sống nhé (Sài Gòn), tương tự đối với trường hợp chữ "thay" và "thây" hay "may" và "mây". Mình không hề nói chữ "thay" đọc giống chữ "tay". Rất vui khi được làm quen với bạn.
  17. worercy Junior Member

    Many of my vietnamese friends said that, "tay, tây", "thay, thây" etc. are not the same pronunciation for the official Vietnamese. Well, so harder if mixing with "hỏi", "ngã", "sắc", "huyền": "tay, tày, tây, tấy, tẩy", "thay, thảy, thây, thầy, thấy" :eek:
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2013
  18. newname Senior Member

    I assure you that 't' and 'th' are as different as chalk and cheese all over Vietnam. Even the ethnic minorities speakers can make the distinction. And as you are English it's easy for you. Vietnamese 't' is the same as English /t/ after /s/, as 't' is never aspirated in Vietnamese. You just need to practise inunciating 'stop' without 's' and you have the perfect Vietnamese 'tóp'.
    As to the sound 'th', it's almost the same as the English 't' as in 'tick'. The only difference is in Vietnamese you put the tip of your tongue on the back of you upper teeth and do not try to make 'th' as explosive as your English 't' as in 'tick'.

    In short, Vietnamese 't' is the same as English /t/ as in 'stop'. Vietnamese 'th' is the same as English /t/ as in 'tick' but the position of the tip of the tongue is different.

    Hope this helps.
  19. newname Senior Member

    Không biết bạn ở quận mấy. Mình ở Sài Gòn bắt đầu từ năm 1996 tới 2011 mà chưa từng thấy người Sài Gòn nói chữ 'tay và 'tây' giống nhau. Chắc bạn lầm giữa cặp từ 'tai' và 'tay' chăng? Và mình cũng không để í lắm cái vụ 'thay' và 'thây' nhưng rõ ràng là họ nói câu như này ' mấy bửa rài (rầy, này) mưa woài!'

    Ừm. Hình như có một thằng bạn ở quận 1 khúc gần đại sứ quán Mỹ nói như bạn kể thì phải. Để bữa nào gọi lại nói chuyện xem nói có thích mấy thằng 'tay' đen không.

    Rất vui được làm quen.
  20. long619

    long619 Senior Member

    Aven - Diamond - Eden Eternal
    Vietnamese (North)
    Only the speakers in the north of Vietnam (especially Hanoi) (and I'm among them) can speak Vietnamese properly. I have never seen any foreign-Vietnamese learner who is able to speak this SUPER ULTRA HARD language properly, if there are anyone like that, they must be born to learn language.
  21. palomnik Senior Member

    I appreciate everybody's comments on this. Personally, I don't find that many foreigners have trouble distinguishing "t" and "th"; rather they have a hard time telling apart "t" and "đ".

    I've since moved on to a new teacher, and I'm consciously adopting the Hanoi dialect, mainly because most learning aids are in that dialect. The results have been surprising...people seem to understand me better now, even though I live in south-central (Nha Trang) Vietnam. I even get answered in Hanoi dialect.
  22. paul_d New Member

    I'm not sure about being "born to learn language" but I'm a native speaker of American English and most Vietnamese people who talk to me on the phone can't tell I'm not Vietnamese (obviously this doesn't work in person, but it is fun to see their reaction to a blue-eyed person who speaks fluent Vietnamese). :)
  23. long619

    long619 Senior Member

    Aven - Diamond - Eden Eternal
    Vietnamese (North)
    I meant that the people who can speak Vietnamese like Hanoi-speakers are language of geniuses. I didnt talk about how fluent foreign-speakers's speaking are, whatI tried to talk about is "Vietnam Diacritic Marks", if you dont have any trouble in pronouncing them then you really ARE a Genius

    Last edited: Aug 19, 2013
  24. palomnik Senior Member

    Long, if I understand you correctly, you're referring to the pronunciation, as Vietnamese grammar is no more difficult than Chinese or Thai - perhaps even simpler for English speakers, since Vietnamese word order is generally closer to English than Chinese word order is, especially with subordinate clauses.

    But as was commented earlier, Vietnamese pronunciation is quite difficult, mainly because Vietnamese has less phonetic "space": the differences in particular between the vowel sounds in Vietnamese are indeed very slight in compared with English, or in fact any other language I've studied. Mandarin, for example, allows considerable variation in vowel sounds, e.g. Mandarin "dou" can sound like /tow/ or /təw/ without becoming unintelligible; this is inconceivable in Vietnamese, and the foreign learner will inevitably confuse "a" and "ă", "ơ" and "â" and even "ă" and "â". To boot, it's probably not an exaggeration to say that there are no vowel sounds that English and Vietnamese share, although I've never heard anything to support that.
  25. long619

    long619 Senior Member

    Aven - Diamond - Eden Eternal
    Vietnamese (North)
    Yes, I DID refer to the pronunciation from the very beginning :) and I DO agree with you that Vietnamese's grammar IS really simpler than english, however, because of that, Vietnamese is really complicated (You would not understand that unless you were a Vietnamese student). I think at least you have heard this idiom: "Phong ba bão tát không bằng ngữ pháp Việt Nam"

    Nah, Nevertheless, I think you really are an special person since you have learnt that many languages. I hope someday I can speak English fluently like a native speaker. And to do that, I need to solve my biggest problems now, they're Listening and Vocabulary
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2013
  26. newname Senior Member

    Vietnamese grammar to good Vietnamese students is like water to fish. It's piece of cake. That's why a poor student like you cannot tell bão táp from bão tát. You really deserve a bão tát to your brazen face.
    I really hate those who take biased pride in their mother tongue. Just because some a** holes say Vietnamese grammar is difficult doesn't make it what it's cracked up to be.

    Respect learners of Vietnamese and tone down or hoof off!

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