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Learning Vietnamese - differences between books and reality

3 years ago
In this post, I compared some Vietnamese basic phrases with English, Spanish and Chinese equivalent phrases (the languages I know to speak) to see the differences in Vietnamese ways of speaking and thinking. After 5-year teaching Vietnamese for foreigners, I find it so interesting. Hope you enjoy learning Vietnamese!

1. First, let´s say Hello in Vietnamese:
Book teaches us: Xin chào!
All foreigners who come to Vietnam are usually being taught:
Xin chào = Hello = Hola = Ciao = Ni Hao 你好

The truth is: The Vietnamese people don't usually say “Xin chào” (actually I never say it to anybody), especially with old people. Vietnamese people use the following structures:
First person (tôi, em, anh, chị…) – this part sometimes can be ignored + chào + second person (anh, em, chị, bác, chú, cô...): Em chào anh, cháu chào cô, con chào bác…
This makes foreigners confused to use the correct personal pronoun to say Hello. I see that greetings in Vietnamese even more difficult than Chinese or Russian, some of the most difficult languages in the world.
I have one video to explain this point> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xKhLLbHV1U

2. Question about nationality:
Book teaches us: Bạn đến từ đâu? = Where are you from? or Where do you come from? to ask foreigners about nationality. However, it is not “really Vietnamese” and it also makes people confused with coming from work, school…

The truth is: Vietnamese people usually ask “Bạn là người nước nào?”
It is similar to Chinese (Ni shi nar guo ren? 你是哪国人) which you can translate Word by Word into English as: You are the person of which country?
This is a real Vietnamese phrase. Additionally, saying “I am Vietnamese” can show your national pride more than “I come from Vietnam”.
I have one video to help you memorize the country names in Vietnamese https://youtu.be/OP7zlS4sY_g

3. Question: How are you?
Book teaches us: Bạn có khoẻ không? = How are you?

The truth is: In English or Spanish, How are you or Qué tal? Como estás? are used to greet more than to ask the actual heath situation.
For example, in Spain, if I go to the market, I ask the vender : Hola, qué tal? I don’t expect her to tell me about her health, just want to stay Hello (and hope she will give me some discounts:).
In contrary, in Vietnamese, if you go to the market and ask the vender “có khoẻ không?” when you have never talked with her, she would be so surprised.
Moreover, these phrases are used to greet people, even you just met a few days or just a few hours ago. For example, in Vietnam, if I’ve just met my neighbor in the morning, now I meet her again in the afternoon and ask “có khoẻ không?” She would see me with bullet-shaped eyes and say “Do you mean I am sick?”
On the other hand, Vietnamese people have many interesting ways to ask How are you?
- Dạo này vợ con thế nào? (How is your family?)
- Dạo này làm ăn được không? (How is your business?)
- Ông bà ở nhà khoẻ không? (How are your parents?)
- Nhà xây xong chưa? (Did you build your house?)
- Ăn cơm chưa? (Did you have lunch/dinner?)
- Mua xe chưa? (Did you buy the car?)
- Dạo này béo thế? (Why are you gaining weight?)
- Dạo này có gì mới không?.... (Any news?)
Vietnamese people can ask these questions even without saying Hello. This is totally opposite with Western culture where you respect more privacy. In Western countries, you should not say: Do you gain weight or lose weight instead of saying Hello right?:)

4. Open question/Yes-No question
Book teaches us: Câu hỏi mở “Bạn muốn uống gì”? = What would you like to drink

The truth is: Vietnamese people really prefer Yes-No question to Open question. Instead of asking “What would you like to drink” and give the guest choices to drink, they prefer asking:
- Có uống rượu không? (Would you like to drink wine?)
- Uống trà xanh không ? Bắt đầu giới thiệu về công dụng và xuất xứ của trà. (Do you drink green tea?)
- Làm ít bia nhé? (Try some beer?)
- Pha ấm trà uống cái đã nhỉ (tự hỏi và trả lời) (Let´s make some tea?) (ask and answer by himself)
There was one student asking me Why ???My answer is that Vietnamese people don´t want to say NO so they prefer limiting the answer, this is very smart way. Instead of asking what you want to drink, and you may say Whisky and I don´t have it, then it does not sound good, better let you choose the ones I have only.

5. Always say Vâng/Ừ– YES/Sí
There is a typical example between Vietnamese and Western languages:
In English, when you ask “Don´t you like to drink coffee? ” – Bạn không thích uống cà phê phải không?
If you don´t like, It should be “Không, tôi không thích = No, I don´t like to drink coffee”
In contrary, in Vietnamese when someone asks you:
- Em không thích uống cà phê à? Don´t you like to drink coffee
- Answer will be :
VÂNG, em không thích uống cà phê.
YES, I don´t drink coffee.
One more time we need to explain for foreigners why the answer is NO but it starts with Yes. I can explain as follows: the word (Vâng/Ừ) in Vietnamese does not always means YES, but it also means I understand the question, I am processing the information, I got what you mean…and then the answer will be next part “I don´t like to drink coffee”.

6. Question: Đây là ai ? Who is this? ¿Quién es?
Book teaches us:When you see the third person, you ask: Đây là ai? = Who is this (guy)?
The truth is: Vietnamese people prefer asking Yes-No question, instead of Who is this:
- Đây có phải là con mẹ A, bố B không? (Is this the child of Mum A, Dad B?)
- Cháu là chị của C phải không? (Are you sister of C?)
- Kia có phải là anh của D không? (Is that older brother of D?)
So question is how you translate “có phải là” into English? = YES YES IS/ARE? Có (yes) + Phải (yes) = YES. And “Không phải” means No + Yes = No, negative + positive = negative, so why just say “Không” instead of “Không phải”?
I tell my students to ask the Yes-No question with …phải không then it will be faster
- Em là My phải không? Thay vì/Instead of Em có phải là My không?
- Em là người Việt Nam phải không? Thay vì/Instead of Em có phải là người Việt Nam không?
This is the way of reducing the complexity of Vietnamese and one more time it is like Chinese
Ni hao ma你好吗 = bạn khoẻ phải không?
Ni jiao My ma你叫 My 吗? = bạn tên My phải không?
If you like this post, I will write more when I have time! Thanks for reading!