Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. The Vietnamese have adopted a Romanized script introduced by the French during the colonial period. English is increasingly accepted as a second language. Some French language influence persists. Other languages used are Chinese, Khmer, and mountain area dialects. Some people still speak Russian, and German, when Eastern Bloc influence was high.

Like Chinese and Thai, Vietnamese is a tonal language (meaning that syllables with similar sound have a different meaning depending on the high, low or up and down tone of the sound). Vietnamese has six different tones. Vietnamese also has 11 distinct vowel sounds, two or three of which are further modified by the six tones. To untrained ears the differences between tones and vowels is very hard to pick up. Students of Vietnamese, for example, often confuse “bô” ("friend") and “bó” ("cow").

To complicate matters further, the Vietnamese dialect spoken in the north is different from the ones spoken in the south and central parts of the country. Even important words are different. "Why" for example is “co sao” in the south, “ta sao” in the north, and “rang rua" in Hue. Few travelers make any effort to learn Vietnamese other than “cám on” (thank you). Speakers in south are considered lazy because they only differentiate between five tones rather than six. Southerners also pronounce “d” , “gi” , and “y” . In the north, “d” , “gi” , and “r” are all spoken as a hard “dz” . The differences have resulted from the influence of the Khmers in the south and Chams in central Vietnam.

Vietnam has one of the most complex ethnolinguistic patterns in Asia. Many of the country's 54 ethnic groups have their own distinct languages, though only a few of the ethnic minority languages have their own script. The Constitution guarantees the right of minorities to use these languages before the courts. The 54 different ethnic minorities make up more than 10 percent of the population, while approximately 87 percent of the population is ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh). The Vietnamese were significantly Sinicized during a millennium of Chinese rule. Vietnamese, one of the Mon-Khmer languages of the Austro-Asiatic language family, exhibits strong Chinese influence.

In the early seventeenth century, Catholic missionaries introduced chu quôc ngu ("national written language") using an adapted form of the Western alphabet. The four letters, f, j, w, and z, are omitted, and accents are added. The resultant chu quôc ngu was made popular by the French and has been used officially since 1918. In Vietnamese, quite a few words are spelled in the same way. Differences in meaning result through pronunciation: e.g., ca (to sing), cà (eggplant), and cá (fish).

Sedang, a language of central Vietnam, has the most vowel sounds in the world (55).

Vietnamese Language

Vietnamese is an Austroasiatic language spoken mainly in Vietnam. There are also Vietnamese speakers in the USA, China, Cambodia, France, Australia, Laos, Canada and a number of other countries. Vietnamese has been the official language of Vietnam since the country gained independence from France in 1954.

Vietnamese, the official language, is the mother tongue of the vast majority of the people and is understood by many national minority members. According to a widely accepted theory, Vietnamese is believed to be related to the Austroasiatic family of languages, which includes various languages, dialects, and subdialects spoken in mainland Southeast Asia from Burma to Vietnam. Scholarship nonetheless is tentative on whether Vietnamese, which was spoken in the Red River Delta long before the Christian era, was influenced by Mon-Khmer or Tai, both Austroasiatic subsets. [Source: Library of Congress]

Actually, the Vietnamese language was influenced more by classical Chinese than by any other language. During more than 1,000 years of Chinese rule and for centuries afterwards, Chinese was the language of officialdom, scholarship, and literature. The Chinese language had special status because of its identification with the ruling class of scholar-officials. Nevertheless, Vietnamese continued to be the popular language, even though knowledge of Chinese was a prerequisite to government employment and social advancement. *

There are about 90 million speakers of Austroasiatic languages in the world today. They are also called Munda or Mon-Khmer languages. Although the language may have originated in China, very few people in China speak it today (a small enclave near the Myanmar border). Vietnamese and Cambodian are Austroasiatic languages. Enclaves of people that speak Austroasiatic languages also found in Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and India.

Austroasiatic languages are characterized by an abundance of vowels. In contrast to English, which only has around a dozen vowel sounds, Austroasiatic languages have around 40 or so, including ones that are nasal, non-nasal, long, extra-short, creaky, breathy, normal, high-tongue, low-tongue, medium-high tongue, medium-low tongue, front tongue, back tongue, middle tongue and various combinations of these sounds.

Tones and Grammar of the Vietnamese Language

The Vietnamese language which is spoken by the majority Viet population has regional accents (Northern, Central, and Southern). All are generally understood by most Vietnamese speakers. Vietnamese is a tonal language with six basic vowel tones. It is very different from English; verbs do not change forms, articles are not used, nouns do not have plural endings, there are no prefixes, suffixes, or infinitives and no distinction among pronouns. Honorific pronouns are used to address people of different status or age. Classifiers and numerals precede noun heads; possessor noun phrases and adjectives follow noun heads. [Source: Ethnomed]

Vietnamese, like many languages in Southeast Asia, is an analytic (or isolating) language. Vietnamese does not use morphological marking of case, gender, number or tense (and, as a result, has no finite/nonfinite distinction). Also like other languages in the region, Vietnamese syntax conforms to subject–verb–object word order, is head-initial (displaying modified-modifier ordering), and has a noun classifier system. Additionally, it is pro-drop, wh-in-situ, and allows verb serialization. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Vietnamese vowels are all pronounced with an inherent tone. Tones differ in: 1) length (duration), 2) pitch contour (i.e. pitch melody), 3) pitch height and 4) phonation Tone is indicated by diacritics written above or below the vowel (most of the tone diacritics appear above the vowel. +

The six tones in the northern varieties (including Hanoi), with their self-referential Vietnamese names, are (name: description , diacritic , example , sample vowel): 1) ngang: 'level' , mid level , (no mark) , ma 'ghost'; 2) huyeun 'hanging' , low falling (often breathy) , ' (grave accent) , mà 'but'; 3) sac: 'sharp' , high rising , ́ (acute accent) , má 'cheek, mother (southern)' ; 4) hoi: 'asking' , mid dipping-rising , ? (hook) , ma? 'tomb, grave'; 5) ngã: 'tumbling' , high breaking-rising , ̃ (tilde) , mã 'horse (Sino-Vietnamese), code'; 6) nang: 'heavy' , low falling constricted (short length) , (dot below) , ma. 'rice seedling' . +

Austroasiatic Languages

Vietnamese and Cambodian are Mon-Khmer (Austroasiatic) languages. Vietnamese has elements derived from Tai and Sinitic languages. Enclaves of people that speak Austroasiatic languages are also found in Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and India. There are 60 million speakers of Austroasiatic languages. Although many of these languages have originated in China, very few people in China speak them today (a small enclave near the Myanmar border still does).

Austroasiatic languages are characterized by an abundance of vowels. In contrast to English, which only has around a dozen vowel sounds, Austroasiatic languages have around 40 or so, including one that are nasal, nonnasal, long, extra-short, creaky, breathy, normal, high-tongue, low-tongue, medium-high tongue, medium-low tongue, front tongue, back tongue, middle tongue and various combinations of these sounds.

See Asia, Austroasiatic Languages

Vietnamese Dialects

There are three major dialects spoken within Vietnam: Hanoi (Northern Vietnamese, Tonkinese) dialect, Hue (Central Vietnamese) dialect, and Saigon (Southern Vietnamese) dialect. The Northern dialect forms the basis of the standard language and is the prestige dialect. Numerous other dialects are spoken by smaller groups of people. Michel Fergus and Nguyen Tài Can argue there should be a forth major dialect: North-Central. The Haut-Annam dialects northern Nghe An Province to southern (former) Thua Thiên Province have preserve archaic features (like consonant clusters and undiphthongized vowels) that have been lost in other modern dialects.

Vietnamese dialect regions differ mostly in their sound systems (see below), but also in vocabulary (including basic vocabulary, non-basic vocabulary, and grammatical words) and grammar. The North-central and Central regional varieties, which have a significant amount of vocabulary differences, are generally less mutually intelligible to Northern and Southern speakers. There is less internal variation within the Southern region than the other regions due to its relatively late settlement by Vietnamese speakers (in around the end of the 15th century). The North-central region is particularly conservative. Along the coastal areas, regional variation has been neutralized to a certain extent, while more mountainous regions preserve more variation. As for sociolinguistic attitudes, the North-central varieties are often felt to be "peculiar" or "difficult to understand" by speakers of other dialects. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The large movements of people between North and South beginning in the mid-20th century and continuing to this day have resulted in a significant number of Southern residents speaking in the Northern accent/dialect and, to a lesser extent, Northern residents speaking in the Southern accent/dialect. Following the Geneva Accords of 1954 that called for the temporary division of the country, almost a million northerners (mainly from Hanoi and the surrounding Red River Delta areas) moved south (mainly to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and the surrounding areas) as part of Operation Passage to Freedom. About a third of that number of people made the move in the reverse direction. +

Following the reunification of Vietnam in 1975–76, Northern and North-Central speakers from the densely populated Red River Delta and the traditionally poorer provinces of Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Quang Binh have continued to move South to look for better economic opportunities. Additionally, government and military personnel are posted to various locations throughout the country, often away from their home regions. More recently, the growth of the free market system has resulted in business people and tourists traveling to distant parts of Vietnam. These movements have resulted in some small blending of the dialects but, more significantly, have made the Northern dialect more easily understood in the South and vice versa. Most Southerners, when singing modern/popular Vietnamese songs, do so in the Northern accent. This is true in Vietnam as well as in the overseas Vietnam. =

Respect and Language in Vietnamese

According to "In America, people put emphasis on friendliness in interpersonal relationships while in Vietnamese society the emphasis is more on respect. We may say without fear of error that respect is the cornerstone of interpersonal relationship in Vietnamese society, whether in the family or in social circles, whether on the employment scene or between friends and lovers. This is reflected in the language used by Vietnamese in their daily life. [ =*=]

"In making an utterance, Vietnamese simultaneously expresses ideas and concepts and an attitude of respect (or disrespect) towards the hearer. This expression is natural because it is inherent in the nature of the words used, and generally neither the speaker nor the hearer are conscious of it. But, if the speaker unintentionally (or purposedly) uses a word reflecting an attitude of disrespect, the hearer will instantly realize it and react to it accordingly. The difference between the linguistic behavior of American and Vietnamese people can be seen in the use of personal names. In writing a letter to a person who is not known, to ask for information or to apply for a job, example, Arnericans will usually use the term Dear followed by the person name (the last name, it should be noted); this shows courtesy and friendliness. Vietnamese people, by contrast, use only terms expressing respect such as kính, kínb tbÜa . . and never address the person by name, for this would convey an impolite, disrespectful attitude. Conseguently, "Dear Mr. Brown" is not "Ong Brown than men" but simply "Thua ong" or "Kinh ong" ("respected gentleman"). =*=

"In American society where almost nobody knows anybody else, even people living in the same apartment complex, mentioning the name of the interlocutor shows that one is interested in and friendly toward him/her, the evidence of which is to be found in the remembering of his/her name. Consequentiy to show that they are courteous and friendly, American people usually mention the name of the interlocutor in their greetings. (i.e. "good morning, Mr. Brown" or "good-bye, Miss Green" when speaking to people who are not close friends, and "good morning, Bill" or "goodbbye, Susie" when speaking to friends. In Vietnamese society, almost everybody knows the name of everybody else living in the same community. The neighbors (called "la'ng gieng") are often considered as friends or relatives. In greeting, speakers avoid mentioning the name of the interlocutors, especially those who are senior in age or status. They are called by name only when they are close friends or junior in age or status. It is easy to imagine the cultural misunderstandings that might arise from first encounters between Vietnamese and Americans. =*=

In Vietnamese, special respect is conveyed by using function-words for respect when addressing persons such as parents, old people, teachers. monks and priests, and superiors. The verbal response begins with a function-word such as "da.", "thua", "da. tbua", "ki'nh tbua". Therefore the word "da.", often translated as yes, is actually a function-word showing respect and does not necessarily indicate agreement. Personal pronouns are a word class in Vietnamese which best reflects this preoccupation with expressing respect or disrespect for other people in language. American people have one word for you to address parents, brothers and sisters, wife and children, friends and foes, and even animals. Likewise, they have only the word I (or its inflected form me) to refer to themselves when speaking. How converlient it is! But at the same time those words lack the ability to express feelings of respect or disrespect of tee Vietnames personal pronouns. People who are senior in age or status are usually referred towith such term of respect as cu., ong, ba'c, chu', anh, tha'y, cha, ba', co People younger than the speaker, or who have a lower status, are usually addressed or referred to with the terms anh, chi., chu', em, cha'u, con. To show anger and disdain, the terms ma'y, mi... might be used, and fawning is shown by the use of nga'i or cu. Io'n. =*=

"By observing the use of the terms of respect in Vietnamese, people can guess, to a certain extent, the personality and good manners of the speaker as well as the relationship between speaker and hearer. The use of these words which function as personal pronouns is a very delicate matter that depends on the speaker correctly assessing the relative age, status, and degree of intimacy between speaker and hearer. A man and a woman, at their first acquaintance, will call each other ong and toi (or co and toi). But as the degree of intimacy reaches the level of love, the term ong is replaced by anh and the term tp^i will become em. When love is lost, they will revert to the initial ông and tôi. In some cases where anger, hatred, and lack of self-control prevail, ong may become ma'y and toi may become tao. The terms anh/em and ma'y/tao are separated by a Great Wall of feelings and emotions. =*=

"Terms of address such as bác, cbú, and anh are perhaps the most difficult to use in Vietnamese because they can express opposing feelings and sentiments. According to the context, they may express respect or disdain, familiarity or contempt. Perhaps they are much more difficult to use than the French words tu/toi which also can express either intimacy or contempt. When we address a stranger tu/toi, the only feeling conveyed is obviously contempt. But a Vietnamese addressing a stranger as bác may mean respect (considering him on the same footing as our father's elder brother), familiarity and affection (regarding him as his uncle), or outright contempt (looking down on him as having a low social status). =*=

Written Language and Scripts

Many of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups have their own languages. Some have had their own scripts for a long time and some have not preserved their ancient scripts. Throughout the years, these languages have been enriched in terms of vocabulary, precision, and expression. However, the Viet language is most commonly used. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

For a long time, when Vietnam was under Chinese domination, written Chinese was widely used in trade, education and state documents. This lasted until the beginning of 20th century. Beginning in the eighth or ninth century, the Vietnamese devised a popular script based on Chinese characters to express written ideas and to standardize the phonetics of their own language. Well developed by the thirteenth century, this Siniform (Chinese-like) script and system, which combined ideographs and phonetics, became the medium for a growing popular literature. The system is known as chu nom, literally "southern character" or "southern writing," or simply nom. Although disdained by orthodox Confucian scholars, chu nom had a distinct place in the evolution of Vietnam's vernacular literature through the end of the nineteenth century. [Source: Library of Congress *]

At first most Vietnamese literature was essentially Chinese in structure and vocabulary. Later literature developed a more Vietnamese style, but was still full of Chinese loan words. The greatest literary work in Vietnamese is Kim Van Kieu, the 'Tale of Kieu', a romance written by Nguyen-Du (1765-1820). Chunôm was used until the 20th century. Courses in the Chunôm script were available at Ho Chi Minh University until 1993, and the script is still studied and taught at the Han-Nôm Institute in Hanoi, which has recently published a dictionary of all the nôm characters.

In the seventeenth century, the Vietnamese language evolved further when Portuguese and French missionaries developed a new transcription that used roman letters instead of Chinese characters. The new system, called quoc ngu, was devised as a tool for their missionary activities, including the translation of prayer books and catechisms. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had become the common method of writing, gradually replacing classical Chinese and chu nom. quoc ngu uses diacritical marks above or below letters to indicate variations in the pronunciation of vowels and of consonants, and differentiations in tones. Since most single syllables function as meaningful words identified only by tone, and each of these phonetic syllables can have numerous meanings, the diacritical marks are an essential part of the new written system. *

Under French rule, the French language was widely used in the cities, and it was read and spoken by all secondary-school graduates. Many less educated people, including merchants, lowranking civil servants, army veterans, and domestics working for French households, also had some familiarity with the language, although their knowledge might be limited to a form of pidgin French. In the rural areas the language generally was less wellknown , but a number of minority peoples learned its rudiments in school or during service with the French army. Use of the French language resulted in minor changes in the grammatical structure of Vietnamese and in the addition of some new technical, scientific, and popular terms. *

The letters "F", "J", "W" and "Z" are not part of the Vietnamese alphabet, but are used in foreign loan words. "W" is sometimes used in place of "U" in abbreviations. In informal writing, "W", "F", and "J" are sometimes used as shorthands for "QU", "PH" and "GI" respectively. The digraph "GH" and the trigraph "NGH" are basically replacements for "G" and "NG" that are used before "I", in order to avoid confusion with the "GI" digraph. For historical reasons, they are also used before "E" or "Ê". D and GI = [z] in the northern dialects (including Hanoi), and [j] in the central, southern and Saigon dialects. V is pronounced [v] in the northern dialects, and [j] in the southern dialects. [Source: Omniglot]

History of Quoc Ngu—Vietnam’s Romanized Written Language

Vietnamese is written with the Roman alphabet, like English and French, not Chinese characters (like China) or a distinct alphabet (as is the case in Thailand and Myanmar). The Vietnamese writing system, known as “quoc ngu” , was developed in the 17th century by a French Jesuit missionary named Alexander de Rhodes, after he discovered few people, other than scholars, could read Chinese characters. Most syllables are written as separate words (such as Viêt Nam). About 60 percent of Vietnamese words are of Chinese origin.

Alexander de Rhodes, a 17th century French Jesuit missionary, devised an easy-to-use alphabet with Roman letters, which replaced the Chinese characters used for centuries in Vietnam. Rhodes arrived in Vietnam in 1624 aboard a trading ship bringing the first European missionaries to east Asia. He compared the Vietnamese language to the "chirping of birds."

Rhodes quickly learned the Vietnamese and was preaching in the language within six months. He soon realized that he would have difficulty distributing religious texts, because so few ordinary people could read Chinese characters, which didn't really reflect Vietnamese grammar and pronunciation. Expanding on work begun two Portuguese men, Rhodes produced a dictionary of Vietnamese words written in the Latin alphabet, that later was called “quoc ngu” ,

Rhodes is credited with perfecting a romanized system of writing the Vietnamese language (quoc ngu), which was probably developed as the joint effort of several missionaries, including Rhodes. He wrote the first catechism in Vietnamese and published a Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese dictionary; these works were the first books printed in quoc ngu. Quoc ngu was used initially only by missionaries; classical Chinese or chu nom continued to be used by the court and the bureaucracy. The French later supported the use of quoc ngu, which, because of its simplicity, led to a high degree of literacy and a flourishing of Vietnamese literature. After being expelled from Vietnam, Rhodes spent the next thirty years seeking support for his missionary work from the Vatican and the French Roman Catholic hierarchy as well as making several more trips to Vietnam. *

When the French took over Vietnam in the 19th century they promoted “quoc ngu” . Vietnamese nationalist, ironically also encouraged illiterate peasant to learn the easy-to-learn writing system so they could be fed anti-French political tracts. An important development in the early part of the twentieth century was the increased use of quoc ngu in the northern part of the country through a proliferation of new journals printed in that script. There had been quoc ngu publications in Cochinchina since 1865, but in 1898 a decree of the colonial government prohibited publication without permission, in the protectorate areas, of periodicals in quoc ngu or Chinese that were not published by a French citizen.

In 1913 Nguyen Van Vinh succeeded in publishing Dong Duong Tap Chi (Indochinese Review), a strongly antitraditional but pro- French journal. He also founded a publishing house that translated such Vietnamese classics as the early nineteenth century poem Kim Van Kieu as well as Chinese classics into quoc ngu. Nguyen Van Vinh's publications, while largely pro-Western, were the major impetus for the increasing popularity of quoc ngu in Annam and Tonkin. In 1917 the moderate reformist journalist Pham Quynh began publishing in Hanoi the quoc ngu journal Nam Phong, which addressed the problem of adopting modern Western values without destroying the cultural essence of the Vietnamese nation. By World War I, quoc ngu had become the vehicle for the dissemination of not only Vietnamese, Chinese, and French literary and philosophical classics but also a new body of Vietnamese nationalist literature emphasizing social comment and criticism. *

Vietnamese Proverbs

"Your face to the earth, your back to the sun" is proverb that describes the hard life of Vietnamese peasants. Other common Vietnamese proverbs: 1) A bad compromise is better than a good lawsuit. 2) A clean hand wants no washing. 3) A day in prison is longer than a thousand years at large. 4) A day of travelling will bring a basketful of learning. 5) A fair face may hide a foul heart. 6) A fool may sometimes give a wise man counsel. 7) A friend in need is a friend indeed. 8) A friend when in need is a faithful friend. 9) A frog living at the bottom of the well thinks that the sky is as small as a cooking pot lid. 10) A good beginning is half the battle. [Source:

11) A good name is better than good habits. 12) A mouse in time may bite in two a cable. 13) Adversity brings wisdom. 14) After the storm the sun comes out. 15) All cats are gray in the dark. 16) An egg today is better than a chicken tomorrow. 17) An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 18) As the call, so the echo. 19) Beauty is but skin-deep. 20) Beggars can't be choosers.

21) Better a lean peace than a fat victory. 22) Better a wise man's servant than an idiot's master. 23) Better to die than to live on with a bad reputation. 24) Between two stools, you fall to the ground. 25) Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet. 26) Catch the bear before you sell his skin. 27) Comfort is better than pride. 28) Do not halloo till you are out of the wood. 29) Don't set the attic on fire just because you didn't catch any mice. 30) Don't trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.

Vietnamese Swear Words, Expressions and Amusing Product Names

Vietnamese swear words and insults: English translation. Buoi: Penis, dick; Dai': Penis, dick; Cu: Penis, dick; Cac: Penis, dick; Him: Pussy; Lon: Pussy; Lo dit: Asshole; ?? M? Mày: Fuck your mother; Do’ di: The town bike (everyone rides you); Thang cac be': You have a small penis; Con di me mày: Your mother sucks goats; An cut ne con: Go eat shit now; Cat me cu may di: Cut off your dick; Ba chang: Mean old woman; Cai lon ma mày: Your mom's pussy; Vo giao duc: Uneducated; Cho cai: Bitch; Dit me may: I fucked your mum; Tao bop vu may bay gio: I want to feel your tits; Cac tao bu ne con: I have a very big dick; May den nhu cuc cut cho: You are black like dog shit; Cho de: Son of a bitch; Ba Tam: Noisy person; Lai cai: Gay; Lai duc: Lesbian. [Source:]

Thang cha may: Insult your father; Con me may: Insult your mother; Dit con me may tec hang: Fuck your mother until her vagina is broken; Thang nguc lon: You suck a dirty vagina; An cac tao ne’: You eat my penis; Bu' lo’n tao ne’: You eat my vagina; Bu cac tao: Suck my dick; Dip Di Tung Ngo Nay Di: Fuck this stupid kid; Do ngu: Stupid; Do khung: Crazy; Con di: Hooker; Hom qua tao choi me may do: I fucked your mother yesterday; Su thu dam: Masturbate; Di du may: Go fuck yourself; May do ngu: You're stupid; Em ghet anh: I hate you; Ði Chét Ði!: Go die!; Bon: Gay; May an long dai cham mui!: You eat pubic hair with salt-dip; Do cho chet: You're a fucking dead dog; Dit ca ho nha may: Fuck your family; Cai deo gi day??: What the fuck??; Ngu Nhu Heo: You're dumb as a pig. ==

Jokes and good and bad luck signs are often puns of homonyms of the tonal sounds. Age is referred to as leaves fallen. A man who is 31 is 31 leaves fallen. Birthdates are written as follows: Day/Month/Year. For example, May 14, 1992 would be written: 14/5/92.

Amusing Vietnamese products include Kiss Me toilet paper and Jiridium brand pens. Vietnamese champagne sells for about $2 a bottle. The label reads "Champagne, product of Vietnam, Nitrogen Fertilizer Corporation." A sign at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum reads: "TAKE LUGGAGE OR FOREIGNER....NO CHARGE

English and Foreign Languages in Vietnam

Chinese and French are spoken by the educated classes and members of the older generation. English is understood by many people in Saigon and the major tourist areas. Many English speakers are either older people who learned the language during the Vietnam War or younger people who are people are picking it up now. Vietnamese often have great difficulty learning English. There are Vietnamese sounds that don't exist in English and English sounds that don't exist in Vietnamese. According to English teachers in Vietnam, many Vietnamese will utter sentences, which they think are being pronounced correctly but are unintelligible to American listeners.

In the colonial era French was the No. 1 foreign language. Until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Russian was No. 1. Now English is No. 1. A diplomat told the New York Times, "Chinese is the language of the ancient enemy and brother, from which we sprang, French is the language of love. Russian is the language of arguments. English is the language of money, the language of our future." France has only had limited success reviving French as a leading foreign language. It is spoken by less that 1 percent of the population and ranks behind English, Japanese and Chinese as a foreign language taught in school.

Many young Vietnamese see English as the key to a brighter future, and language schools are so crowded that there aren't enough teachers. In an effort to modernize, Vietnam is phasing out Russian- and English-language textbooks that contained many obvious errors such as "my car ran away." Vietnam’s 35,000 English teachers were trained using these books. They books are being replaced from books by Vietnam’s Education Ministry and U.S. corporate sponsors such as Coca Cola.

On an effort to spread the Russian language in Vietnam, Vietnam News Agency reported: "A Russian language program launched a series of book exhibitions and training ceremonies in Vietnam. The Russian Science and Culture Center opened "Days of Russian Language in Vietnam" in Hanoi and honored several Vietnamese students of the Russian language. Vadim Serafimov, the Russian ambassador in Vietnam, bestowed a medal on Nguyen Thi Binh, Vietnam’s former Vice State President and current President of the Vietnam Fund for Peace and Development for his support in spreading the Russian language in Vietnam. Serafimov also offered commemorative medals to nine other Vietnamese, including President of the Viet Nam Union of Friendship Organizations Vu Xuan Hong and officials from the Asian-African-Latin American Solidarity and Cooperation Committee and the Viet Nam - Russia Friendship Organization. [Source: Vietnam News Agency, October 30, 2007]

At private language institutes, English is about the only language being taught. These institutes have waiting lists even though the tuition is half a year's salary. English and foreign language lessons are also popular for children. At Hanoi University for Foreign Studies two thirds of the students take English lessons. Nobody wants to learn French or Russian.

Many young people now take evening English classes. Even in rural villages especially are studying the language. One villager told Stanley Karnow in Smithsonian magazine: "I am teaching my children English. It will be useful to them when they grow up. They can leave here, go to the city, get into business and care for me in my old age." A student in Hanoi told the New York Times, "Everybody wants to learn English to get a job. Vietnamese immigrants to foreign countries who had higher education in Vietnam are more likely to be fluent in English.

Vietnam’s Goal of English Teaching 'Miracle' Puts Pressure on Teachers

In Vietnam, students are expected to have a minimum level of English by 2020 when they leave school under ambitious education reforms, but teachers fear that they are not getting the help they need to upgrade their own skills. Ed Parks wrote in the Guardian Weekly, “More than 80,000 English language teachers in Vietnam's state schools are expected to be confident, intermediate-level users of English, and to pass a test to prove it, as part of an ambitious initiative by the ministry of education to ensure that all young people leaving school by 2020 have a good grasp of the language. As part of the strategy, which includes teaching maths in English, officials have adopted the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to measure language competency. Teachers will need to achieve level B2 in English with school leavers expected to reach B1, a level below. [Source: Ed Parks, Guardian Weekly, November 8, 2011 *]

“But the initiative is worrying many teachers, who are uncertain about their future if they fail to achieve grades in tests such as Ielts and Toefl. "All teachers in primary school feel very nervous," said Nguyen Thi La, 29, an English teacher at Kim Dong Primary School in Hanoi. "It's difficult for teachers to pass this exam, especially those in rural provinces. B2 is a high score." "All we know is that if we pass we are OK. If we don't we can still continue teaching, then take another test, then if we fail that, we don't know." *\

“Despite reports in state media, the education ministry maintains that no one will be sacked who does not achieve B2, equivalent to scores of between 5.0 and 6.0 in the Ielts test, in the countrywide screening. "It's a proficiency test to identify how many teachers need government-funded language training before they can go on teacher training courses," said Nguyen Ngoc Hung, executive manager of Vietnam's National Foreign Languages 2020 Project. "No teachers will be sacked if they are not qualified because we already know most of them are not qualified. No teachers will be left behind and the government will take care of them. But if the teachers don't want to improve, then parents will reject them because only qualified teachers will be able to run new training programmes." *\

“Project 2020 will affect 200 million students and 85 percent the $450 million budget will be spent on teacher training, according to the education ministry. Officials say proficiency equivalent to B2 is necessary so that English teachers can read academic papers, which will contribute to their professional development.The state media recently reported that in the Mekong Delta's Ben Tre province, of 700 teachers who had been tested, only 61 reached the required score. In Hue, in central Vietnam, one in five scored B2 or higher when 500 primary and secondary teachers were screened with tests tailored by the British Council. In the capital, Hanoi, teachers are taking the Ielts test and 18 percent have so far made the B2 grade. The education ministry said that in one province, which could not be identified, the pass rate is as low as one in 700. *\

“Some trainers think that the B2 level need not be an obstacle for many teachers, but they say pay incentives are needed if the government is to retain teachers and find 24,000 more to meet its 2020 education targets. "B2 is achievable enough. The teachers I know want to improve their English but want their salaries to be higher so that they can have an incentive to try harder to meet the standard," said Tran Thi Qua, a teacher trainer from the education department in Hue. *\

“Education ministry officials say they are working to increase primary English teacher salaries. Some parents of primary-aged children are prepared to give their children's English teachers extra money. "My biggest worry is where and how my children will learn English. There is a huge demand for English teaching at state primary schools. I have to spend lots of time and money now to give my children an English language education," said Do Thi Loan, a mother of two from Hanoi."The government needs to fund courses to help improve the quality of the teachers, and pay them more money, but I think if teachers don't want to improve, then they should change jobs," she said. *\

“A new languages-focused curriculum delivered by retrained teachers should be in place in 70 percent of grade-three classes by 2015, according to ministry plans, and available nationwide by 2019. English teaching hours are set to double and maths will be taught in a foreign language in 30 percent of high schools in major cities by 2015. But according to one language development specialist, the education ministry's goals are unrealistic. Rebecca Hales, a former senior ELT development manager at British Council Vietnam, said: "The ministry is taking a phased approach, which is commendable, but there are issues with supply and demand. They don't have the trained primary English teachers. The targets are completely unachievable at the moment." *\

Vietnamese Names

In Vietnam, the family is first, the middle name is second and the given name is last. People often refer to one another by their first names with a “Ong” (Mr.), “Ba” (Mrs.), Miss or professional title attached. Ho Chi Minh thus would be known to his friend as Ong Minh. The English words Mr. and Mrs. are also used. With the name Truong Tan Sang: the family name is Truong. According to Vietnamese custom, this person should properly be referred to by the given name Sang.

There are only about a 100 family names in Vietnam. Of these only about 25 to 30 are commonly used. The most common last names—the equivalent of Smith and Jones—Nguyen (pronounced NWIN, like Schwinn) and Pham. More than 50 percent of population has the name Nguyen.

In Vietnam, a person you don't know well is addressed by their given name. In a very formal situation you would use the last, middle, then first name. Ninety percent of the time you will see the middle names "Van" for a man, and "Thi" for a woman. When Vietnamese marry, they don't change their last names. So, in a family you will see different last names. But the children will carry the father's last name. [Source: Christine Wilson Owens, Kim Lundgreen, CCM, University of Washington, June 1, 2002]

Family members use different given names (first names aren't passed down), and the name reflects some meaning. Most names can be used for either gender. Many in the U.S. have adopted Western customs of naming or if naturalized, may adopt Western names. Each family member has a designated kinship term, and these are used when family members address one another. In Vietnam, some Vietnamese people—especially those who come in contact with westerners— have also adopted western names or use a name that is easy for Westerners to say.

Vietnamese Boy Changes Annoying Name

In 2006, Associated Press reported: "A 19-year-old boy bids farewell to his weird name after nearly two decades of ridicule. His father has agreed to change the son's name from "Fined Six Thousand and Five Hundred" - the amount he was forced to pay in local currency for ignoring Vietnam's two-child policy. The son, now 19, is now Mai Hoang Long, which means "Golden Dragon." [Source: Associated Press, July 7, 2006 /*]

"Angry he was being fined for having a fifth child, Mai Xuan Can in 1987 named his son Mai Phat Sau Nghin Ruoi after the amount he was forced to pay the equivalent of 60 cents Cdn, said Dai Cuong village chief Nguyen Huy Thuong. In 1999, local government officials tried to persuade Can to change the name because classmates constantly teased the boy at school in central Quang Nam province. But Can, a former People's Committee official, refused to back down, Thuong said. They appealled to him again recently, and this time it worked. /*\

"I told him that as his son is growing up, he should have another name - not that weird name - and he finally agreed," Thuong said. Vietnam, with a population of 83 million, applied tight family planning measures until recently to keep couples from having more than two children. Breaking the rules could have resulted in punishment. Today's policy is less stringent, though the government continues to encourage small families. /*\

Recording Name on Family Annals Custom

According to "Vietnamese started recording names of family members on family trees thousands of years ago. Each family maintains a big family tree and passes it from generation to generation. The chief of the family is responsible for keeping the family tree in a good condition and update family members annually. Basically if a family has multiple kids, the first boy is in charge of maintaining the family annals. [Source:

Whenever the family has a newborn baby, his parents have to refer to the family annals to get a name that is not yet on the family tree. In Vietnamese’s perspective, it is not respectable to give a baby a name that is similar to the name of his or her ancestors. The family tree serves as a good reference for this.

According to the old custom, the ceremony of baby name announcement to the ancestors is very simple. It requires only incense, betel and a glass of wine arranged on the family altar. Normally this ceremony takes place annually on the anniversary of the ancestor’s death. All parents with newborn babies are invited to announce their kid’s name at once. The following information is collected and recorded on a family tree: name, parent, generations, branches of family, first-born child or not, date of birth and the date of recording this information.

According to Vietnamese tradition, a daughter is the child of her husband family so her name is not recorded in family annals. However some families recently started recording the names of daughter as well as sons.

Why a Newborn Baby is not Given a Name

Vietnamese do not name their newborn babies when they were born. The reasons for this are traditional beliefs, old government policies and old society and family customs. Normally, a Vietnamese has many names from birth to death. When a baby is born, it is called as "thang Cu", "thang Cò", "con Him", "thang Muc", "con Cún", "thang Chatem", "con Chat a"… These are general names to call a newborn baby. "Thang" is for male and "con" is for female. In Vietnamese belief, if the name of the baby is more ordinary, the baby is easier to nourish. After getting married, he or she is called as "Anh o" for male or "Chi Xã" for female. When he or she has children, we can call him or her the name of her first-born child. When his or her first-born child has a first-born, he or she is called by the name of the first-born grandchild. After passing away, he or she has a taboo name for worshiping. If the person has social standing, he is called by his family name like "Cuo", "Cu Tam Nguyên Yên o","Ông Trang Trình"…It is also a way of addressing people of Chinese descent. [Source:

With the many names mentioned above, only the taboo name is the main name. This name is recorded in family annals and accepted by government. In the past, each village had a communal council which managed the registering of vital statistics but not strictly. The government only cared about the people who were 18 or above because from this age, a person had to pay head-money, be conscripted into the army or be recruited to be a laborer by force. The registering of a name later is better for this person because he does not have to pay head-money and can postpone other duties maybe for several years.

According to some family customs, the naming of the child is avoided until the taboo names of his ancestors are carefully checked in the family annals. This is why a baby has a temporary name first. After checking the name of his ancestors, he is given his own taboo name.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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