Vietnamese Language

Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam, although Chinese, French, English, Khmer, and various tribal languages are spoken in Vietnam as well. The Vietnamese language is one of the three main branches of the Austro-Asiatic family of languages. The three branches are Munda, Mon-Khmer, and Viet-Muong. Vietnamese fits into the third branch along with its sister language Muong. Throughout history, Chinese was the native language for Vietnam, and it was not until the 13th century that chinese characters were adapted for writing Vietnamese.



Vietnamese has three major dialects. Each of these dialects is spoken in a different region but is understood by the majority of native Vietnamese speakers. The dialect in the northern region is Tonkinese, the dialect in the southern region is Cochinchinese, and in the mid-coastal region High Annamese is spoken. The southern regional dialect is the one usually studied and described by linguists in the United States. These dialects affect the phonemic and tonal pronounciation of Vietnamese words.

The following chart shows Vietnamese consonant sounds. The typical Vietnamese orthogrpahic representation of each sound is displayed in bold to the left of the phoneme.  

  Labial Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m [m]  n [n]   nh [ɲ]   ng/ngh [ŋ]  
Stop p [p]   b [b]

 t [t]  d [d]

th [tʰ]

 tr [tʂ~ʈ]  ch [c~tɕ]  c/k/q [k]  
Fricative ph [f]    v [v]  x [s]   [z~j]  s [ʂ]  gi [z~j]  g/gh [ɣ]  h [h]
Approximant u/o [w] [l]   [ʐ~ɹ]  y/i [j]    



Vietnamese is a tonal language, although it was not always this way. Sometime around the 12th century tones were introduced, an influence from the Chinese language. The six tones include: level, breathing rising, breathing falling, falling-rising, creaky rising, and low falling. To mark the tones, little marks are placed either under or over the vowel of a syllable. The word meaning is changed by the tone that is used, making incorrect tonal patterns detrimental to communication.


Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language with the vast majority of words only being one syllable, although disyllabic and polysyllabic words exist. The intial consonant singleton, the rhyme, and the tone are the three components that make up each Vietnamese syllable. There are four types of syllables in the Vietnamese language: open, partially open, partially closed, and closed. Vietnamese speakers usually use two syllable utterances, rarely speaking in monosyllabic utterances.


The Vietnamese language has three degrees of stress: syllables produced with medium loudness and heavy stress, syllables produced louder than medium, and weak stress syllables that are produced less than medium loudness. The majority of the syllables are produced with medium stress with at least one syllable in each phrase having heavy stress. New and important information is conveyed with heavy stress and less important information with weak stress.


The Vietnamese alphabet is phonemic with one letter or letter combination per sound. The alphabet consists of 23 consonants and 12 vowels. These letters can be combined in 16 different vowel/consonan/semi-consonant patterns to create Vietnamese words. There are 21 word initial consonants, six word final consonants, 11 vowel singletons, and three diphthongs in the Vietnamese alphabet. There are no consonant clusters or blends. The 21 word initial consonants consist of eight plosives, six fricatives, four nasals, two glides, and one lateral. The six word final consonants are p, t, k, m, n, and “ng.” Following are three tables depicting the Vietnamese phonology, common sounds between Vietnamese and English, and common substitutions that may be made by native Vietnamese speakers.

For a more detailed look at the Vietnamese Phonology, please see Wikipedia - Vietnamese Phonology


Vietnamese is an analytic, or isolating, language. Its grammar relies heavily on word order and sentence structure rather than morphology. European languages tend to use morphology to express tense, and Vietnamese uses grammatical particles or syntactic constructions. Vietnamese syntax conforms to the Subject Verb Object word order.


Although it is not usually required, past tense is indicated by adding the particle đã, present progressive tense by the parAlthough it is not usually required, the plural may be indicated by particles like những and các for nouns, and chúng and occasionally các for personal pronouns.


Although it is not usually required, the plural may be indicated by particles like những and các for nouns, and chúng and occasionally các for personal pronouns.


Vietnamese extensively uses a system of classifiers to indicate word classes of nouns. English classifiers, for example, may be (highlighted in bold) one head of cattle (“head”, always singular regardless of number, indicates large livestock), two sticks of dynamite (“stick” indicates something relatively rigid, long and comparatively thin), three strands of hair (“strand” indicates something flexible, long and quite thin), or four bars of gold (a “bar” being similar to a “stick”, but comparatively less “thin”). Vietnamese's system and usage of classifiers are similar to Chinese and are more variable than English. They are used more frequently than articles are used in English.


Vietnamese pronouns are more accurately terms of reference. Its concept is different from that in European languages, so its forms of reference do not neatly fall into the grammatical person classifications created by European grammarians. The same word can be used as a first-, second-, or third-person pronoun, depending on the speaker and the audience. The most common terms of reference are kinship terms, which might differ slightly in different regions. When addressing an audience, the speaker must carefully assess the social relationship between him/her and the audience, difference in age, and sex of the audience to choose an appropriate form of address. Other pronouns in use, for the most part, conform to the European idea of grammatical person. Some are even gender-neutral and relationship-neutral. Using a person's name to refer to oneself or to address another is considered more personal and informal than using pronouns. It can be found among close friends or children.


Reduplication (từ láy) is found abundantly in Vietnamese. They are formed by repeating a part of a word to form new words, altering the meaning of the original word. Its effect is to sometimes either increase or decrease the intensity of the adjective, and is often used as a literary device (like alliteration) in poetry and other compositions, as well as in everyday speech.

For more information on Vietnamese grammar, visit the Wikipedia page on the Vietnamese Language.

General Language Guidelines

France controlled Vietnam from the late 1800s until the end of WWII. Members of the older generation are likely to speak French as their first language. Vietnamese may be their second language, and they may speak little or no English. Members of the next generation, now middle aged, are likely to speak French, Vietnamese, and English with varying proficiencies depending on schooling and length of time in the U.S. Younger generations, born in the U.S., are likely to have spoken Vietnamese as children, and gradually lose their Vietnamese when they reached elementary school, where they learned to speak English exclusively. If they have grandparents living in their homes, they are more likely to retain Vietnamese indefinitely.

People of Vietnamese descent may seem excessively polite and delicate in dealing with strangers and respected people. Maintaining propriety may be valued more highly than efficient communicative exchange. Every effort is made to maintain peace and harmony, even when it causes misunderstandings. Vietnamese people may just smile when they disagree or do not understand you. Or, they may say they understand your message when they do not, in an effort to maintain harmony. Sometimes when they answer “yes,” it may mean “I understand you,” but they may not agree with you and may have no intention of complying. Or, they may answer with a seemingly contradictory “Yes, no,” which probably means they have heard you, and that the answer to your question is “No.” For example, if you ask, “Are you hungry?” and hear “Yes, no” (in Vietnamese “Da, khong”) in reply, it probably means, “Yes, I am listening to you, and no, I am not hungry.” You can minimize confusion in this scenario by avoiding negative question forms, such as “Aren’t you hungry?” to which the Vietnamese may answer “yes,” meaning “Yes, I am not hungry.”


Speech Sound Disorders

Speech sound disorders are not generally recognized as a disability in Vietnam. Consequently, there is no formal statistical data regarding the incidence of speech sound disorders in Vietnam. Hwa-Froelich & Westby (2003) 1) found that blindness, deafness and physical conditions that affected a persons’ abilities to carry out daily activities were seen as disabilities, but that cleft palate, speech or learning problems and mental retardation were not considered disabilities. Instead, these conditions are believed to be caused by the child’s nature, stubbornness, laziness or fate.

Range of Acceptable Intelligibility
The lack of clinical attention given to speech sound disorders and communication disorders as a whole in Vietnam seems to indicate that there is a wide range of acceptable intelligibility. The fact that speech sound disorders are not considered a disability implies that they are somewhat culturally accepted. However, this statement is not based on solid research evidence and should be amended should any conflicting evidence be presented.


Vietnam has limited speech language pathology support for children with a speech sound disorder. Fewer than ten individuals living in Vietnam have held the title of “speech therapist” and none of those individuals have a degree in speech-language pathology. These individuals have degrees in medicine, physical therapy, dentistry, linguistics, psychology, nursing and other areas.

The overall level of special education services available in Vietnam is increasing. The first teacher-training program to offer training in special education took place in 2003. However, speech sound disorders do not qualify as a disability. Consequently, children with speech sound disorders are generally included in general education settings and do not receive special education services.

Original Contributors: Melissa Howard and Damon Micheau, 2007

References and Resources