Thoughts on teaching Vietnamese learners

I’m currently working at the British Council summer school in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s been a fantastic experience so far, and it’s the first time I’ve ever taught English to Vietnamese learners. It’s also my first stint at the British Council. Here are some of my early thoughts on what it’s like to teach Vietnamese students, problems they may encounter, and some teaching tips to help you out.

What are Vietnamese learners like?

Character

Contrary to my expectations, Vietnamese adult learners aren’t shy at all! They are very expressive, have no problem working in pairs and groups, and always seem respectful and encouraging of their peers. They are extremely engaged, and many of them are copious note takers. They are often patriotic and love to share their culture, yet they seem equally interested in learning about life in other places. Again, contrary to my expectations, there are not many topics that are off limits with Vietnamese learners. However, younger adults can go into their shell a bit if a topic involves ‘global knowledge’, which they may lack.

With young learners, I’ve encountered very few discipline problems. My students have been willing to engage in any activity, and have been well-behaved with the usual smattering of teenage impishness! They are highly motivated by competition and enjoy group games. One thing to consider, however, is that boys and girls sometimes struggle to work together. Regarding use of L1 in class, this is virtually non-existent among my pre-intermediate teenagers – I’d imagine this is different for the primary-aged learners though.

Language ability

Given that Vietnamese is a tonal language, learners may be sensitive to intonation patterns in English. By this, I mean they are aware of the importance on intonation and the effect it can have on meaning. This doesn’t guarantee the ability to produce the correct intonation pattern though.

As always, certain phonemes may be hard to grasp. Before I started teaching here I had a look at this overview of common pronunciation problems for Vietnamese learners speaking English, which is a good starting point.

Many Vietnamese learners have studied English grammar so much that they know it inside-out. Despite this, production errors are still common, particularly those where structures differ from the learner’s L1. The lack of suffixes in Vietnamese means problems with plural nouns and inflection, which are often fossilised.

I’ve only taught at one school here in Vietnam, and it may be the case that the learner’s strengths are merely a product of the type of input they are receiving. The General English programme for adult learners at the British Council (called MyClass) focuses heavily on developing listening, pronunciation and speaking skills. As a result, listening skills are relatively strong, students are aware of their own pronunciation problems, and they are often highly communicative even at pre-intermediate level. Almost every adult I’ve taught here is familiar with the phonemic symbols. My young learners (aged 12-14) have shown great interest and willingness to learn these too, and find it easy to make light of their pronunciation errors.

Top 3 errors to look out for with Vietnamese learners

Error type

Description

Real examples from class

Grammar (+pronunciation) Missing the plural and third person –s at the end of a word. This form doesn’t exist in Vietnamese *She live in New York

*We spent two day in Dalat

Pronunciation Unable to form consonant clusters, unfamiliar in Vietnamese Restaurant = */retərʌn/

Project = */pɒʤet/

Interesting = */ɪntesɪŋ/

Pronunciation Missing the final sound of a word. Final consonants are often muted or soft in Vietnamese* Light = */laɪ/

Choose = */ʧu:/

Bad = */bæ./

*thanks to Tường Vi for clarifying this point for me – see comments.

Expectations

Vietnamese adult learners expect a lot of correction. They also want plenty of pronunciation practice and drilling. They are very keen to develop natural intonation and seem to find drilling very fun. Miss the pronunciation stage of vocabulary input at your peril!

With MyClass lessons, target language is often introduced through text-based presentations, which are almost always listening texts. Students love to have the transcript for listening texts – they are highly analytical and scan a text to find any new vocabulary.

Be sure to upgrade language, and prepare additional phrases and vocabulary relevant to a topic. Students enjoy learning idiomatic language and natural phrases.

Regarding Vietnamese young learners, they seem particularly keen on competition. Vietnamese teenagers are very unlike many European’s I’ve taught – they rarely act ‘too cool for school’ and will buy into practically any activity if you tweak it to add the slightest bit of competition, challenge or reward. If you’re teaching from a textbook, you could look at my previous blog post for some ideas about how to jazz up textbook reading tasks.

My top 5 language games for teenage Vietnamese learners

Whiteboard races – a great way to check prior vocabulary knowledge

Grass Skirts – this makes boring textbook gap fill tasks a bit more interesting. See an example in this post

Mime, Draw, Describe – this variation on the classic ‘back to the board’ game goes down very well, as learners love to act a bit silly

Any CLIL-based game from Sheppard Software, they just love these (especially timed ones)

Cryptograms – get on Discovery Education and create your own puzzles for vocabulary reviews. Start your lesson with one of these, and you’ll soon find that less students are strolling in late.

Teaching tips

One type of delayed feedback I’ve done has worked well over the past few weeks.

When monitoring students during a speaking task, focus your attention on pronunciation errors. Make a list of all the errors you hear – preferably in phonemic script. You may see a clear pattern in the errors being made (e.g. difficulties with clusters, problems with certain phonemes, etc) – giving you a useful error correction slot.

On one occasion, I noted down all of the following pronunciation errors during one task:

pron errors

I boarded these errors, and gave the students these instructions:

Work with a partner. On the board are some speaking errors you’ve just made.

  • What are the errors? What do you think the target word was?
  • Can you put the errors into 3 different categories?

Of course, the words have been taken out of their context, sometimes making it difficult to establish what the problem might be. However, this activity forces students to make assumptions about the correct form of each word. Analysis and correction of each item means they get to recognise the problems they are making and how they affect the meaning or intelligibility of the word.

pron errors2

It’s quite difficult to create this task off the cuff, so it may be better to note down the errors and create an activity around these in a later lesson. There are other ways to display the errors too, for example you could create a quick task for students to match the incorrectly pronounced word with its missing phoneme:

pron errors3

Correcting pronunciation errors by young learners is slightly different as they are unlikely to know the phonemic script. Humour usually works well, and drawing a silly picture to show the error can be fun:

pron errors4

Please feel free to share your own tips about teaching Vietnamese learners.  I’d be keen to hear about certain activities you feel work well, and also things that don’t. The above ideas focus quite a lot on pronunciation, so any comments on difficulties learners may have with other skills and language points are most welcome!

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5 comments

  1. ‘Missing the final sound of a word. Words ending in consonants don’t exist in Vietnamese’ Couldn’t have said it better myself!

    I really like the pron error correction idea: boarding phonemic script errors and getting students to correct them and then categorise. Really nice way to approach pron mistakes. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Jamie, an thanks for getting untouched via email. On holiday at the mo but will respond fully soon. Do you use any error correction techniques that go down well in Vietnam, and are perhaps applicable to other contexts?

      Like

  2. “Words ending in consonants don’t exist in Vietnamese,” this is actually incorrect. Vietnamese has many words ending in consonants, but they are not the hard sounds that English has. Our consonants are muted and soft, but they are definitely there.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, yeah I think I’ve phrased that wrong. Cheers for clarifying. Funnily enough I’m studying Thai at the moment and one of my classmates is Vietnamese. The final consonants are often muted in Thai too, and she mentioned this was similar in Vietnamese! I’m going to edit this post, thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

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