TROUBLESOME ENGLISH SOUNDS TO VIETNAMESE STUDENTS:
CAUSES & SOLUTIONS
By Le Van Su
1. 1 Background Information
When we learn a foreign language, its pronunciation is one of the hardest problems to
surmount. This is due to the fact that “the new language (1) has a phoneme not
existing in our native language, (2) has variants of phonemes not similar to those of
comparable phonemes occurring in different environments from those of our own
language.” (Tam, Le Duy, 1970, p.108)
As far as English is concerned, its phonological system consists of consonant and
vowel phonemes some of which cause Vietnamese learners a lot of difficulties. It is
this problem that calls for a comparative analysis of the phonological systems of the
Vietnamese language and the English language to reveal trouble spots and point out
the way toward possible solutions.
1. 2 The Purpose of the Study
Therefore, the purpose of this research paper is to work out a list of problem
consonant and vowel sounds, to state their causes and to find out the best way to help
students overcome the difficulty to pronounce them properly.
1. 3 The Organization of the Paper
These main contents will be dealt with in separate chapters. The difficult sounds and
their causes will be presented first and the last part will focus on how to solve the
1.4 The Statement of Value
It is hoped that this study will contribute its part to the improvement of Vietnamese
students’ pronunciation of English sounds, the first step for them to learn English
better and more effectively.
SOME PROBLEM ENGLISH SOUNDS TO VIETNAMESE LEARNERS AND
According to Lado, Robert (1957), “the process of analyzing sound systems will reveal
problem sounds” for the second language learners to take into consideration and spare
time to drill them. Following are the English consonants and vowels which cause
troubles to Vietnamese learners together with their reasons.
2. 1 Tense and Lax Vowels / I / and / i: / , / ʊ /and / u: / , / e / and / eɪ /
These vowel pairs belong to the English tense / lax vowels. They pose difficulties for
Vietnamese learners because of the following reasons:
The Vietnamese vowel system makes many vowel distinctions. Therefore
students often produce the two vowels of each pair identically, using neither the
tense nor the lax vowel. “Failure to make these distinctions can lead to
misunderstandings. Words such as SLEEP, TASTE, and STEWED may be heard
by English speakers as SLIP, TEST, and STOOD respectively” (Avery & Ehrlich,
The vowel they produce is shorter than the equivalent in English and has no
tongue movement during its production. In other words, the vowel length is
neglected. The result is that these two pairs of words BEAT – BIT and SEAT –
SIT are pronounced the same.
“The English short / I / is somewhat similar to the Southern Vietnamese / i / in
THỊT, whereas the Northern Vietnamese THỊT would sound like the English
long / i: /. The contrast / I / and / i: / as in SIT and SEAT should be drilled.” (Tam,
Le Duy, 1970, p.110)
“The Vietnamese / u / is between English / ʊ / and / u: /. The contrast WOULD
and WOOED is difficult to distinguish and produce. It needs drilling.” (Tam, Le
Duy, 1970, p.110)
2. 2 Vowels / e / and / æ /
Vietnamese speakers may have difficulty distinguishing between / e / and / æ/ as in
BET and BAT because:
They often pronounce these two vowels in exactly the same way. “Most
commonly, students fail to lower their tongue and jaw far enough in attempting to
produce the /æ / sound.” (Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.100)
“The Vietnamese / e / is between / e / and /æ/” (Tam, Le Duy, 1970, p.110).
Consequently, the contrast MEN and MAN is not easy to distinguish and produce.
This pair of words should be practised.”
2. 3 Word – Final Voiceless Stop Consonants: / p /, / t /, and / k /
In the Vietnamese language, we do have these voiceless stop consonants at the end of
a word, but why do we Vietnamese learners have problems with these sounds? The
reason is that we don’t release these sounds in final position and they are much shorter
than their English equivalents. English speakers may have difficulty hearing them.
“Thus a word such as BEAT may sound like BEE.” (Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.153)
2. 4 Voiced and Voiceless Stops in Word–Final Position / b / , / d / , / g / and / p / , /
t / , /k /
These consonants are also trouble spots for Vietnamese students due to the fact that
Vietnamese has no voiced stops at the ends of words. For them, there is no distinction
between voiced and voiceless stops in this position. Hence, “words such as CAP and
CAB may sound identical, with a short unreleased / p / at the end of both words.”
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.154)
2. 5 Word – Final Fricative Consonants / f v θ ð s z ʃ and ʒ /
These are also difficult sounds for Vietnamese speakers to produce because in
Vietnamese, fricatives do not occur finally. Very often they are omitted at the end of
For example, “a sentence such as: THE BOYS ALWAYS PASS THE GARAGE ON
THEIR WAY HOME may sound like THE BOY ALWAY PA THE GARA ON THEIR
WAY HOME.” (Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.154)
2. 6 Consonants / θ / and / ð /
These sounds do not exist in Vietnamese. They constitute a problem in both
production and perception. Because they are both spelled th, there is no way to tell
one from the other in writing. Vietnamese learners, therefore, usually replace / θ /
by /t/ (heavily aspirated) and / ð / by / d / in such words as THINK and THIS.
2. 7 Word – Final / tʃ /
Vietnamese has a sound similar to the English / tʃ / in word – initial position (CHUA,
for example) but not in word – final position. So when Vietnamese students
produce /tʃ / in word – final position, “they may substitute / ʃ / for / tʃ /, saying
MARSH instead of MARCH.” (Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p. 155)
2. 8 Consonants / p / versus / f / and / b /
As we know, / p / does not occur in initial position in Vietnamese, we may
pronounce /b/ or / f / for / p /. “Thus, PUT may sound like FOOT and PETER may
sound like BEATER.” (Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p. 155)
HOW TO SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF THE ABOVE SOUNDS?
After presenting the difficult English sounds which Vietnamese students often
encounter, in this part we shall deal with what we Vietnamese teachers should do to
help students overcome such difficulty to pronounce these sounds properly. The
techniques to remedy the pronunciation errors will be treated in the order of the
problem sounds stated in the previous part.
3. 1 Solutions to the Problem of Tense and Lax Vowels / I / and / i: / , / ʊ / and
/ e / and / eɪ /
/ u: / ,
To correct the pronunciation errors concerning tense and lax vowels, Vietnamese
teachers can use the following drilling techniques. Have students:
Exaggerate their pronunciation of each long vowel sound in BEE, BAY, BOO for
example. In saying / i:/ and / ei /, be sure that they spread their lips. With /u:/ and /
ʊ /, be sure that their lips are rounded.
Remember that all the above tense vowels / i: / / u: / /ei / are long ones, so they
have to concentrate on lengthening these vowels.
Work on each long vowel in isolation and in sentences. For example:
“I see it.”
“They blew it.”
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.97)
Make sure that their mouth is relaxed for the production of lax vowels / I, ʊ, e/.
Their lips should not be too spread for / I, e / or too rounded for / ʊ /.
Practise these lax vowels in isolation:
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.98)
Practise the lax front vowels / I , e / in minimal pairs.
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.98)
Practise the tense and lax vowels separately and then distinguish between them in
minimal pairs both in recognition and production activities.
/ i: /
/ ei /
/ u: /
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.98)
3. 2 Solutions to the Problem Vowels / e / and / æ /
To distinguish and produce these two vowel sounds differently, students are advised to
resort to the strategies below:
Lower their tongue and jaw when producing the / æ / sound. Put the tip of the
tongue against the bottom teeth.
The teacher can demonstrate the contrast between / e / and / æ / by exaggerating
the dropping of the jaw with / æ /. The students observe and imitate this.
In English, many emotional words contain the vowel / æ /. Students can make use
of these words such as MAD BAD GLAD SAD and HAPPY to practise / æ /.
For example: I FEEL MAD.
Practise recognition and production of these two vowels using minimal pairs.
/ æ /
(O’Connor, J.D, 1988, p.80)
Practise saying these vowels in minimal pair sentences:
“The fat men put ten baskets on the black desk.” (Avery & Ehrlich, 1995,
3. 3 Solutions to the Problem of Word – Final Voiceless Stop Consonants / p /, / t /,
and /k /
The pronunciation mistake lies in the unreleased state of / p t k / at the end of
Vietnamese words. To remedy this, students can follow these tips:
Release the final voiceless stop consonants in words such as TOP, TAUGHT, and
BACK. A small puff of air, similar to aspiration, should accompany the release of
the consonants. Practise these words in sentence-final position where they receive
major sentence stress. This may involve some exaggeration of their own speech.
“Put it up on top.”
“I didn’t know that you taught.”
“Do you mind sitting near the back?”
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.154)
Do linking exercises in which words ending in voiceless stops are followed by words
beginning with vowels. It is best if the following word is an unstressed function word
like a preposition or an article.
Put the book on top of the shelf.
He made a lot of money.
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.108)
3. 4 Solutions to the Problem of Voiced and Voiceless Stops in Word – Final Position
/ b d g / and / p t k /
These voiceless and voiced consonants may sound identical in Vietnamese contexts in
such words as CAP and CAB, CUP and CUB. Distinguish them by:
Releasing voiceless stops at the end of words. That is aspirating lightly / p t k / but
keeping the articulators together for / b d g /.
Practise minimal pairs such as those below, remembering that the vowels are longer
before voiced stops than before voiceless ones.
Before voiceless consonant
Before voiced consonant
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.103)
3. 5 Solutions to the Problem of Word – Final Fricative Consonants / f v θ ð s z ʃ
and ʒ /
Many Vietnamese students are unable to distinguish voiced and voiceless fricatives.
Most commonly, they will be able to produce voiceless fricatives but not voiced ones.
For example, / f / may be substituted for / v / so that a word such as LEAVE is
pronounced as LEAF. Similarly, / s / may be substituted for / z /, so that a word such as
PEAS is pronounced as PEACE.
To avoid this error, students should be provided with practice of the voiced / voiceless
distinction using minimal pairs.
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.102)
They should also remember that vowels are longer before voiced fricatives than before
their voiceless counterparts.
Before voiceless consonant
Before voiced consonant
Do linking exercises in which words ending in these fricatives are followed by words
beginning with vowels.
“Don’t give up your seat.”
“Don’t play with it.”
“Breathe in and then breathe out.”
“Pass out the books.”
“Your wish is my command.”
Practise the pronunciation of the / s / and / z / in words that have grammatical
endings – the plural, the possessive, and the third person singular present tense.
These endings involve a difference between the voiceless fricative / s / and the
voiced fricative / z /. For instance:
3. 6 Solutions to the Problem of Consonants / θ / and / ð /
/ θ / and / ð / are problematic for non-English students. The heavily aspirated stop /t /
in Vietnamese is usually substituted for the voiceless / θ / in words like THINK and
a /d / for / ð / in words like THIS. Below are some hints on producing these sounds
It is helpful to have students place their tongue between their teeth, protrude their
tongue, and exaggerate the articulation of these sounds.
Practise the date or birth dates because most of the ordinal numbers contain the / θ /
Try tongue twisters such as the one below to practise producing these sounds: “Those
three thugs think that they threw those things there.”
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.105)
3. 7 Solutions to the Word – Final / tʃ /
Vietnamese students have no problem with / tʃ / in word – initial position because it is
similar to the Vietnamese such as in the word CHUA / tʃʊə /. They should only have
drills on word – final / tʃ / in a word such as MARCH where / tʃ / is usually wrongly
replaced by / ʃ /.
(Avery & Ehrlich, 1995, p.155)
3. 8 Solutions to the Problem of / p / versus / f / and / b /
There is no aspirated / p / in initial position in Vietnamese. Thus PUT may sound like
FOOT, and PETER may sound like BEATER. To correct these errors, here are two
To substitute / b / for / p /, close the two lips together and say it with a puff of air in
such words as P(h)OT, P(h)IE, P (h)EA. (Ibid, p.101)
To substitute / f / for / p /, close the two lips together, too. Don’t let the lower lip touch
the upper teeth as for / f /.
5. 1 Restatement of the Thesis
As stated in the introduction, English sounds, with the inconsistency between their
spelling and their pronunciation, cause real problems to Vietnamese learners. It is due
to this that the topic “ Troublesome English sounds to Vietnamese students : Causes
and Solutions” was taken into consideration and researched with a clear view to
helping students identify the difficult sounds ,overcome the difficulties and produce
5. 2 Summary
With those aims beforehand, the research has shown that Vietnamese students usually
have troubles pronouncing the English tense / lax vowel pairs because Vietnamese
makes many vowel distinctions. As for consonants, Vietnamese speakers tend to
delete one or more consonants in initial or final position because many English
syllable types do not exist in Vietnamese. It has also analysed the techniques teachers
can use to help their students overcome the difficulties and produce the problem
sounds correctly. Teachers can resort to recognition, production, description and
consolidation procedures to bring about good pronunciation results for their students.
5. 3 Implication
I fondly hope that this study will respond to the needs of students and teachers alike
and will be conducive to the better pronunciation of Vietnamese learners, especially
students of junior and senior high schools in Vietnam.
Avery, Peter and Ehrlich, Susan(1995), Teaching American English Pronunciation
Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
Forseth, Ron and Forseth, Carol and Others, Methodology Handbook for English
Teachers in Vietnam.
Lado, Robert(1957), Linguistics Across Cultures: Applied Linguistics for Language
Teachers. Ann Arbor, Mich: Unversity of Michigan Press, p.19.
O’Connor, J.D (1988), Better English Pronunciation. Second Edition. Great Britain:
Cambridge University Press.
Tam, Le Duy (1970), The Pronunciation of English. Saigon: Vietnamese – American