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Learn Vietnamese Your Way

Learn Vietnamese Language: Grammar Overview

The introduction to Vietnamese Language has introduced you the most important characteristics of the language as a whole. In this very first lesson of the Express Grammar Course, we would learn the most important grammatical features of Vietnamese Language, especially when compared with English.

Vietnamese Sentence Structure

In this section, we'll learn how Vietnamese words are arranged to form meaning. Let's get started with the classical example: I love you. How is that expressed in Vietnamese? It's Anh yêu em. Let's see the break-downs:

Example:

Anh It means: I, also implying that you're older or more senior. In Vietnamese, we'll use different words for I, depending on our relationship with the listener (whether we are older or more senior). The specific word choice also varies with different regions of Vietnam.
YêuThis means: love.
Em The word means: you. This word implies that you are younger, less senior. (More on pronouns)

Please don't remember all the details above, it's just for reading purpose. What should be remembered, however, is this:

Vietnamese Grammar Rule 1

Vietnamese Language has the same sentence structure as English:
Subject + Verb + Object (or SVO for short).

Did you see it? Anh("I": Subject) + yêu("love": Verb) + em("you": Object). This is one of the most fundamental rules of Vietnamese grammar, or of any language for that matter. The next time you learn a new language, it's good to ask from the very beginning: what's the basic sentence structure of this language? (For a language with a different sentence structure, Japanese is a good example).

Position of Vietnamese Adverbs

Now, let's try to add some more romance to this sentence. How about I love you a lot? The Vietnamese equivalent is Tôi yêu em nhiều. The first part remains the same and the added part is nhiều for a lot: a lot <--> nhiều. And this gives us a general rule about position of adverbs (eg. often, fast, beautifully):

Vietnamese Grammar Rule 2

In Vietnamese, as in English, adverbs are positioned after the verbs they modify.

In English, some adverbs, such as rather, are positioned before the verb as in this sentence: I rather like it. This is also the case in Vietnamese and indeed, the translation of that sentence is: Anh(I) khá(rather) thích(like) nó(it).

The other rule is that if verbs require objects, adverbs are then positioned after the objects, as in English. As we don't say I love a lot you in English, we don't say Anh yêu nhiều em (*). The correct Vietnamese translation is Anh yêu em nhiều. The sentence structure we have learned so far is then: Subject + Verb (+ Object) + Adverbs.

Position of Vietnamese Adjectives

Now, why don't we continue this loving mood by saying In fact, you are very beautiful? That translates to Quả thật, em rất đẹp.

Example:

In fact you are very beautiful
Quả thật em No translation needed rất đẹp

Apart from the absence of the translation of the verb to be, this is almost a direct one-to-one word mapping from English to Vietnamese. How similar Vietnamese is to English! Don't you think so? The absence of the translation of the verb to be is explained in the following rule:

Vietnamese Grammar Rule 3

In Vietnamese, adjectives don't go with to be.

No to be with adjectives? Yes, so the Vietnamese way of saying She's beautiful is simply She beautiful!

The astute readers would then ask: Then, how do we change it to a question: there is no to be to be inverted to the front of the sentence as in English! That's a really good question and the answer is that we'll use a question marker combined with a rising in intonation to express questions in Vietnamese. This way of asking questions is shared by Chinese and French as well.

We've learned about verbs, adverbs and adjectives. Now, we'll conclude this overview of Vietnamese Grammar with the usage of nouns through another compliment: You have a very beautiful voice. What's the Vietnamese translation? Let's first break this English sentence into its major components:

You(Subject) + have(Verb) + a very beautiful voice(Object). We've learned above that Vietnamese also shares the same Subject + Verb + Object (or SVO) ordering. So how does the sentence structure of the Vietnamese translation look like? Yes, it's the same!

Translation mapping:

You have a very beautiful voice
Em một giọng nói rất hay.

Let's take a closer look at the translation of the phrase very beautiful voice: giọng nói rất hay.

giọng nói rất hay
voice very beautiful

As you can observe, the phrase rất hay("very beautiful") is positioned after giọng nói("voice"), which is different from English. And this gives us another general rule:

Vietnamese Grammar Rule 4

In Vietnamese, adjectives are positioned after the nouns they modify.

Another observation that you might have had is that the adverb of intensity very is positioned before the adjective beautiful: rất("very") đẹp("beautiful"), as in English. This is aslo a general rule: adverbs are put before adjectives they modify, just as in English. For instance, She is very smart would translate into Cô ta rất thông minh. Note that rất (very) occurs before the adjective thông minh (smart).

Now, let's review what we've learned by translating this snippet You are very beautiful. Let's go very slowly, though I know that you can do it much faster, to make it very sure that everything is clear and in order.

You + are("to be") + very(adverb) + beautiful(adjective). The phrase very beautiful is an adjectival phrase consisting of the main adjective beautiful and the adverb of intensity very. The Vietnamese translation of this phrase, as we've already discussed, has the same order of: rất("very") + đẹp("beautiful").

We've also learned that adjectives in Vietnamese aren't accompanied by to be. Therefore, the Vietnamese version would be You very beautiful. Putting everything together, we reach the correct translation: Em rất đẹp. If you got it right, congratulations!

That's enough for an overview. I hope you have enjoyed the reading and learning so far.

Find out WHY the vietnam war started!

Summary

We've quickly gone through the most important points in Vietnamese Grammar in this overview. The take-away points are:

You would probably now agree that Vietnamese and English Grammar are very similar. The last two points about adjectives in the summary list above are two of the (few) most significant grammatical differences. Everything else can be assumed to be the same for now.

Vietnamese for Beginners, 2nd Edition (2008), Jake Catlett Vietnamese for Beginners, 2nd Edition (2008) - Jake Catlett
Complete Vietnamese: A Teach Yourself Guide (Teach Yourself: Level 4) (2010), Dana Healy Complete Vietnamese: A Teach Yourself Guide (Teach Yourself: Level 4) (2010)
by Dana Healy
Complete Vietnamese with Two Audio CDs: A Teach Yourself Guide (TY: Language Guides) (2010), Dana Healy Complete Vietnamese with Two Audio CDs: A Teach Yourself Guide (TY: Language Guides) (2010)
by Dana Healy
Vietnamese for Everyone: Mastering Vietnamese Through English, 1997. Mai Ngọc Chừ, Võ Thị Thu Nguyệt Vietnamese for Everyone: Mastering Vietnamese Through English (1997) - Mai Ngọc Chừ, Võ Thị Thu Nguyệt

Notes

(*) While I love a lot you is both ungrammatical and meaningless in English, its Vietnamese word-by-word translation Anh yêu nhiều em carries the meaning I love a lot of girls as "nhiều" also acts as an adjective meaning many and em has an informal meaning equivalent to girls or chicks in English. Indeed, plays on words take place very often and is a very interesting feature of Vietnamese.

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If you have any questions or clarifications, please comment below.


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