Zen and the Art of Speaking Vietnamese - Dấu Sắc header image

Zen and the Art of Speaking Vietnamese - Dấu Sắc

by The Tay Ho Times on 10/01/2020

Written by Pablo Yang


Living in Vietnam as an expat isn't easy.  Even compared to other non-English-speaking countries, life as an expat is challenging in Vietnam.  Few people speak the language even after many years, and yet fewer people ever truly integrate or even make regular excursions outside of the expat/tourism bubble.

Vietnamese is a hard language, consistently ranked among the most difficult for English speakers, including by the US State Department's foreign language institute, but quite often this knowledge lends itself to certain defeatism as well - if we will never excel, then perhaps we should just not try.  On the contrary, a regular small effort has a way of adding up: I certainly could have tried harder and gone farther in my Vietnamese, but by the simple merit of caring a little bit over a little while, my Vietnamese language ability has benefited me in many ways.  I rarely experience confusion with Grab; ordering in restaurants is never a challenge.  Sometimes at the airport, I can skip past very long lines by reading simple signage that other people can't.  A million little things are nicer here and there, and it doesn't take expansive or even conversational Vietnamese to generate concrete returns.

Let's start with a simple tone - just a single tone.  Now, I know tones scare many English speakers, but we in fact use them quite extensively in our own language.  Like, if I end every sentence lilting upwards?  Like everything is a question?  Even if it's a statement of fact?  Like the sun is hot?  Or that water is wet?... Did you hear it in your head?  Upspeaking, uptalking, or as it was formerly known, the "Valley Girl voice" is an obvious and striking and easily recognizable tonal effect, and I doubt any English speakers would say they have a hard time identifying it.

Well, as it turns out, uptalking is exactly the shape and inflection of dấu sắc - the upwards accent.  It's a useful one!  For example, to say the word "trái" for "left" while on a Grab bike, pretend you're asking someone if they'd like to share some of your chai tea - "chai?".  Or if you are referring to "AN object" - "cái _" - think "KAI?" and you'll do it easily. The only important thing people forget is you have to do this EVERY TIME.  The number four - "bốn" - ALWAYS sounds like a question: "Bốn?".  If you say "boon," go back and try again.  It's easy, as long as you remember.  Give it a try this week and see if you can't make a small change and get just a little bit better with your consistency with dấu sắc!


Pablo Yang has lived in Hanoi for 5 years and is the owner of The Secret Garden - Tay Ho Music Lesson Studio as well as a prolific performing artist who has performed in 20+ countries after deciding to leave a career in corporate biotech.  His favorite local flavor is Mắm Tôm and he has a reddish dog named Ben.