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Why English language is difficult for Vietnamese learners and how to make it easier

As I mentioned many times before, learning English is difficult for Vietnamese. Here I’m going to talk about one part of the learning English process, the most important and the most difficult in my opinion, learning vocabulary. Basically, improving your English starts with increasing the number of vocabulary words you know and use in English.

So, to make myself easily understood, I divided this post into three parts:

Why learning English vocabulary is difficult for Vietnamese (and most of the other Asian learners of English)

Vietnamese language itself is the main “problem” here. It is very different from English language and the words in Vietnamese are short, monosyllabic, and most of the times a Vietnamese word is made of two or even more words. It is not the same in English language and this is the first thing someone notices when taking a look at both languages side by side.

In other words, Vietnamese words are completely different from English words. Luckily, Vietnamese uses Latin alphabet; Is there another Asian language that uses the Latin alphabet? I don’t think there is!

European learners of English versus Asian learners of English

As you may know, many European languages have some similarities to English language, similarities that you can’t find in Vietnamese or other Asian languages. That’s because of the Latin language.
English language is not a Latin language but it borrowed many words from Latin, especially terminology words.

To exemplify this better, let’s take an example. Because I watch a lot of documentaries about universe, planets etc let’s take the word “orbit” which means (one of the meanings) “the path of a celestial body as it revolves around another celestial body”, and translate it in few other European languages.

English orbit Romanian orbită
French orbite Czech obíhat
Spanish órbita German orbit
Portuguese órbita Russian орбита
Italian orbita Vietnamese quĩ đạo

I think this simple table makes the point. Those who speak a European language learn English faster than those who speak an Asian language. That’s why I think of them as two different categories of learners, two categories that need two different ways of learning vocabulary.

While famous books and authors explain us, the teachers, that vocabulary should be learn from the context, I strongly believe that when it comes to Vietnamese (or most of the Asian) learners learning vocabulary from the context is not really effective. This leads me to the third part of this article which is the solution of the problem.

How to learn vocabulary more easily

Everybody knows that “repetition is the mother of learning” and by that I don’t mean a learner of English should repeat a word a hundred times in order to memorize it. By that I mean a word, once its meaning is known, should be used in context as many times as possible otherwise the word will be forgotten.

But again, for me for example, as a Romanian learner of English, associating the word “orbit” with the word “orbită” (which is the Romanian word for “orbit”) is not difficult at all. The words are very similar and it is enough for me to hear it once in order to remember it. The things are different for a Vietnamese learner of English who wants to remember this word.

Here is one example of how I think vocabulary should be learned.

When I teach English at school I have to follow a program, a book, and respect the school’s curriculum. So, at school I use the same techniques as any other teacher, techniques that involve pictures and other visual aids that help everybody to remember the new words.

At home, when I teach English for my daughter (and others), I can do whatever I see fit for my students. Here is what I’ve been doing for three months now with a group of five learners. Four of them are Vietnamese and one is Korean but he knows Vietnamese very well. They are all around 8-9 years old and they study English with me twice a week at my home.

I have this book “Deadly creatures – 100 facts” and I used to read for then one fact every day. They really liked it and I decided to use it more for teaching purpose since they enjoy it so much.

Why English is difficult for Vietnamese learners of English

As you can see, there are short paragraphs about different class of animals. In the picture, the paragraphs are about big cats and the way they hunt. The vocabulary used in these paragraphs is pretty similar and if one word is used in one paragraph then probably it is used in the others too.

Here is how I do it

According to the complexity and length of each paragraph I use one, two, or even three paragraphs for each lesson.

First I read the paragraph for them (usually twice) and I ask some simple questions related to the paragraph.
The questions I asked after reading the paragraph no 13 for example are:

Question: What are cats?
Answer: Cats are meow?
Question: What are these? (Pointing to the picture)
Answer: Lions!
Question: Are lions cats?
Answer: No, lions are bigger.

They always give me quite interesting and funny answers.

Second I ask them to read the paragraph (or sometimes two paragraphs) and underline the words they don’t know so I know what to do next. I usually know what these words are so I am never surprised of what they underline.

Then I ask them to read again and I ask the second set of questions that I prepared (the second set of questions is more difficult than the first one).

I usually find ways of teaching new vocabulary words but I do encourage them to use dictionary. I have two small old netbooks and I use them for this purpose. They do know to read the phonemic transcription and that is extremely important when they study English at home, by themselves without a teacher.

So, now they know the meaning of the new words (with my help or the dictionary’s help). This was the easiest part. The most difficult part is to make them remember these new words because next week we take a look at new paragraphs about big cats and the vocabulary is pretty much the same.

For that, I ask them to translate the paragraph into their own language. Their parents are very happy about this activity because in their opinion this helps them with their own language. I am not sure about that but the reason I ask them to translate it into their language is because using their translation I want them to translate it back to English. I correct it then I ask them to read it for me.

The reason is simple. They use the new learned words in writing then in speaking which helps them to memorize the words. I ask them to write first because they have the necessary time to think and formulate correct written English sentences. They have a model to follow (their own translation). They practice writing as well and it is known that writing helps memorizing words easily. But above all, they enjoy doing this activity and they compare their written versions.

I know many teachers are reluctant when it comes to “translation” but translation is part of learning and recommended or not, learners still use dictionaries for learning purposes. It is a fact!

However, this is not the only way of doing a lesson with your 9 year old learners and definitely it is not the best way for everybody. For sure you can’t do it forever since they will get bored but for now, they find it interesting and the same new words they use in all of the paragraphs from the same page which is repetition, and as it is said “repetition is the mother of learning”.


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