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More complaints about the vocabulary, and learning Vietnamese sounds

This post is a complaint about the organization of the Vietnamese course. I have ideas how to make it better -- I'd offer to help but I don't know any Vietnamese (beyond the basics from the FSI course, poorly retained). But if the hardworking folks who write the course are planning changes, and if you want my input, please contact me! (I'm going to make some suggestions below but I don't really know what is and isn't possible within the Duolingo framework.)

Why does this course start with all this useless vocabulary? I've read on the forums that they want us to learn the sounds first. I agree that's important -- it's not just the tones, Vietnamese has some super tricky vowels, too. For the sake of argument, I'm even willing to grant that it's somehow not possible to use regular, basic vocabulary (hi, bye, mom, dad, one, two, three) to teach Vietnamese sounds -- I'm assuming it's really important that all sorts of obscure words come up in this introductory section. Even with this assumption:

The "learn the sounds" section is useless!

There are three things I want to get out of "learn the sounds":

1) Learn what sound each letter represents.

2) Learn to hear the tones.

3) Learn to hear the different vowels.

From this course, I'm only getting part (1): I can tell you that a "d" makes a "z" sound. But I'm not practicing vowels or tones at all. The problem seems to be that the course forces me to focus on everything other than the sounds: I have to memorize vocabulary. I have to spell vowels and consonants, but I don't have to write the diacritics which indicate tone or vowel. (The "hats" over a, o, e indicate different vowel quality.) So, there is no incentive at all to focus on the difference among different tones / vowels.

If you are rewriting the course soon, I suggest the following.

  1. First, organize the sounds section according to sounds -- better, maybe even pairs or sets of sounds that are easily confused. (E.g. ai vs. ay, e vs. "e with a hat," etc.) Ideally you'd plan lessons called "Tones 1, Tones 2, Tones 3, Vowels 1, Diphthongs 1, ...". They don't all have to be at the beginning, either: it might be very useful to have Tones 2, 3, 4 happen at the intermediate level, when the students already have a few Vietnamese words / phrases "in their mind's ear."

  2. Next, find some minimal pairs (or sets): words that differ only in the aspect you are considering. For instance, "ca" and "ca" with different tones, or something like "mai" and "may" for the vowels. The point is that you choose two or more words whose only difference is the one feature you're trying to teach. (I don't know Vietnamese, so not sure if "mai" and "may" is a legal example, but I hope you get my point!) If your first language is Vietnamese, this is a good time to find out which sounds foreigners (esp. English speakers) find difficult -- it's often not the same as the sounds you think are difficult! (Another warning here: I'm talking about "difficult to hear," not "difficult to spell." There are spelling issues too -- e.g. "g is spelled as gh before e or i" or whatever -- but that is a separate issue from the sounds of the language.)

  3. Then, build a lesson that forces the learner to learn the sounds. I understand the issues with Vietnamese input -- you can't ask people to type Vietnamese, for technical reasons. Do something creative to solve the problem! Example: Can you play a sound clip and then have a multiple-choice radio-button question that asks what word it is? E.g. "which tone was that is this clip"? If not, what can you do? (If I knew what is and isn't allowed in the Incubator I could come up with more suggestions.)

  4. Finally, don't bother the learner with the meaning of all the words you use here -- treat them as "nonsense words". I'm perfectly happy learning to hear the difference between "cai" and "cay" without knowing what either one means. In fact, I much prefer that to learning "cai = millipede" and "cay = cumulonimbus" but still being unable to hear the difference.

Sorry to complain so much -- just a suggestion, if you are editing the course soon. Some people put a lot of hard work into this course, so even though I'm complaining, THANK YOU!

May 1, 2017



Hi there. I've stopped using DL to learn Vietnamese. Your comments about pron are valid, but I think that voice recognition software just isn't up to the subtleties of the Vietnamese diphthongs and tripthongs.

I've spent about three years in Vietnam and the language there is the hardest to learn that I've come across: the tones are subtle and tricky, the vowel sounds are difficult for English native-speakers and some of the consonant clusters are hard to distinguish between e.g. /t/ and /th/.

I also agree about the strange choice of vocab, but this is a feature of DL in other courses. Their sentences are often facile too.

I'm looking elsewhere for a Vn course.

May 2, 2017


Let me know what you find!

May 2, 2017


Let us know*, I would appreciate too. :P

Duolingo is awesome, I'm still learning, but I feel a lack for the Vietnamese course. It's one of my mother tongue (child-skill-until-now though) but I don't feel very confortable with the learning (proununcitations / examples).

May 2, 2017


I wouldn't give up on Duo. After say 6 months of study come back use the course as a vocab refresher/tester. I am doing this with Portuguese and reviewing all the French I forgot. Works well for me and more fun then flashcards.

August 8, 2017


Offering sound files where you can record your voice and compare it to native speakers in the paid option might be an idea for all languages. Agree about Vietnamese that is why I canceled the course as I felt the course was incomplete by not focusing on the individual tones and I might pick up bad habits such as sounding like a robot ( just kidding.) which are harder to lose then learning new material. This is reason I wouldn't take Spanish with Portuguese as a monolingual English speaker until I am very comfortable with Portuguese. Vietnamese is far less intuitive for English speakers and needs a different approach.

August 8, 2017


As a person growing up learning Vietnamese (but lacking a lot of vocabulary), I'm sorry I can't empathize with you all. But I completely agree with you points; tones are completely glossed over and even though many of the consonants in Vietnamese are near alien to English, Duo simply glosses over them as well. Unfortunately for many here, you guys didn't grow up already knowing tones and that darn velar nasal (/ŋ/).

That being said, the sounds I think are hard to distinguish for most here would probably be, firstly the ngã and the hỏi tones. Also, the ă sound (essentially a short /a/ sound) because English doesn't distinguish vocabulary by length of vowels. The aspiration difference between "c" and "kh" can be difficult as well.

Sorry for the wall of text, but I hope that I've contributed to the conversation.

May 5, 2017


I don’t even know if Duolingo is the right tool to teach alphabets and phonics yet. For the phonologies of languages that I do know, I got from reading texts littered with IPA notation and corresponding real audio recordings of native speakers. I can mentally map written Vietnamese to my internal phonemic inventory now. But I would not know it from just using Duolingo alone.

September 17, 2017


Agreed. I would not recommend this course until someone has done the work to learn the alphabet, initial and final sounds, tones, vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs- first! And not just the basics, but to the point where your pronunciation is spot on or very good. If you can pick up any Vietnamese text and read every word out loud (obviously you won't understand what you're saying), you're on the right track. Someone new to Vietnamese diving headfirst into here will be absolutely lost as this course is woefully inadequate at teaching them the basic fundamentals of the language.

May 7, 2017


Where would you go to learn the basics? Do you know a good source?

May 7, 2017


I learned using a few sources. One was FSI course. Volume 1 is all about pronunciation. It's dry, but I drilled on this for 2 months just to get pronunciation down pat. It helped me a lot. Here's a link: https://www.livelingua.com/project/fsi/Vietnamese/

Next is Learn Vietnamese with Annie. She has very useful playlist about the basics. Even though she primarily teaches Southern Accent, she goes into detail about both dialects for the basics. Link here: https://www.youtube.com/user/AnnieVietnamese/playlists

I also picked up this book, primarily because it focused on the southern accent, "Vietnamese for Beginners by Jake Catlett".

This is how I got started, the first two being the primary sources. Now, yes, these are primarily southern accent, but most text books and youtube videos are northern accent, so they're not that hard to find. A good one I found for Northern accent is: https://www.youtube.com/user/Tiengvietoi/playlists

May 8, 2017


You guys really like complaining. If you stopped complaining and focused on getting to level 20 instead, you might find you'd know some Vietnamese by now.

Brianl, I agree with you that writing the diacritics is important. I disagree with you that there is no incentive to use them. The 'almost correct' answers we get without diacritics was incentive for me. I wanted a perfect 'correct' answer, so I downloaded a Chrome extension that lets me write diacritics.

  1. You might think that strictly demarcated lessons on the different tones is better organisation, but I could argue that learning the tones in a tone silo like that is bad pedagogy. All of us reach a point where we want to hear the difference between hỏi and ngã. Just open a YouTube tab alongside your Duolingo tab.

  2. Duolingo already does this with, for example, cái ca and con cá.

  3. Again, use the diacritics available to you. Then use the standard Duolingo listening questions and get a 'correct' answer with perfect tone placement.

  4. All of those 'nonsense words' I personally have had occasion to use at some point in Vietnam.

You don't learn a language with the course you want, you learn with the course you have.

May 13, 2017


You're making a lot of assumptions here. Just because we criticize the course doesn't mean we also don't study Vietnamese.

Tôi biết một số tiếng Việt. Tôi học hằng ngày. Tôi nghe, viết, nói, đọc, và gặp bạn mới và chat bằng tiếng Việt. Mặc dù tiếng Việt của tôi tệ, tôi thích ngôn ngữ rất nhiều. :) Tiếng Việt khó khăn nhưng vui vẻ cũng. Duolingo tốt, nhưng không phải hoàn hỏa.

But I would not recommend Duolingo to someone just starting out because it doesn't teach you the fundamentals. Duolingo is a good supplement, but not a good way to take your first step. No course is perfect, there is always room for improvement, hence the criticism.

May 21, 2017
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