I discovered something amazing during last night’s lesson with Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher. We were discussing my pronunciation of the sound written as ư, which I’m not familiar with from other languages. I have trouble vocalising the ư in a way that’s clearly and consistently different from the common or garden u (/u/, as in boot). Several sources, including Huyền herself, had suggested all kinds of tips and tricks for ‘placing’ the vowel properly in my mouth, such as these:
- ‘Try to say something in between /i/ (as in beat) and /u/.’
- ‘Say it like an /u/, but with a broader mouth, spreading the lips.’
- ‘Say it like a schwa (as in the article a, pronounced without emphasis), only higher up.’
Nothing helped, and the ư remained problematic. But last night I realised that my teacher speaks not only Vietnamese, Mandarin, English, Spanish and Catalan (!), but also German, and I wondered: how has she ever managed to wrap her oral muscles around the German ü sound? I mean, the ü is easy enough for me because I’ve learnt it on my parents’ knees, but it’s notoriously hard for those who don’t have it in their first language. So tell me, Huyền, how did you do it?
‘Oh, instead of ü I just say the Vietnamese ư’, she replied casually. ‘Works every time. Never a problem.’
‘Would that work the other way around as well?’ I asked. ‘Could I just pronounce Vietnamese words with ư as if it were an ü?’
‘I guess so. Go ahead and try it.’
So instead of từ I said ‘tǜ’ and instead of sữa I said ‘sǖa’ (for the dash, read a tilde) – and she got my meaning without a hitch.
Now this is odder than it may seem, because the ư and the ü do not sound as similar as they look on the page. The main thing they have in common is that your tongue has to be high up near the roof of your mouth. But the ü is a front rounded vowel, which is to say that your tongue is pushed forward inside your mouth and your lips are in a kind of kissing position; whereas the ư is a central unrounded vowel, so your tongue is somewhere in the middle of your mouth, while your lips are in a more neutral pose. Quite different, in a word.
But I suppose their redeeming commonality is that they’re both clearly unlike the u. And apparently, as long as that’s the case, listeners will perceive both ư and ü as ‘something like u but different’, and you get away with saying either of them. (Unless a language has two vowels somewhere in that area, that is, such as Turkish – or so I would expect.) So you can cheat and still be understood – or rather, be understood better .
All’s fair in love, war and language-learning. In Vietnamese, I’ll be a cheat.
On a practical note: I do these Vietnamese lessons through Italki, one of the digital platforms that bring together language learners and teachers. In my experience (which is limited: just five or six lessons so far, all from the same teacher), it works very well. Even with a ‘small’ language such as Vietnamese, you can choose from among a good number of teachers, who have different qualifications and charge different rates. I’m happy to study with Huyền: she’s reliable, patient, good at her job and fun to talk to. Her knowing all these other languages is a nice bonus. (Neither Italki nor Huyền is sponsoring this message.)
And just in case you’re wondering how my Vietnamese is coming along: not too badly, thank you. I mean, I’m still firmly in the lower A1 range, but I do perceive that I’m making these tiny steps forward. Some words and phrases actually begin to feel familiar. I’m hopeful that spending three weeks in Vietnam will make me soar to the level of a linguistically challenged two-year-old.