What does yes really mean?
We did mention that Vietnamese liked to say 'yes' way more often than 'no'. There is one word for no and that's 'khong', but for yes...the nuances are nearly infinite. There are the 'da' and 'u' used mostly at the end of the other interlocutor’s sentences and having more the meaning of 'I've heard you' or 'keep going' than a solid 'yes'. 'Vang' is a more general- but sometimes very vague - yes; literally, it means 'you are right'. Most of the times, the Vietnamese will use the verb contained in the question to express a 'yes-approval'. Something like: Q. did you see the football match yesterday? A. I saw. Q. Do you have a motorbike? A. I have. Watch out for negative questions! Vietnamese say yes to approve the negation. Q. This isn't your house, is it? A. Yes. (Meaning: yes, it's not my house) Double negative questions? Forget those, you'd be lucky if any Vietnamese would understand such a convoluted sentence and even luckier to guess correctly what a yes would mean. Unfortunately, knowing how to say yes is the easy part. Understanding what a Vietnamese really means when he answers yes takes a few years of practice and experience.
Ten tips to learning the lingo
You have to learn to hear your own voice! Tape yourself... listen - not to the words - but to your intonations and inflexions. Ask someone who has good imitation skills (what we usually refer to as 'a good ear') or who knows a bit of Vietnamese to help you decode your own voice. 2. DON'T skip the basics: pronunciation. Vietnamese phonemes are quite different and learning the alphabet is a worthwhile endeavor. 3. Make your own list of phoneme equivalents. For instance, most phrase books will say 'a' is pronounced as in 'say' and 'o' as in 'sow'. Find your own equivalent words; this will help you pronounce and memories at the same time. 4. Revisit the basics often. Can you tell - and pronounce - the difference between 'quen' and 'quen' or 'tay, and 'tai'...? Pronunciation and tones are two different but equally difficult challenges of the language. 5. At first, exaggerate the tones and even use your hands to mime them. 6. Speak loudly and listen to yourself. After having said a sentence, try and rehear it mentally to see where you have placed the tones and inflexions.
Learn a few introductory sentences and use them over and over again, slowly building from), there to enlarge your repertoire. 8. When a Vietnamese is correcting you on a word, make sure you know if he is correcting your pronunciation or your tone. Again, use your hands for tones. 9. Look at the shop signs and advertisements. The Vietnamese phonetic alphabet makes it easy (!) to practice saying the words even if - at first - you don't understand their meaning. These signs are like an open-air dictionary, albeit with limited vocabulary. 10. There are no short cuts. If you really want to learn, you'll have to make the effort. Get books, buy tapes, and practice.
Beware of the Vietnamese yes
Ask all questions several times over and in different ways. Never give the answer in a question. Ask open questions, not leading questions. DON'T ask negative questions. Avoid 'either or' questions.