Understanding cultural communication differences between English and Vietnamese speakers.

While working as an interpreter, I find that users of the Vietnamese language interpreters and translators may benefit by having some understanding of the differences between English and Vietnamese. This article aims to make a small contribution toward this understanding.


At an interpreting session, the English speaker, in the role of the professional in this scenario, asked the non-English speaker (the client): “Do you want to be called by your first name or family name?” The client may find this question puzzling because in Vietnamese, even in formal situations, people are not called by their family name (eg. Mr Tran). In formal situations, initially people are usually called by their full name ie. title, family name, middle name (if any), first name - in the example; Mr Tran Van Nam. Thereafter, they would normally be called by their title and first name: Mr Nam, Dr Nam, lawyer Nam, or  teacher Nam. In less formal situations, people are called by a relative-type title, followed by their name: Uncle Nam, older brother Nam  - even in the absence of a family relationship. The take-away message I would suggest in this situation, is that professionals should provide the client’s full name to the interpreter, not ask; “Do you want to be called by your first name or family name?” This can happen either before the conversation commenced or at the start of the conversation, so that when the professional says “How are you Mr Tran?” or “Is this Mr Tran?”, the interpreter can provide culturally-correct interpretations as “How are you Mr Nam?” or “Is this Mr Nam?”, respectively.

Family members

With terms referring to family members such as ‘parent’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘uncle’, ‘aunt’, etc., the interpreter or translator will require more information, which can be a surprise to the professional. This is due to the Vietnamese language being more specific in relation to these terms. Respectively, in the Vietnamese language, there are terms for ‘father/mother’ [no equivalent of ‘parent’], ‘older brother/younger brother’, ‘older sister/younger sister’, ‘father’s older brother/father’s younger brother/mother’s brother’, ‘father’s sister/mother’s sister’, etc. Therefore, professionals should give interpreters and translators the opportunity to obtain such information.

Singular and plural

The Vietnamese language does not make a distinction between singular and plural. The word ‘con’ for example, can mean ‘child’ or ‘children’. So when a person says that  he or she is going to pick up his or her ‘con’ from school, without a word indicating the quantity, the interpreter or translator will need more information  to know whether to use the word ‘child’ or ‘children’. This applies the other way around as well. Regardless of whether the professional says ‘child’ or ‘children’, if there is no word indicating quantity,  the interpreter or translator will use ‘con’. In situations where quantity is important, I would suggest that professionals use a number - or ask for a number, rather than relying on the singular and plural forms of English.

Instead of saying “How much are your cars worth?”, say “How much are your two cars worth?” When a client says “I have ‘chó’ [dog/dogs] guarding my house”, ask "how many?  - if the quantity is important - because the sentence produced by the interpreter would not indicate whether it is singular or plural.

Passive sentences

In English, it is absolutely fine to have passive sentences such as “An interpreter will be arranged for you.” But, without further information, the interpreter or translator will not be able to produce an equivalent sentence in Vietnamese. The missing information is;  who will arrange the interpreter: ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘they’, ‘staff,’ eg. “Your son will arrange an interpreter for you.” In another example, in a sentence such as "The keys were found on the footpath,” the missing information is; who found the keys. If possible therefore, make sure that sentences like these, not only contain what was done or will be done, but who as well. Otherwise, allow the interpreter or translator the opportunity to seek further information. As a side note, I am aware that there is currently a trend in Vietnam to write passive sentences but I believe that most Vietnamese speakers living outside of Vietnam are uncomfortable with this trend.

In conclusion, English and Vietnamese are vastly different languages, therefore I encourage users of Vietnamese language interpreters and translators to provide them with the opportunity to seek further information in order to perform their role effectively.

By Toan Tran 

Toan Tran: Vietnamese Interpreter from VictoriaAuthor Biography: Toan left Vietnam when he was barely in Year 6, in 1988. Fortunately the fact that the libraries in the Victorian suburbs where he lived contained good collections of Vietnamese language books, and other resources have helped him improved his Vietnamese to the standard that allowed him to obtain NAATI accreditation as a Professional Interpreter in 2009 and has been interpreting to the present. He keenly observes the changes in the Vietnamese language (especially in Vietnam).

Published: 19/09/2018