A few years ago, I attended a friend’s party, during which she introduced me to her other friends: “Have you met my friend Li? She’s from Vietnam, and she talks about future things in the present.” This line stayed with me for a very long time, as up till then, it never occurred to me that the way I spoke English constituted a salient part of my identity, and that there was possibly a link between “from Vietnam” and the “use of present tense” for future events. This incident sparked my interest in how Vietnamese learners use English, and in particular, how this variety of English treats tense and aspect in everyday discourse. I then decided to pursue this enquiry further by gathering data from recorded natural conversations and Facebook posts. Results suggest two conspicuous variants in Vietnamese learners’ treatment of tense and aspect: (1) the use of non-conjugated verbs and/or misuse of conjugated verbs, and (2) preference for simple present tense when referring to future events.
Time, Tense and Aspect
In linguistics, tense is a deictic category that functions to situate an event in a chronological order in relation to other events, and aspect deals with speakers’ subjective perception of the situation: as complete, in progress, having duration, beginning, ending, or being repeated. Tense and aspect are universal grammatical categories that are present in most languages, although the coding systems of these categories vary from language to language.
As an oversimplified contrastive description, tense and aspect are encoded in finite verbs in English while they are not overtly marked in Vietnamese, but rather understood from the context. English makes a three-way distinction between present, past, and future tense, with only present and past tense triggering verbal inflection. Present tense is unmarked (Ø) by default, and marked with the -(e)s morpheme when the subject is 3SG. Past tense is realised with the suffix –ed for regular verbs. Futurity is usually realised with the modal ‘will’ followed by a bare infinitive, but it can also be realised through other means such as phrasal modals, or the present progressive simple present tense with time adverbials.
Unfortunately, it’s not that obvious in Vietnamese. Consider the following Vietnamese sentence:
(*) Chị ấy khóc
This can be translated as ‘she cries’, ‘she cried’, she was crying’, or ‘she has been crying’ depending on the context. Vietnamese does not rely on verbal inflection to indicate tense or aspect, but rather on other designated lexical or pragmatic devices. Although Vietnamese has particles such as rồi [completed], đã [past], đang [progressive], and sẽ [future] to mark time/state when required (Dam 2001), those particles are often dropped when time adverbials such as hôm qua (yesterday), ngày mai (tomorrow), bây giờ (now), trước đây (before) are present.
To investigate Vietnamese learners’ variety of English when it comes to treatment of tense and aspect, three natural conversations of 3 – 5 minutes each between a Vietnamese parent learning English and an Australian-born child were recorded, with the parents’ and children’s oral consent. Additionally, I also gained access to 50 Facebook posts by Vietnamese learners. Half of this dataset were from a private Facebook group consisting of Vietnamese learners who have been in Australia for more than 10 years, and the other half were from Vietnamese learners living in Vietnam. This mixed selection was solely for the purpose of getting a good overview of the variety used by a random population of Vietnamese learners, rather than to find out whether there is a difference between two groups. In order to ensure that the features identified are indeed part of the Vietnamese learners’ variety rather than a result of an individual error, I work on the principle that a feature only counts as significant if it occurs for at least three times across the dataset, and in case of the Facebook posts, by at least three different speakers.
The use of non-conjugated verbs and/or misuse of conjugated verbs
Due to Vietnamese famously lacking inflectional morphology, it is predictable that the codification of English conjugated verbs is problematic for many Vietnamese learners. Data gathered show strong evidence that Vietnamese learners tend to omit the inflectional morpheme of the verb when progressive or perfect aspect is in use. Consider the following data:
(1) P: TJ have you write your homework?
C: Not yet.
P: Why don’t you do it while I am cook dinner
(2) “Dad is happy and comfortable and has enjoy all the visits of family.”
(3) “hello Ireland. itz turn cool here in DN but no sunshine…envy you!”
As the examples show, speakers tend to use bare infinitives following the auxiliary ‘have’ in the perfective construction (1 & 2), and bare infinitive following the auxiliary ‘be’ in the progressive construction (1 & 3). Given that Vietnamese has no morphology on the verb, this tendency towards bare infinitives is likely to be a result of Vietnamese learners’ language transfer. Speakers naturally transfer the skills and patterns they acquired in their first language into their second language. It is also worth considering that, as inflectional morphemes (particularly the word-final /s/) are small, redundant and not permissible in Vietnamese phonotactics, they are less likely to be perceived by Vietnamese learners.
Preference for simple present tense when referring to future events
Another salient feature, which also served as an impetus for this study, is Vietnamese learners’ tendency to use the simple present tense to refer to future events. Consider the following sentences:
(4) “Sunday family picnic at Floriade.
I am suggesting a family day out at Floriade. We buy food at Floriade, nice photos are taken and there is a lot to see and do there. So we come to Thao Thi for breakfast and then go to Floriade for a picnic lunch. It is a rare opportunity for all of us to get together outdoor, with Trang/Nghia family here too.”
(5) C: Dad have you called iinet?
P: I do it
C: Have you already done it? Or are you going to?
P: I do it tomorrow
Although futurity in Vietnamese can be marked by the particle sẽ [future] (equivalent of ‘will’ in English), this particle is often dropped when a time abverbial is present, or when the time of the event could be inferred from the context. Language transfer is apparent in example 5 – when the father responds to the child “I do it” with an implication that ‘I have not done it, but I will do it.’ However, the child – an English speaker – is confused by the answer and has to seek clarification as to whether this action has already been done, or will be done later. Even in response to the child’s follow-up question, the father still does not adopt the modal ‘will,’ but makes his intended meaning clearer by inserting the time adverbial ‘tomorrow.’
On a similar yet rather different note, example 4 presents an interesting case when the Vietnamese learners’ preference for the present tense for future events gives the sentence a different reading in English – the habitual aspect. Without the background context, it appears as though this group frequently buys food at Floriade and takes photos. The subsequent sentence “So we come to Thao Thi for breakfast and then go to Floriade for a picnic lunch” creates a similar impression. This then makes a nice example of possible mismatches between form and meaning when two varieties of the same language come into contact, with the structurally variant feature generating derived semantic effects.
 This includes Facebook statuses and Facebook comments.
Dam, Phap 2001, Old habits die hard: Persistent errors in English written by Vietnamese speakers. A paper presented at National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) Annual Conference, February. 20-24, 2001 in Phoenix, Arizona. Retrieved online on 15 October 2015 at http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED453672
Brunelle, Marc 2014, “Vietnamese”. In: J Mathias & P Sidwell (Eds), The handbook of Austroasiatic languages. Leiden Boston Brill, pp. 909-953.