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Some Vietnamese Students Problems with English Grammar:

A Preliminary Study
Dan Van Dao

This paper focuses on some common problems encountered by Vietnamese learners of English with tense and aspect,
particularly the simple and progressive aspects, the copula be, and adverb positions in verb and adjective phrases.
Twenty-five first-year English majors and 47 first-year non-English majors at Kiengiang Community College in Viet-
nam participated in this study. The results show that the students have widespread errors in these areas of English

Introduction Tense and Aspect in English and Vi-

Many Vietnamese students beginning to etnamese
study English have much trouble learning Tense and Aspect in English
English grammar. One of the problems they In English, a finite verb carries both tense
usually have is handling English aspect. This and aspect. The tense indicates the time in
may be because verbs are not marked for which an action occurs, present, past, or fu-
tense and aspect in Vietnamese. As a result, ture. For example, the present tense of the
students usually transfer non-conjugated verb to bring is bring, the past tense is brought,
verbs and implied tense and aspect into and the future tense is will bring. On the oth-
English. Another problem is that they often er hand, the aspect shows whether an action
transfer Vietnamese sentential structures happens habitually, continuously, or repeat-
into English, particularly the use of the co- edly (Longman Group, 1995). English has
pula and phrasal structures. They tend to four aspects: simple (or zero aspect), pro-
string together English words using Viet- gressive, perfect, and their combination,
namese word order. perfect progressive (Celce-Murcia & Lar-
In this paper, I will first provide a sen-Freeman, 1999, p. 110). These four as-
contrastive analysis of some features of Eng- pects are illustrated in the following
lish and Vietnamese grammar, focusing on examples:
tense and aspect, the use of the copula be, (1)
and phrasal structures. This comparison is He speaks English with his girlfriend
based on the Contrastive Analysis Hypothe- every day. (simple)
sis, which assumes that errors are the result
of transfer from learners first language He is speaking English with his
(Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 79) to the girlfriend at the moment. (progressive)
second. The majority of my results confirm He has spoken English with his
the prediction of the Contrastive Analysis girlfriend very often recently. (perfect)
Hypothesis; however, there is also some
evidence against it, supporting Zobl (1980) He has been speaking English with his
and Kellerman (1986), who have found that girlfriend for nearly three hours. (per-
not all errors can be predicted by the Con- fect progressive)
trastive Analysis Hypothesis (as cited in
Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p. 79). Based Although there is a difference between
on my results, I will discuss some implica- tense and aspect, according to Celce-Murcia
tions for language teaching and learning. and Larsen-Freeman (1999), it is easier to
combine tense and aspect when learning
English than to learn them separately.

Tense and Aspect in Vietnamese guistics by Bui The Khanh, who compared
Like English, Vietnamese also has tense and the correlation between the tense and aspect
aspect, but they are expressed differently. of Vietnamese and Russian. After one year
Doan (n.d.) pointed out that In Vietnam- of researching, Bui could not find any corre-
ese, verbs are not conjugated, and tense and lation of [past] or ang [present] between
aspect are generally understood in the con- the two languages. He found, however, over
text (p. 6). Similarly, Le (1972) and Dam 30% correlation of s [future] in these two
(2001) also stated that tense and aspect are languages (Cao, 1998, p. 544). Cao argued
usually implied and understood in context, that although s correlates with the future
even though Vietnamese has particles to tense, the future tense itself, after all, is only
mark them when needed. For example, the one of the uncertain states covered by s as
Vietnamese sentence Anh y ng [brother- an aspect marker. Cao then concluded that
there-sleep] can be translated into English Vietnamese does not have tense.
as He is sleeping, He slept, He sleeps, or He has The confusion between tense and as-
slept, depending on the context. When ad- pect in Vietnamese can be seen even among
verbial elements such as trc y [ago, be- linguists, as can be seen in the following
fore] or by gi [now, at the moment] are statement, in which the author claimed that
used in the sentence, tense- and/or aspect- aspect marking particles express time:
marking particles are generally omitted. When necessary, Vietnamese grammar can
In fact, the distinction between tense express time adequately by means of placing
and aspect in Vietnamese is rather compli- one of several aspect marking particles in
cated, and in fact controversial, compared to front of the main verb, notably [for past],
the case in English. Some linguists argue ang [for present], and s [for future] (Dam,
that Vietnamese has two tenses, past and 2001, emphasis added). This unclear under-
future (marked by [past] and s [future]), standing about tense and aspect by linguists
and two aspects, perfect and progressive resulted in misleading information about
(marked by [perfect] and ang [progres- tense and aspect presented in textbooks on
sive]) (Panfilov, 2002). Thus, in this frame- Vietnamese language taught in schools in
work, the same particle is used for both Vietnam (Cao, 2004). In this paper, I adopt
tense and aspect while the other two par- the framework of Cao Xuan Hao. His
ticles mark either tense (s) or aspect (ang). framework is based on a sound understand-
In another description of tense and ing of authentic Vietnamese rather than try-
aspect in Vietnamese, Cao Xuan Hao, an ing to fit Vietnamese grammar into a West-
influential Vietnamese linguist, argued that ern model.
Vietnamese does not have tense; it only has According to Cao (1998), the markers
aspect. According to Cao (1998), Vietnam- and ang do not properly indicate past and
ese uses to mark the perfect aspect, ang present tenses. He illustrated this with the
to mark the progressive aspect, and s to following examples:
mark an uncertain state expressed by verbs
expressing hopes, wishes, guesses, and con- (2) By gi ti
ditions. Tense marking in Vietnamese, fol- Now I marker
lowing Cao, only occurs idiomatically when c tin.
these aspect markers are combined in ex- have enough money
pressions, such as v ang [in the past and I have enough money now (p. 548).
present], and v s [in the past and future].
These expressions are found in modern and (3) Nu hai thng na
formal Vietnamese, but not in traditional or If two months more
casual Vietnamese (p. 536). In fact, to dem- anh mi dn n
onstrate that Vietnamese does not fit into you new move arrive
the mold of Western languages, Cao cited a th ti
project from the 1960s on Vietnamese lin- then I marker

ch khc ri. point leads to the result of the state or the
live place different already. action. For example:
If you are moving in two months, I
will have moved to another place (p. (6) H i n trng.
548). They marker go arrive school
They went to school.
(4) Hi y, ti ang
Back then I marker (7) N bn cun sch .
hc t, It marker sell book that
study the fourth division He sold that book.
cn anh ang chun b
as for you marker prepare These sentences (6 and 7) express ac-
thi t ti. tions with an end-point that were completed
take (exam) high school exam. in the past before the time of speaking, and
At that time I was attending the fourth they did not continue into the present. In
division while you were preparing to other words, actions such as went and sold
take the high school exam (p. 547). were finished already and could not happen
one more time. Cao concluded that in
(5) Sng mai anh nn these cases expresses an action that is com-
morning tomorrow you should plete (p. 550).
n tht sm, khi In contrast, an action with no end-
come really early when point does not lead to the result of the state
c nh ti ang ng. or action, but rather states an action that is
all family I marker sleep still happening at the time of speaking. For
Tomorrow morning, you should come instance:
early when my family will be sleeping
(p. 549). (8) H ang i n trng.
They marker go arrive school
in sentences (2) and (3) does not They are going to school.
indicate actions happening in the past. in
sentence (3) expresses a state, an action, and (9) N ang bn cun sch .
a truth in the present while in sentence (4) It marker sell book that
expresses an action happening in the future. He is selling the book (Cao, 1998, pp.
In addition, ang in sentences (4) and (5) 551-553).
does not express actions happening in the
present. ang in sentence (4) indicates ac- The marker ang in these sentences (8
tions happening in the past, and ang in sen- and 9) expresses actions, such as go and sell
tence (5) denotes an action in the future. In that are still happening at the time of speak-
reality, when Vietnamese speakers want to ing. In Caos viewpoint, these actions with
express when something happened, they use no end-point are expressed by the progres-
adverbs of time, such as trc y [ago, be- sive aspect (p. 551).
fore], by gi [now, at the moment], sau ny The following examples contrast the
[later, in the future] (p. 549). Do and ang use of tense and aspect in English and Viet-
markers always indicate past and present namese:
tenses in Vietnamese? In Caos approach,
they definitely do not. Instead, he stated that (10) Hm qua ti mua hai cun sch.
the markers and ang indicate aspects ex- Yesterday, I buy two book
pressing actions with an end-point or ac- I bought two books yesterday.
tions with no end-point, respectively (p. 551).
He emphasized that an action with an end-

(11) Anh y ang ng. The Copula in Vietnamese
Brother there marker sleep Although Vietnamese has a word l that
He is sleeping. carries some of the same meaning as Eng-
lish be, it is not used in quite the same way.
In example 10, hm qua [yesterday] in First, Vietnamese uses l when the predicate
Vietnamese is the adverb of time, and it im- is a noun.
plies the past. No tense marker is needed in
this sentence because adding the tense (15) Anh y l bc s.
marker would result in an unnatural sound- Brother there be doctor
ing sentence, but the verb buy has to be 'He is a doctor'.
changed into bought in English.
In sentence 12 below, s is used to indicate According to Stassen (1997), In Vi-
uncertainty of an event in the future. etnamese, nominal predicates strongly prefer
the presence of the particle l, which can be
(12) Tri s ma characterized as a general identificational
Sky marker rain marker (p. 87).
It will rain.
(16) ng y l lnh.
According to Cao (1998), since s ex- gentleman there be soldier
presses unfulfilled actions or uncertainty, it He is / was a soldier (Stassen, 1997,
is suitable to talk about the future. This does p. 87).
not mean that s is a tense marker; it is an
aspect marker which happens to be suitable (17) Tn ca ti l Nam
to talk about a certain time frame.1 Thus, s Name of me be Nam
can, but not always, indicate a future time My name is Nam (Cao, 1998, p. 238).
In these cases (sentences 15, 16, and
Copula in English and in 17), the copula be is the main verb in Viet-
Vietnamese namese (Diep, 2004, p. 493).
The Copula in English Secondly, Diep (2004) pointed out
According to Celce-Murcia & Larsen- that the Vietnamese l is also used with pos-
Freeman (1999), the verb to be serves as the sessions to indicate something that belongs
copula in English. It links the subject of a to someone (p. 99). For instance:
sentence with a predicate, which can be a
noun or an adjective (p. 54). Here are two (18) Quyn sch ny l ca ti
examples: Book this be of I
This book is mine.
(13) He is a professor.
(19) By gi, ngi nh l
(14) Cotton is light. Now house be
ca anh.
Unfortunately for language learners, of you
be has many forms, including am, is, are, was, Now, the house is yours.
were, be, being, and been. According to Celce-
Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999), Be, Thirdly, and unlike English, Dam
which is the most frequent verb in English, (2001) said l is rarely used to link a subject
has more distinct forms with respect to per- with its predicative adjective in Vietnamese.
son, number, and tense than any other verb With adjectives, l is usually omitted.
in English (p. 54).

(20) Ti i.
I hungry Similarly, Holschuh (1991) mentioned
I am hungry. that adverbs of manner describe the action
of the verb and are placed after the verb and
Diep added that the Vietnamese l is the object, if any (p. 43). For example:
used with adjectives only to emphasize, con-
firm, or assert the meaning of the sentence (27) He does his work carefully.
in context. For example:
Butler and Mahnke (2004) noted that
(21) Theo ti, bc tranh adverbs of frequency usually precede the
Following idea I picture main verb. For example:
ny l p
this be beautiful (28) She sometimes drinks coffee.
For me, this picture is beautiful.
In this paper, I will only discuss the
(22) Thi quen l tt adverb of manner, as in example (27).
Habit that be good In English adjective phrases, an ad-
That habit is good (Diep, 2004, p. verb, if present, generally precedes and mod-
105). ifies the adjective as in example (25).

To summarize, in Vietnamese, l is Phrasal Structures in Vietnamese

used as a copula (i.e., a main verb) in the Vietnamese verb phrases and adjective
sentence to link the subject with predicate phrases are constructed slightly differently
nouns, possessive phrases, and, when there from English phrases. In Vietnamese verb
is a need for emphasis, with adjectives. It is or adjective phrases, the adverb of manner,
often omitted when occurring with predicate such as rt [very], hi [little], may precede or
adjectives in non-emphatic contexts. follow the verb or adjective, depending on
the lexical type of the adverb.2 According to
Phrasal Structures in English and in Diep (2004), some adverbs, such as rt
Vietnamese [very], hi [little], tuyt [absolutely], cc k
Phrasal Structures in English [extremely], which show the degrees of the
Phrasal structures refer to many different verbs or adjectives they modify, always pre-
ways in which languages arrange the consti- cede the verb or adjective. For example:
tuents of sentences. This paper will focus
on verb phrases and adjective phrases. Be- (29) rt thch
low are some examples: very much like
like very much
(23) like English very much (verb phrase)
(30) rt p
(24) dance beautifully (verb phrase) very much beautiful
very beautiful
(25) very beautiful (adjective phrase)
(31) hi thch
According to English grammar rules, little like
in verb phrases, adverbs can appear in dif- like little
ferent positions. For instance, adverbs of
place, of time, of degree, or of manner come (32) hi p
after the verb and its object, if any (Krohn, little beautiful
1977, p. 21). For example: little beautiful

(26) He studies English here.

However, some adverbs, lm [very], eating dinner tonight (Swan & Smith, 2001, p.
qu [very], which also show degrees of verbs 287). Similarly, some Japanese students
or adjectives, always follow a verb or an ad- write sentences, such as We are write to each
jective to express some Vietnamese peoples other in English instead of saying We write to
speaking preferences (pp. 460-461). For in- each other in English (Swan & Smith, 2001, p.
stance: 301). Also, some Chinese learners produce
sentences, such as What do you read? instead
(33) thch lm of the correct sentence What are you reading?
like very much (Swan & Smith, 2001, p. 315).
like very much Further, according to Celce-Murcia
and Larsen-Freeman (1999), students may
(34) mt lm also use the progressive aspect when the
tired very much simple aspect is appropriate. For instance, I
very tired am knowing the answer instead of saying I know
the answer (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman,
(35) thch qu 1999, p. 121), I am wanting to see you instead of
like very much I want to see you (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-
like very much Freeman, 1999, p. 122), or I am believing you
instead of I believe you (Celce-Murcia & Lar-
(36) i qu sen-Freeman, 1999, p. 133).
hungry very much The reason why many students were
very hungry confused about these two aspects might be
that they do not realize that stative verbs,
Thus, a contrast in phrasal structures mental perception verbs, and sensory per-
between English and Vietnamese is that in ception verbs are not used with the progres-
English, the position of the modifier de- sive aspect. These students may think that
pends on whether the head of the phrase is a an action happening at the time of speaking
verb or an adjective, as well as on the type of is progressive, which results in their mistakes.
modifier in the case of verb phrases. How- In my thirteen years of teaching Eng-
ever, in Vietnamese, the position of the lish to EFL students at Kiengiang Commu-
modifier depends only on the type of mod- nity College, I have realized that many Viet-
ifier. In some cases, the position of the namese learners have trouble with learning
modifier in verb phrases and adjective tense and aspect in English and make the
phrases in the two languages matches up kind of mistakes mentioned by Swan and
well, but in some cases, the modifier is Smith and Celce-Murcia and Larsen-
placed in opposite positions, before or after Freeman. Students have problems with both
the head word in the two languages. the forms and the context of use for English
tenses. They tend to omit the copula be in
Common Problems of Vietnamese the progressive aspect before they add (-ing)
Learners of English with Tense and to the main verb. For example, they may say
Aspect, the Copula be, and Phrasal She practice English every afternoon or She is prac-
tice English every afternoon, instead of She prac-
Structures tices English every afternoon. They also say He is
Common Problems with Tense and Aspect work in the office at the moment or He working in
Swan and Smith (2001) listed several mis- the office at the moment, instead of He is working
takes about the simple and progressive as- in the office at the moment.
pects of English which many Asian students
make. These errors are similar to those Common Problems with the Copula be
made by Vietnamese students. For example, As previously mentioned, according to Dam
they reported that many Malaysian and In- (2001), the copula l, th can be omitted in
donesian students produce sentences, such Vietnamese when connecting a subject with
as They eat dinner tonight instead of They are an adjective. However, the copula be cannot

be omitted in English. In reality, many Vi- (41) Ch ti v ti
etnamese learners omit the required form of older sister I and I
be while making English sentences. Dam chng ti rt hay nh nhau.
illustrated this by giving some examples: we very often fight each other
* My sister and me we very often fight
(37) N i. each other.
He hungry My sister and I fight each other very
* He hungry. often (Swan & Smith, 2001, p. 285).
He is hungry.
(42) Chng ti rt thch.
(38) Hm nay con ti m nng. We very like
Today child I sick heavy thi tit Hawaii
* My child very sick today. weather in Hawaii
My child is very sick today. * We very like weather in Hawaii.
We like the weather in Hawaii very
The following (marked with an asterisk) are much.
my students actual sentences:
(43) Anh y rt.
(39) Ch y p. older brother there very
Older sister there beautiful thch ting Anh.
* She beautiful. like English
She is beautiful. * He very like English.
He likes English very much.
(40) Anh y ngho.
older brother there poor When phrasal structures are the same in Vi-
* He poor. etnamese and English, the Vietnamese influ-
He is poor. ence leads learners to produce correct utter-
ances like examples (30 and 32) with
In examples (39 and 40), neither l nor adjectives rt [very], hi [little], tuyt [abso-
th is used in Vietnamese sentences, but the lutely]. If phrasal structures, such as adverb
copula be must be present in the English phrases and verb phrases in Vietnamese,
equivalents. The students English sentences differ from those in English, the Vietnamese
are ungrammatical because they follow the interference leads students to produce errors
Vietnamese sentential structure. as in examples (41-43).

Common Problems with Phrasal Structures The Study

Vietnamese learners seem not to have prob- Background
lems with the positions of adverbs in adjec- As mentioned above, my students often mi-
tive phrases because they are similar in Vi- suse the simple and progressive aspects, the
etnamese and English. However, the copula be, and verb and adjective phrasal
positions of adverbs in verb phrases in Eng- structures. Students at different levels and in
lish and Vietnamese sentences are slightly different majors seemed to make English
different. If students try to apply the adjec- grammar mistakes at different rates. The
tive phrase rule to some verb phrases, they different language proficiency levels of
will make mistakes. The following examples many Vietnamese students may come from
are very common among Vietnamese learn- the fact that they use different textbooks,
ers (see Swan and Smith [2001] for similar have different types of teachers, follow dif-
mistakes among Asian students of English). ferent curricula, or have different levels of
motivation. The biggest contrast is between
English majors and non-English majors.
Non-English majors study English as a re-

quired course in their academic program tiple choice technique allowed me to score
(e.g., business or computer science). They objectively and to see the students recogni-
have only three 60-period semesters of tion knowledge on the two aspects. Howev-
English. They use integrated skills text- er, the multiple choice technique also allows
books for non-English majors. However, students to have a 25% chance of guessing,
their main goals in learning English are to which means that I could not know exactly
read books and to do research related to if students really understood or not. Fur-
their careers, so both teachers and students thermore, the multiple choice format does
focus on grammar, reading, and vocabulary not show how students would use the
rather than on speaking and listening. On forms in real life situations. The second part
the other hand, English majors study all of the test was a translation task, from Viet-
four skills in separate courses using differ- namese into English, with twelve sentences
ent books for each. For example, when they that tested students on their use of the co-
study listening and speaking skills, they use pula be and phrasal structures. Unlike the
listening and speaking skills textbooks and multiple-choice section, the translation part
just focus on practicing these two skills. required students to show their English lan-
They have a total of five 60-period seme- guage ability in use. However, the presence
sters to learn English. Realizing the differ- of the Vietnamese text may induce more
ent proficiency levels among my students, I transfer from the native language than other
asked both English majors and non-English formats, such as an oral interview, might
majors to participate in this study. have. Since the students level was pre-
intermediate, the level of vocabulary and
Research Questions grammar structures was set to be simple
Based on the literature review and my own and familiar to students.
teaching experience, the following questions
were specifically formulated for this study: Subjects
1. How seriously and frequently do Viet- Seventy-two students took the test. Among
namese students make mistakes with these students, 25 were first year English
English aspect, the copula be, and majors and 47 were non-English majors,
phrasal structures? majoring in computer science and business
administration. There were 43 females and
2. Is there a difference in performance 29 males, ranging from twenty to thirty
between English majors and non- years of age. The students were selected be-
English majors regarding these gram- cause they attended classes taught by the
mar problems? same teacher who participated in this study.
3. Is there transfer from Vietnamese to The teacher had thirteen years of English
English in the students use of the teaching experience. The test was scored by
simple and progressive aspects, the the same teacher.
copula be, and phrasal structures?
The teacher gave the test to her classes dur-
Methodology ing normal class hours. The selected stu-
Instrument dents were not informed about the test in
A test (see Appendix) was designed by my- advance. Students were asked to finish the
self and administered by my colleague at test in 30 minutes without discussion or ref-
Kiengiang Community College in Vietnam. erence materials. After the students finished
The test consisted of two parts. The first the test, the teacher collected and graded
part included ten multiple choice items that the answers.
tested students on the two grammar items: After getting the results from the
the simple and progressive aspects. This teacher, I counted the number of students
part of the test used a multiple-choice for- who chose each option for the multiple
mat with four options per item. The mul-

choice items and recorded what the students (c) Are you believing
wrote in the translation section. (d) Are you believe
Question 5. Sometimes I _______ what
Findings the teacher says to me.
Students Errors with the Simple and (a) dont understand (*)
Progressive Aspects (b) am not understanding
The sentences below are selected from the (c) understand not
first part of the test for the analysis. An as- (d) not understanding
terisk (*) indicates the correct answer.3 Question 8. _______ by air because the
cost of flying is very high.
Question 1. I _________ her every day and (a) I don't often travel (*)
she never says hello to me. (b) I'm not often traveling
(a) see (*) (c) I'll not often traveling
(b) am seeing (d) I am not often travel
(c) will see Question 10. I _______ to remember your
(d) am see name but I'm afraid I can't remember it.
Question 2. What is the name of that pic- (a) try
ture which you _________ on the wall? (b) am trying (*)
(a) are look at (c) will trying
(b) is looking at (d) am try
(c) are looking at (*)
(d) look at Table 1 below presents the number
Question 4. _______ every single thing and percentage of students who chose each
which that man says? option for the first part of the test.
(a) Do you believe (*)
(b) Is you believing

Table 1
English Majors and Non-English Majors Responses to the Multiple Choice Items
(English majors: n=25; Non-English majors: n=47)

Item Options
number A B C D
Maj. Non-m. Maj. Non-m. Maj. Non-m. Maj. Non-m.
1 19* 25* 1 14 2 2 3 6
76% 53.2% 4% 29.7% 8% 4.2% 12% 12.7%
2 7 20 0 0 13* 23* 5 4
28% 42.5% 0% 0% 52% 48.9% 20% 8.5%
4 18* 19* 0 1 2 20 5 7
72% 40.4% 0% 2.1% 8% 42.5% 20% 14.8%
5 20* 29* 3 14 0 1 2 3
80% 61.7% 12% 29.7% 0% 2.1% 8% 6.3%
8 22* 17* 2 23 0 2 1 5
88% 36.1% 8% 48.9% 0% 4.2% 4% 10.6%
10 5 8 12* 12* 0 3 8 24
20% 17% 48% 25.5% 0% 6.3% 32% 51%
Notes. Maj.: English majors; Non-m.: Non-English majors; *: Answer key

One observation is that the students time, which helped them realize which as-
did better on sentences containing clues, pect to use. Therefore, I grouped the sen-
such as adverbs of frequency or adverbs of tences into two types: sentences with ad-

verbs and sentences without adverbs, for accurate forms of the simple and progressive
analysis and discussion. aspects.
Sentences with Adverbs of Frequency or Ad- English majors did well on question 4.
verbs of Time. Students did well on sentences The percentage of students choosing the
1 and 5. With question 1, 76% of English correct answer (A), the simple aspect, was
majors and 53.2% of non-English majors 72%. However, non-English majors did not
chose the correct answer, (A), which con- understand the uses and the forms of the
tains the simple form of the verb. This sug- simple and progressive aspects well. The
gests that many students understood the percentage of non-English majors choosing
difference between the simple and progres- the correct answer (A) was low, 40.4% com-
sive aspects, perhaps thanks to the adverb of pared to 42.5% who chose option C, which
frequency every day. However, some students contains the progressive aspect. Also, some
still chose option C, and this meant that they students, 20% of English majors and 14.8%
did not realize that the adverb every day is of non-English majors, were still confused
used to indicate the simple aspect. Of note, about using the forms of the simple and
quite a few non-English majors chose op- progressive aspects and chose options B
tion B, which contains the progressive as- and D.
pect. Only one English major student chose English majors did well on question 8,
this option, which shows that the majority and 88% of them chose the correct answer
of first year English majors have learned the (A), containing the simple aspect. However,
distinction between the simple and progres- non-English majors still seemed to be con-
sive aspects. fused about the simple and progressive as-
Similarly with sentence 5, 80% of pects because the percentage of students
English majors and 61.7% of non-English choosing the correct answer (A) was very
majors chose the correct answer (A), which low, just 36.1% compared to 48.9% who
contains the simple aspect. This suggests chose option B, the progressive aspect. A
that most students understood the differ- few students did not understand how the
ence between the simple and progressive simple and progressive aspects are formed,
aspects, maybe because of the adverb of fre- so they still chose options C and D.
quency sometimes. However, some students, Finally, with question 10, both English
12% of English majors and 29.7% of non- majors and non-English majors mistook the
English majors, still chose option B which simple aspect in option A for the correct
contains the progressive aspect. Some stu- progressive aspect in option B. The percen-
dents chose option D, which means that tage of students choosing option B was very
they still did not have a clear idea about the low, only 48% for English majors and
form of these aspects. 25.5% for non-English majors. Many stu-
Sentences without Adverbs of Frequency or dents, 20% of English majors and 17% of
Adverbs of Time. The results show that both non-English majors, chose option A. In ad-
English majors and non-English majors had dition, the number of students who chose
more problems with the simple and progres- option D, the incorrect formulations of the
sive aspects when there was no adverb of two aspects, was still very high, 32% for
frequency or time. For example, on question English majors and 51% for non-English
2, the percentage of both English majors majors.
and non-English majors choosing the cor- In general, many students were still
rect answer (C), the progressive aspect, was confused between the simple and progres-
low: 52% for English majors and 48.9% for sive aspects when there are no clues to help
non-English majors. Twenty percent of them to distinguish between the two aspects.
English majors and 8.5% of non-English Students made fewer errors on the two as-
majors chose option D, the simple aspect, pects with the presence of these adverbs as
and 28% of English majors and 42.5% of in sentences 1 and 5. That the presence of
non-English majors chose option A, the in- adverbs of time and frequency influences
the students errors more or less may be

another transfer from Vietnamese, where Sentence 4.
tense and aspect are largely indicated by ad- Ti i lm.
verbs. Overall, that non-English majors I hungry very much
made more mistakes than English majors * I very hungry.
was consistent with what I expected. I am very hungry.

Students Errors with the Copula Be Four out of 25 (16%) English majors and 9
The second part of the test (see Appendix) out of 47 (19.1%) non-English majors
was collected and analyzed to see how use wrote the sentence marked with (*).
of the Vietnamese copula influenced pro-
duction of be in English. Since my goal is to Sentence 7.
see if there is transfer from Vietnamese, I Hm nay c y mt lm.
divided the sentences into two types: the Today miss there tired very much
first type contains Vietnamese sentences *Today she very tired.
without the copula l or th; the second type She is very tired today.
contains Vietnamese sentences with l, but
in contexts where it cannot be translated as Three out of 25 (12%) English majors and
be in English. 5 out of 47 (11.1%) non-English majors
First, many students omitted required wrote the sentence marked with (*).
form of be when translating the Vietnamese In contrast, in the other type of sen-
sentences into English. Below are some re- tence, when there was l in a sentence, stu-
sults of the test. dents tended to translate l into the English
be incorrectly. Seven out of 25 (28%) Eng-
Sentence 1. lish majors and 18 out of 47 (38.2%) non-
Anh y rt thng minh. English majors wrote the sentence without
Brother there very intelligent the copula be.4
* He very intelligent.
He is very intelligent. Sentence 12. 5
Cng vic u tin ca ti l
Three out of 25 (12%) English majors Job first of I be
and 11 out of 47 (23.4%) non-English ma- mt k s lm cho
jors wrote the sentence marked with (*). one engineer marker make give
ti mt.
Sentence 3. I tired
Mc d cha m ti ngho * My first job is an engineer make me bor-
Although parents I poor, ing.
nhng h rt rng lng. My first job as an engineer made me tired.
but they very generous
* Although my parents poor, but they very Table 2 below summarizes how the
generous. Vietnamese learners omitted be forms when
Although my parents are poor, they are translating these sentences.
very generous. As shown in Table 2, the percentage
of errors was the highest in sentence 3. The
Seven out of 25 (28%) English majors and reason could be that sentence 3 is a complex
18 out of 47 (38.2%) non-English majors sentence, consisting of 2 clauses. Thus, it is
produced the sentence marked with (*). possible that L1 influence was interacting
with L2 complexity in this case. The predic-
tion from the Contrastive Analysis Hypo-
thesis may be too simplistic to account for
cases like this.

Table 2
Omission of the Copula be
Number and percentage of learners omitting the copula
Test sentences be

English majors Non-English majors

(n= 25) (n=47)
Sentence 1 3 11
rt thng minh [very intelligent] 12% 23.4%

Sentence 3 7 18
rt rng lng [very generous] 28% 38.2%
Sentence 4 4 9
i lm [very hungry] 16% 19.1%

Sentence 7 3 5
mt lm [very tired] 12% 11.1%

Students Errors with Phrasal Structures Sentence 3.

For ease of reference, I divided the sen- Mc d cha m ti ngho
tences into the adjective phrase group and Although parents I poor,
the verb phrase group. The first group in- nhng h rt rng lng.
cludes sentences 1, 3, and 4 in part 2 of the but they very generous
test (see Appendix). The second group in- * Although my parents poor, but they very
cludes sentences 2, 6, and 8. generous.
For sentences with adjective phrases Although my parents are poor, they are
(English word order: modifier + adjective, very generous.
Vietnamese word order: modifier + adjec-
tive or adjective + modifier, depending on Sentence 4.
the modifiers lexical features), most stu- Ti i lm.
dents placed the adverbs and adjectives cor- I hungry very much
rectly when the word order in the two lan- * I very hungry.
guages matches (sentences 1, 3) as well as I am very hungry.
when the word order between the two lan-
guages does not match (sentence 4). Thus, For sentences with verb phrases (the
the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis was second group), the students made errors
only partially supported by the data. Sen- with verbal phrases in sentences 2, 6, and 8,
tence 4 might exemplify an overgeneraliza- all of which contain the verb thch [like],6
tion (Zobl, 1980, as cited in Lightbown & perhaps because in these sentences, the ad-
Spada, 2006, p. 79) by the Vietnamese learn- verbs precede the verbs in the original Viet-
ers to place an intensifier adverb before an namese, unlike in English. In this case, the
adjective (or verb) in their English. influence of Vietnamese on English may
have led students to make errors (Table 3).
Sentence 1.
Anh y rt thng minh.
Brother there very intelligent
* He very intelligent.
He is very intelligent.

Table 3
Errors with the Placement of Adverbs in Verb Phrases
Number and percentage of learners mis-
Test phrases placing adverbs in verb phrases

English majors Non-English majors

(n= 25) (n=47)
Sentence 2 7 19
rt thch chi n [like to play the guitar very much] 28% 40.4%
Sentence 6 0 10
rt thch anh [like you very much] 0% 21.2%
Sentence 8 5 15
rt thch thi tit [like the weather very much] 25% 31.9%

As shown in Table 3, the percentages verbs. Second, translating the Vietnamese

of errors ranged from 0% to 28% for Eng- copula l, th was one of the major problems
lish majors and from 21.2% to 40.4% for for the English language learners in this
non-English majors. However, the high cor- study. When students translated from Viet-
rect rate for sentence 6 among English ma- namese into English, they usually omitted
jors might be related to the fact that the ex- the required be form or inserted it when the
pression rt thch anh [like you very much] Vietnamese original used l. Third, many
itself is more common than other two ex- Vietnamese students of English were con-
pressions. High frequency of the input has fused about the positions of adverbs in verb
been shown to help students learn a form phrases when translating Vietnamese sen-
(e.g., N. Ellis, 2002, as cited in Gass & Se- tences into English. They translated the sen-
linker, 2008, pp. 219-220). The results mean tences as if they were writing Vietnamese
that when word order in verb phrases be- sentences.
tween the two languages did not match, it The reason these students had such
might lead students to make errors. The re- serious problems with these grammar points
sults thus supported the Contrastive Analy- might be the lack of cues, such as adverbs of
sis Hypothesis to some extent and point to frequency or adverbs of time in some sen-
other sources of errors such as low frequen- tences, the lack of l, th [copula] in the orig-
cy of input. inal Vietnamese sentences, and the lack of
knowledge about the differences between
Discussion their native language and the target language.
This study focused on examining tense and RQ 2: Is there a difference in perfor-
aspect, especially the simple and progressive mance between English majors and non-
aspects, the copula be, and phrasal structures English majors regarding these grammar
in Vietnamese and English. The results an- problems?
swer the three research questions in the fol- According to the test results, there
lowing ways: was a difference in performance between
RQ1: How seriously and frequently do English majors and non-English majors re-
Vietnamese students make mistakes with garding these grammar problems. Generally,
English aspect, the copula be, and phrasal English majors did better than non-English
structures? majors, specifically on the simple and pro-
For the simple and progressive aspects, gressive aspects. The percentages of correct
the overall finding showed that students had answers ranged from 48% to 88% for Eng-
serious and frequent problems. However, lish majors and from 25.5 % to 61.7% for
students did better on sentences with ad- non-English majors (see Table 1). In addi-
verbs of frequency or adverbs of time than tion, the percentage of English majors who
on sentences that do not contain these ad- made errors with the copula be was lower

than that of non-English majors. The per- sitions of adverbs and ordinary verbs are
centages ranged from 12% to 28% for Eng- different in Vietnamese and English.
lish majors and 11.1% to 38.2% for non- The findings support the Contrastive
English majors. Similarly, with phrasal struc- Analysis Hypothesis to some extent. How-
tures, English majors did better than non- ever, the findings also point to the limita-
English majors, and the percentages ranged tions of the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis
from 0% to 28% for English majors and in predicting learners errors. In addition to
21.2% to 40.4% for non-English majors. L1 influence, errors may also be due to
The reasons for the difference in perfor- learners overgeneralization, L2 complexity,
mance might be that English majors had low frequency of input, and learners de-
more class hours for English than non- veloping knowledge of the structures of the
English majors. In addition, the English ma- target language (Lightbown & Spada, 2006,
jors courses were substantially different p. 79).
from those of non-English majors and that
could have contributed to the difference. Teaching Implications for
Further, the language attitudes of English Vietnamese Students at Kiengiang
majors were probably different from those Community College
of non-English majors. All these specula- Although this is a preliminary study, the re-
tions need further research to be confirmed. sults provided some insights about the fre-
RQ3: Is there transfer from Vietnam- quency and nature of Vietnamese learners
ese to English in the simple and progressive errors with English tense and aspect, the
aspects, the copula be, and phrasal struc- copula be, and phrasal structures. Based on
tures? these insights, I propose some suggestions
First of all, there seemed to be transfer for teaching.
from Vietnamese to English in the simple My first suggestion is on the simple
and progressive aspects. Not only was trans- and progressive aspects. Teachers should
fer seen in the high rate of errors with tense help students practice the two aspects in
and aspect, but also in the fact that, given more varied contexts, such as picture de-
the use of adverbs of time and frequency to scriptions, information gap activities, au-
indicate tense and aspect in Vietnamese, thentic listening activities, storytelling, and
students performed better when there was games. For example, the teacher may give
an adverb of time or frequency in the sen- students pictures of somebodys daily rou-
tence. tine. The teacher asks them to make sen-
Secondly, the influence of the Viet- tences about that persons daily activities
namese copula was definitely one of the using the simple aspect. The teacher can also
problems among Vietnamese while they ask some of them to show some pictures of
were learning English grammar. According their family members daily routines to the
to the test results, the percentages of the class, and other students make sentences by
students influenced by the use of Vietnam- using the simple aspect. Another example is
ese l, th meant that the students had prob- to ask students to listen to some sounds on
lems with using the correct form of the co- a tape and make sentences about what is
pula be in English. L1 influence was also happening with the sounds on the tape using
seen in the students insertion of the copula the progressive aspect. The teacher can also
be in English sentences when l appears in ask some volunteers to mime some actions
Vietnamese sentences. in front of the class, and other students
The last L1 influence is seen in the make sentences about the actions using the
students use of phrasal structures. Students progressive aspect. By practicing sentences
did not make mistakes with adjective phras- in contexts such as these, students may be-
es because the positions of adverbs and ad- come more aware of how to use the two
jectives in English and Vietnamese are aspects.
somewhat the same. However, they had My next suggestion is to minimize the
problems with verb phrases because the po- influence of the Vietnamese copula l, th

and word order on English learning. Again, Notes
situated practice may help. For example, the 1According to Le (1972, p. 77), s in this sentence
teacher could ask students to bring photos indicates future tense.
of their families to class. Students will make 2 According to Cao (1998), most Vietnamese verbs
sentences about members in their family and adjectives share similar grammatical features.
photos in which they will need to use forms However, not all verbs in Vietnamese can take a mod-
ifier of manner such as rt [very], hi [little], lm [very]
of be as well as adverbs such as very, little, and
as in *rt mua [very buy], *rt i [very walk], or *rt m
rather in adjective and verb phrases. For ex- p [very cuddle] while Vietnamese adjectives usually
ample, the teacher can ask students to look can (e.g., rt p [very beautiful], hi mt [little tired], p.
at Nams family photo that is hung on the 256).
board and make sentences with rather or little. 3 The correct answers only reflect common language
Students can produce sentences like His usage. For example, Option B in Question 1 is possi-
mother is rather thin or His mother is a bit thin. ble as an answer if it is said by a doctor about a pa-
The teacher can ask students to translate tient who is anti-social or is not following American
greeting rituals. It could also be said by the patient
sentences with rt [very], hi [rather], or thch about the doctor.
[like], and students can make sentences like
His father likes jogging or His father likes jogging
4 With English majors, two students omitted the co-
pula be in the adverb clause, one student omitted the
very much. Based on the sentences, the class copula be in the main clause, and four students omit-
can practice and do the same activities with ted the copula be in both clauses. With non-English
other pictures in pairs or groups of three. To majors, six students omitted the copula be in the ad-
make students feel freer in communication, verb clause, three students omitted the copula be in
the main clause, and nine students omitted the copula
the teacher can also design a questionnaire be in both clauses.
or a table with sentences for students. Stu-
dents can talk with their friends about their 5 This sentence is rather bookish, or heavily influ-
enced by English structure. It does not appear in col-
family members in order to practice th [co- loquial Vietnamese.
pula be] rt [very], hi [rather] or thch [like], 6This is a limitation of this study. In future research,
rt thch [like very much] in real contexts. a variety of verbs and adjectives should be used.

This study would not have been possible without the support of many people. First, I would like
to express my deep thanks to Dr. Hanh Nguyen who has been devoted to my study, read my
numerous revisions, and helped make some sense of the confusion. Also, I would like to thank
Prof. Jean Kirschenmann who has worked with Dr. Hanh Nguyen and has given me the oppor-
tunities to finish this study. Many thanks also to Dora Chee, an experienced tutor who proofread
my paper. I am, however, responsible for any remaining errors.
To Phuong Nguyen, my colleague and my wife, I would like to express my special thanks.
She participated in this study and always offers me support and love.

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grammar links. New York: Houghton our mother tongue]. Retrieved March
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namese speakers. Retrieved October 5, Krohn, R. (1977). English sentence structure.
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bridge University Press.

Kiengiang Community College
English Quiz
Time allotted: 30 minutes
(Answer keys are marked with an asterisk)

Students name: _________________________________________

Date of test: _____/______/_____

Part I:
Choose the best answer to each of the sentences below.

1. I ......... her every day and she never says hello to me.

(a)* see
(b) am seeing
(c) will see
(d) am see

2. What is the name of that picture which you ......... on the wall.

(a) are look at

(b) is looking at
(c)* are looking at
(d) look at

3. ......... to see that film that is on at the cinema next week?

(a) Do you go
(b) Is you going
(c) Are you go
(d)* Are you going

4. ......... every single thing which that man says?

(a)* Do you believe

(b) Is you believing
(c) Are you believing
(d) Are you believe

5. Sometimes I ......... what the teacher says to me.

(a)* don't understand

(b) am not understanding
(c) understand not
(d) not understanding

6. Later tonight I ......... my uncle, who is ill in hospital.

(a) visit
(b) am visit
(c) are visiting
(d)* am visiting

7. Why ......... late every time we arrange to meet?

(a)* is he
(b) he is
(c) is he being
(d) does he

8. ......... by air because the cost of flying is very high.

(a)* I don't often travel

(b) I'm not often travelling
(c) I'll not often traveling
(d) I am not often travel
9. Next time you ......... to my house, you must bring that book.

(a)* come
(b) are come
(c) are coming
(d) is coming

10. I ......... to remember your name but I'm afraid I can't remember it.

(a) try
(b)* am trying
(c) will trying
(d) am try
(Adapted from

Part II:
Translate into English
(answer keys are provided)

1. Anh y rt thng minh.

He is very intelligent.
2. C y rt thch chi n ghi-ta.
She likes to play the guitar very much.
3. Mc d cha m ti ngho nhng h rt rng lng.
Although my parents are poor, they are very generous.
4. Ti i lm.
I am very hungry.

5. Anh y chng hiu g c.
He doesnt understand at all.
6. M ti rt thch anh y.
My mother likes you very much.
7. Hm nay c y mt lm.
She is very tired today.
8. Ti rt thch thi tit M.
I like the weather in the U.S. very much.
9. Anh y nhn bc tranh chm ch.
He is looking at the picture very carefully.
10. Ti gp c y ri.
I have met her before.
11. Anh y ng.
He is sleeping/ he slept.
12. Cng vic u tin ca ti l mt k s lm cho ti mt.
My first job as an engineer made me bored.

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