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

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

ở chỗ khác rồi. Vietnamese speakers want to
live place differe alread express when something
nt y. happened, they use adverbs of
„If you are moving in two months, I time, such as trước đây [ago,
will have moved to another place‟ (p. be-fore], bây giờ [now, at the
548). moment], sau này [later, in the
(4) Hồi t đang future] (p. 549). Do đã and
ấy, ô đang markers always indicate
i past and present tenses in
Back I marke Vietnamese? In Cao‟s approach,
then r they definitely do not. Instead,
học đệ tứ, he stated that the markers đã
study the fourth and đang indicate aspects ex-
division pressing actions with an end-
còn an đa chuẩn bị point or ac-tions with no end-
h ng point, respectively (p. 551). He
as yo mark prepare emphasized that an action with
for u er an end-
thi tú tài.
take high school
(exam) exam.
„At that time I was attending
the fourth
division while you were
preparing to
take the high school exam‟ (p. 547).
(5) Sáng mai anh nên

morning tomorro you shoul

w d
đến thật sớm khi
come reall earl when
y y
cả tôi đan ngủ.
nhà g
all I marke sleep
family r
„Tomorrow morning, you should
come early when my family will be
sleeping‟ (p. 549).

Đã in sentences (2) and (3)

does not indicate actions
happening in the past. Đã in
sentence (3) expresses a state, an
action, and a truth in the present
while đã in sentence (4) expresses
an action happening in the future.
In addition, đang in sentences (4)
and (5) does not express actions
happening in the present. Đang in
sentence (4) indicates ac-tions
happening in the past, and đang
in sen-tence (5) denotes an action
in the future. In reality, when
point leads to the result of the state
or the action. For example: (8) Họ đang đi đến trườn
(6) Họ đã đi đến trườn They g arriv scho
g. marker o e ol
They marker arriv schoo „They are going to school.‟
go e l (9) N đang cuốn đó.
„They went to school.‟ ó bán sách
(7) Nó đã bán cuốn sách It marker book tha
đó. sell t
It mark sell book th „He is selling the book‟ (Cao, 1998, pp.
er at 551-553).
„He sold that book.‟
The marker đang in these
These sentences (6 and 7) sentences (8 and 9) expresses
express ac-tions with an end-point actions, such as go and sell that
that were completed in the past are still happening at the time of
before the time of speaking, and speak-ing. In Cao‟s viewpoint, these
they did not continue into the actions with no end-point are
present. In other words, actions such expressed by the progres-sive
as went and sold were finished aspect (p. 551).
already and could not happen one The following examples
more time. Cao concluded that đã in contrast the use of tense and
these cases expresses an action that aspect in English and Viet-
is com-plete (p. 550). namese:
In contrast, an action with no
end-point does not lead to the result (10) Hôm qua tôi mua hai cuốn
of the state or action, but rather sách.
states an action that is still Yesterday, I buy two book
happening at the time of speaking. „I bought two books
For instance: yesterday.‟

(11) Anh ấy đang ngủ. more distinct forms with respect to
Brother there per-son, number, and tense than any
marker sleep other verb in English” (p. 54).
„He is sleeping.‟

In example 10, hôm qua

[yesterday] in Vietnamese is the
adverb of time, and it im-plies the
past. No tense marker is needed
in this sentence because adding
the tense marker would result in
an unnatural sound-ing sentence,
but the verb buy has to be
changed into bought in English.
In sentence 12 below, sẽ is used
to indicate uncertainty of an
event in the future.

(12) Trời sẽ mưa

Sky marker rain
„It will rain.‟

According to Cao (1998),

since sẽ ex-presses unfulfilled
actions or uncertainty, it is
suitable to talk about the future.
This does not mean that sẽ is a
tense marker; it is an aspect
marker which happens to be
suitable to talk about a certain
time frame.1 Thus, sẽ can, but not
always, indicate a future time

Copula in English and in

The Copula in English
According to Celce-Murcia &
Larsen-Freeman (1999), the verb
to be serves as the copula in
English. It links the subject of a
sentence with a predicate, which
can be a noun or an adjective (p.
54). Here are two examples:

(13) He is a professor.

(14) Cotton is light.

Unfortunately for language

learners, be has many forms,
including am, is, are, was, were,
be, being, and been. According to
Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman
(1999), “Be, which is the most
frequent verb in English, has
The Copula in Vietnamese e e
Although Vietnamese has a „My name is Nam‟ (Cao, 1998, p. 238).
word là that carries some of
the same meaning as Eng-lish In these cases (sentences 15,
be, it is not used in quite the 16, and 17), the copula be is the
same way. First, Vietnamese main verb in Viet-namese (Diep,
uses là when the predicate is 2004, p. 493).
a noun. Secondly, Diep (2004)
pointed out that the Vietnamese
(15) Anh ấy là bác sĩ. là is also used with pos-sessions
Brother there be doctor to indicate something that
'He is a doctor'. belongs to someone (p. 99). For
According to Stassen (1997),
“In Vi-etnamese, nominal (18 Quyển này là tô
predicates strongly prefer the ) sách của i
presence of the particle „là’, Book this be of I
which can be characterized as a „This book is mine.‟
general „identificational marker‟” (19 Bây ngôi là
(p. 87). ) giờ, nhà
Now house be
(16 Ông ấy là lính. của anh.
) of you
gentlem there be soldier „Now, the house is yours.‟
„He is / was a soldier‟ (Stassen, 1997, Thirdly, and unlike English,
p. Dam (2001) said “là is rarely used to
87). link a subject with its predicative
(17 Tên củ tôi là Nam adjective in Vietnamese.” With
) a adjectives, là is usually omitted.
Nam of m be Nam

(20) Tôi đói. According to English
I hungry grammar rules, in verb
„I am hungry.‟ phrases, adverbs can appear in
dif-ferent positions. For
Diep added that the instance, adverbs of place, of
Vietnamese là is used with time, of degree, or of manner
adjectives only to emphasize, con- come after the verb and its
firm, or assert the meaning of the object, if any (Krohn, 1977, p.
sentence in context. For example: 21). For example:

(21 Theo ý tôi, bức (26) He studies English here.

) tranh
Followi idea I picture
này là đẹp
this be beautif
„For me, this picture is beautiful.‟
(22 Thói đó là tốt
) quen
Habit that be good
„That habit is good‟ (Diep, 2004, p.

To summarize, in
Vietnamese, là is used as a copula
(i.e., a main verb) in the sentence
to link the subject with predicate
nouns, possessive phrases, and,
when there is a need for
emphasis, with adjectives. It is
often omitted when occurring
with predicate adjectives in non-
emphatic contexts.

Phrasal Structures in
English and in Vietnamese
Phrasal Structures in English
Phrasal structures refer to many
different ways in which
languages arrange the consti-
tuents of sentences. This paper
will focus on verb phrases and
adjective phrases. Be-low are
some examples:

(23) like English very much

(verb phrase)

(24) dance beautifully (verb


(25) very beautiful (adjective

manner, such as rất [very], hơi
Similarly, Holschuh (1991) [little], may precede or follow the
mentioned that adverbs of manner verb or adjective, depending on
describe the action of the verb and the lexical type of the adverb. 2
are placed after the verb and the According to Diep (2004), some
object, if any (p. 43). For example: adverbs, such as rất [very], hơi
[little], tuyệt [absolutely], cực kỳ
(27) He does his work carefully. [extremely], which show the
degrees of the verbs or
Butler and Mahnke (2004) adjectives they modify, always
noted that adverbs of frequency pre-cede the verb or adjective.
usually precede the main verb. For For example:
(29 rất thích
(28) She sometimes drinks coffee. )
very much like
In this paper, I will only discuss „like very much‟
the adverb of manner, as in example (30 rất đẹp
(27). )
In English adjective phrases, an very much beauti
ad-verb, if present, generally ful
precedes and mod-ifies the adjective „very beautiful‟
as in example (25). (31 hơi thích
Phrasal Structures in Vietnamese little like
Vietnamese verb phrases and „like little‟
adjective phrases are constructed (32 hơi đẹp
slightly differently from English )
phrases. In Vietnamese verb or little beauti
adjective phrases, the adverb of ful
„little beautiful‟

However, some adverbs, lắm Common Problems with Tense
[very], quá [very], which also and Aspect
show degrees of verbs or Swan and Smith (2001) listed several
adjectives, always follow a verb mis-takes about the simple and
or an ad-jective to express some progressive as-pects of English
Vietnamese people‟s speaking which many Asian students make.
preferences (pp. 460-461). For in- These errors are similar to those
stance: made by Vietnamese students. For
example, they reported that many
(33 thích lắm Malaysian and In-donesian students
) produce sentences, such as They eat
like very dinner tonight instead of They are
„like very much‟
(34 mệt lắm
tired very
„very tired‟
(35 thích quá
like very
„like very much‟
(36 đói quá
hungry very
„very hungry‟

Thus, a contrast in phrasal

structures between English and
Vietnamese is that in English, the
position of the modifier de-pends
on whether the head of the
phrase is a verb or an adjective,
as well as on the type of modifier
in the case of verb phrases. How-
ever, in Vietnamese, the position
of the modifier depends only on
the type of mod-ifier. In some
cases, the position of the modifier
in verb phrases and adjective
phrases in the two languages
matches up well, but in some
cases, the modifier is placed in
opposite positions, before or after
the head word in the two

Common Problems of
Vietnamese Learners of
English with Tense and
Aspect, the Copula be, and
Phrasal Structures
eating dinner tonight (Swan with the progres-sive aspect.
& Smith, 2001, p. 287). These students may think that an
Similarly, some Japanese action happening at the time of
students write sentences, speaking is progressive, which
such as We are write to each results in their mistakes.
other in English instead of In my thirteen years of
saying We write to each other teaching Eng-lish to EFL students
in English (Swan & Smith, at Kiengiang Commu-nity College,
2001, p. 301). Also, some I have realized that many Viet-
Chinese learners produce namese learners have trouble
sentences, such as What do with learning tense and aspect in
you read? instead of the English and make the kind of
correct sentence What are mistakes mentioned by Swan and
you reading? (Swan & Smith, Smith and Celce-Murcia and
2001, p. 315). Larsen-Freeman. Students have
Further, according to problems with both the forms and
Celce-Murcia and Larsen- the context of use for English
Freeman (1999), students tenses. They tend to omit the
may also use the progressive copula be in the progressive
aspect when the simple aspect before they add (-ing) to
aspect is appropriate. For the main verb. For example, they
instance, I am knowing the may say She practice English
answer instead of saying I every afternoon or She is prac-
know the answer (Celce- tice English every afternoon,
Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, instead of She prac-tices English
1999, p. 121), I am wanting to every afternoon. They also say He
see you instead of is work in the office at the
I want to see you (Celce- moment or He working in the
Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, office at the moment, instead of
1999, p. 122), or I am He is working in the office at the
believing you instead of I moment.
believe you (Celce-Murcia &
Lar-sen-Freeman, 1999, p. Common Problems with the Copula
133). be
The reason why many As previously mentioned,
students were confused about according to Dam (2001), the
these two aspects might be copula là, thì can be omitted in
that they do not realize that Vietnamese when connecting a
stative verbs, mental subject with an adjective.
perception verbs, and sensory However, the copula be cannot
per-ception verbs are not used

be omitted in English. In reality, phrases in Eng-lish and
many Vi-etnamese learners omit Vietnamese sentences are
the required form of be while slightly different. If students
making English sentences. Dam try to apply the adjec-tive
illustrated this by giving some phrase rule to some verb
examples: phrases, they will make
mistakes. The following
(37) Nó đói. examples are very common
He hungry among Vietnamese learn-ers
* He hungry. (see Swan and Smith [2001]
„He is for similar mistakes among
hungry.’ Asian students of English).

(38) Hôm nay con tôi

ốm nặng.
Today child I sick heavy
* My child very sick today.
‘My child is very sick

The following (marked with an

asterisk) are my students‟ actual

(39 Chị ấy đẹp.

Older sister ther beauti
e ful
* She
„She is beautiful.‟
(40 Anh ấy nghèo
) .
older brother ther poor
* He poor.
„He is poor.‟

In examples (39 and 40),

neither là nor thì is used in
Vietnamese sentences, but the
copula be must be present in the
English equivalents. The students‟
English sentences are
ungrammatical because they
follow the Vietnamese sentential

Common Problems with

Phrasal Structures
Vietnamese learners seem not to
have prob-lems with the positions
of adverbs in adjec-tive phrases
because they are similar in Vi-
etnamese and English. However,
the positions of adverbs in verb
(41) Chị tôi và tôi ances like examples (30 and 32)
older I and I with adjectives rất [very], hơi
sister [little], tuyệt [abso-lutely]. If
chúng rất hay nhau. phrasal structures, such as
tôi đánh adverb phrases and verb phrases
we ver often fight each in Vietnamese, differ from those
y other in English, the Vietnamese
* My sister and me we very interference leads students to
often fight each other. produce errors as in examples
„My sister and I fight each other very (41-43).
often‟ (Swan & Smith, 2001, p. 285).
The Study
(42 Chúng rất thích. Background
) tôi As mentioned above, my students
We very like often mi-suse the simple and
thời tiết ở Hawaii progressive aspects, the copula
weathe in Hawaii be, and verb and adjective
r phrasal structures. Students at
* We very like weather in different levels and in different
Hawaii. majors seemed to make English
„We like the weather in Hawaii very grammar mistakes at different
much.‟ rates. The different language
(43 Anh ấy rất. proficiency levels of many
) Vietnamese students may come
older brother there very from the fact that they use
thích tiếng Anh. different textbooks, have
like English different types of teachers, follow
* He very like English. dif-ferent curricula, or have
„He likes English very much.‟ different levels of motivation. The
biggest contrast is between
When phrasal structures are the English majors and non-English
same in Vi-etnamese and English, majors. Non-English majors
the Vietnamese influ-ence leads study English as a re-
learners to produce correct utter-

quired course in their academic Instrument
program (e.g., business or A test (see Appendix) was designed
computer science). They have by my-self and administered by my
only three 60-period semesters of colleague at Kiengiang Community
English. They use integrated College in Vietnam. The test
skills text-books for non- English consisted of two parts. The first part
majors. However, their main included ten multiple choice items
goals in learning English are to that tested students on the two
read books and to do research grammar items: the simple and
related to their careers, so both progressive aspects. This part of the
teachers and students focus on test used a multiple-choice for-mat
grammar, reading, and with four options per item. The mul-
vocabulary rather than on
speaking and listening. On the
other hand, English majors study
all four skills in separate courses
using differ-ent books for each.
For example, when they study
listening and speaking skills,
they use listening and speaking
skills textbooks and just focus on
practicing these two skills. They
have a total of five 60-period
seme-sters to learn English.
Realizing the differ-ent
proficiency levels among my
students, I asked both English
majors and non-English majors to
participate in this study.

Research Questions
Based on the literature review
and my own teaching experience,
the following questions were
specifically formulated for this
1. How seriously and frequently
do Viet-namese students
make mistakes with English
aspect, the copula be, and
phrasal structures?
2. Is there a difference in
performance between
English majors and non-
English majors regarding
these gram-mar problems?
3. Is there transfer from
Vietnamese to
English in the students‟ use of the
simple and progressive
aspects, the copula be, and
phrasal structures?

tiple choice technique allowed
me to score objectively and to see Subjects
the students‟ recogni-tion Seventy-two students took the
knowledge on the two aspects. test. Among these students, 25
Howev-er, the multiple choice were first year English majors
technique also allows students and 47 were non-English majors,
to have a 25% chance of majoring in computer science
guessing, which means that I and business administration.
could not know exactly if There were 43 females and 29
students really understood or males, ranging from twenty to
not. Fur-thermore, the multiple thirty years of age. The students
choice format does not show were selected be-cause they
how students would use the attended classes taught by the
forms in real life situations. same teacher who participated in
The second part of the test was this study. The teacher had
a translation task, from Viet- thirteen years of English
namese into English, with teaching experience. The test
twelve sentences that tested was scored by the same teacher.
students on their use of the co-
pula be and phrasal structures. Procedure
Unlike the multiple-choice The teacher gave the test to her
section, the translation part classes dur-ing normal class
required students to show hours. The selected stu-dents
their English lan-guage ability were not informed about the test
in use. However, the presence in advance. Students were asked
of the Vietnamese text may to finish the test in 30 minutes
induce more transfer from the without discussion or ref-erence
native language than other materials. After the students
formats, such as an oral finished the test, the teacher
interview, might have. Since the collected and graded the
students‟ level was pre- answers.
intermediate, the level of
After getting the results from
vocabulary and grammar
the teacher, I counted the number
structures was set to be simple
of students who chose each
and familiar to students.
option for the multiple

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

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

another transfer from „Although my parents are poor,
Vietnamese, where tense and they are very generous.‟
aspect are largely indicated by
ad-verbs. Overall, that non- Seven out of 25 (28%) English
English majors made more majors and 18 out of 47
mistakes than English majors was (38.2%) non-English majors
consistent with what I expected. produced the sentence marked
with (*).
Students’ Errors with the
Copula Be The second part of
the test (see Appendix) was
collected and analyzed to see
how use of the Vietnamese
copula influenced pro-duction of
be in English. Since my goal is to
see if there is transfer from
Vietnamese, I divided the
sentences into two types: the
first type contains Vietnamese
sentences without the copula là
or thì; the second type contains
Vietnamese sentences with là,
but in contexts where it cannot
be translated as be in English.
First, many students omitted
required form of be when
translating the Vietnamese
sentences into English. Below are
some re-sults of the test.

Sentence 1.
Anh ấy rất thông minh.
Brother there very
* He very intelligent.
„He is very intelligent.‟

Three out of 25 (12%)

English majors and 11 out of 47
(23.4%) non -English ma-jors
wrote the sentence marked with

Mặc cha tôi ngh
dù mẹ èo
Althou parentsI poo
gh r,
nhưnghọ rất rộng
but the very genero
y us
* Although my parents poor, but
they very generous.
Sentence 4. Công việcđầu củ t là
Tôi đói lắm. tiên a ô
I hungry very much i
* I very hungry. Job fir of I be
„I am very hungry.‟ st
mộ kỹ sư đã làm cho
Four out of 25 (16%) English majors t
and 9 out of 47 (19.1%) non-English on engine marker makegive
majors wrote the sentence marked e er
with (*). tôi mệt.
I tired
Sentence 7. * My first job is an engineer
Hôm nay cô ấy mệt lắm. make me bor-ing.
Today miss there tired very much „My first job as an engineer made
*Today she very tired. me tired.‟
„She is very tired today.‟
Table 2 below summarizes
Three out of 25 (12%) English how the Vietnamese learners
majors and 5 out of 47 (11.1%) non- omitted be forms when
English majors wrote the sentence translating these sentences.
marked with (*). As shown in Table 2, the
In contrast, in the other type of percentage of errors was the
sen-tence, when there was là in a highest in sentence 3. The reason
sentence, stu-dents tended to could be that sentence 3 is a
translate là into the English be complex sentence, consisting of 2
incorrectly. Seven out of 25 (28%) clauses. Thus, it is possible that
Eng-lish majors and 18 out of 47 L1 influence was interacting with
(38.2%) non-English majors wrote L2 complexity in this case. The
the sentence without the copula be.4 predic-tion from the Contrastive
Analysis Hypo-thesis may be too
Sentence 12. 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

(n= 25) (n=47)
Sentence 1 3 11
rất thông minh [very 12% 23.4%

Sentence 3 7 18
rất rộng lượng [very 28% 38.2%
Sentence 4 4 9
đói lắm [very hungry] 16% 19.1%

Sentence 7 3 5
mệt lắm [very tired] 12% 11.1%

Sentence 1.
Students’ Errors with Phrasal Anh ấy rất thông minh.
Structures For ease of Brother there very intelligent
reference, I divided the sen- * He very intelligent.
tences into the adjective phrase „He is very intelligent.‟
group and the verb phrase group.
The first group in-cludes
sentences 1, 3, and 4 in part 2 of
the test (see Appendix). The
second group in-cludes sentences
2, 6, and 8.
For sentences with adjective
phrases (English word order:
modifier + adjective, Vietnamese
word order: modifier + adjec-tive
or adjective + modifier, depending
on the modifier‟s lexical features), most
stu-dents placed the adverbs and
adjectives cor-rectly when the word
order in the two lan-guages
matches (sentences 1, 3) as well as
when the word order between the
two lan-guages does not match
(sentence 4). Thus, the Contrastive
Analysis Hypothesis was only
partially supported by the data.
Sen-tence 4 might exemplify an
overgeneraliza-tion (Zobl, 1980, as
cited in Lightbown & Spada, 2006,
p. 79) by the Vietnamese learn-ers
to place an intensifier adverb
before an adjective (or verb) in
their English.
Tôi đói lắm.
I hungry very much
Sentenc * I very hungry.
e 3. „I am very hungry.‟
Mặc dù cha tôi ngh
mẹ èo For sentences with verb
Althoug pare I poor, phrases (the second group), the
h nts students made errors with verbal
nhưng họ rất rộng phrases in sentences 2, 6, and 8,
lượng. all of which contain the verb
but they very generou thích [like],6 perhaps because in
s these sentences, the ad-verbs
* Although my parents poor, precede the verbs in the original
but they very generous. Viet-namese, unlike in English. In
„Although my parents are poor, this case, the influence of
they are very generous.‟ Vietnamese on English may have
led students to make errors
Sentence 4. (Table 3).

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

English Non-English
majors majors
(n= 25) (n=47)
Sentence 2 7 19
rất thích chơi đàn [like to play the 28% 40.4%
guitar very much]
Sentence 6 0 10
rất thích anh [like you very much] 0% 21.2%
Sentence 8 5 15
rất thích thời tiết [like the weather 25% 31.9%
very much]
As shown in Table 3, the verbs. Second, translating the
percentages Vietnamese
of errors ranged from 0% to 28% for copula là, thì was one of the major
Eng- problems
lish majors and from 21.2% to 40.4% for the English language
for learners in this
non-English majors. However, the high study. When students translated
cor- from Viet-
rect rate for sentence 6 among English namese into English, they
ma- usually omitted
jors might be related to the fact that the required be form or inserted it
the ex- when the
pression rất thích anh [like you very Vietnamese original used là.
much] Third, many
itself is more common than other two Vietnamese students of English
ex- were con-
pressions. High frequency of the input fused about the positions of
has adverbs in verb
been shown to help students learn a phrases when translating
form Vietnamese sen-
(e.g., N. Ellis, 2002, as cited in Gass & tences into English. They
Se- translated the sen-
linker, 2008, pp. 219-220). The results tences as if they were writing
mean Vietnamese
that when word order in verb phrases sentences.
tween the two languages did not The reason these students had
match, it such
might lead students to make errors. serious problems with these
The re- grammar points
sults thus supported the Contrastive might be the lack of cues, such as
Analy- adverbs of
sis Hypothesis to some extent and point frequency or adverbs of time in
to some sen-
other sources of errors such as low tences, the lack of là, thì [copula]
frequen- in the orig-
cy of input. inal Vietnamese sentences, and the
lack of
knowledge about the differences
Discussion their native language and the
target language.
This study focused on examining tense RQ 2: Is there a difference in
and perfor-
aspect, especially the simple and mance between English majors
progressive and non-
aspects, the copula be, and phrasal English majors regarding these
structures grammar
in Vietnamese and English. The results problems?
swer the three research questions in According to the test results,
the fol- there
lowing ways: was a difference in performance
RQ1: How seriously and frequently English majors and non-English
do majors re-
Vietnamese students make mistakes garding these grammar problems.
with Generally,
English aspect, the copula be, and English majors did better than
phrasal non-English
structures? majors, specifically on the simple
and pro-
For the simple and progressive gressive aspects. The percentages
aspects, of correct
the overall finding showed that answers ranged from 48% to 88%
students had for Eng-
serious and frequent problems. lish majors and from 25.5 % to
However, 61.7% for
students did better on sentences non-English majors (see Table 1).
with ad- In addi-
verbs of frequency or adverbs of time tion, the percentage of English
than majors who
on sentences that do not contain these made errors with the copula be
ad- was lower

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

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

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

Student‟s 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

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.

(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 ấy rất
thông minh. He
is very
2. Cô ấy rất thích chơi đàn ghi-ta.

3. Mặc dù cha mẹ tôi nghèo nhưng họ rất

rộng lượng. Although my parents are
poor, they are very generous.
4. Tôi đói lắm.
I am very hungry.
5. Anh ấy chẳng hiểu gì cả.
He doesn‟t understand at all.
6. Mẹ tôi rất thích anh đấy.
My mother likes you very much.
7.Hôm nay cô ấy mệt
lắm. She is very
tired today.
8. Tôi rất thích thời tiết ở Mỹ.
I like the weather in the U.S. very much.
9.Anh ấy nhìn bức tranh chăm chú.
He is looking at the picture very carefully.
10. Tôi đã gặp cô ấy rồi.
I have met her before.
11. Anh ấy ngủ.
He is sleeping/ he slept.
12. Công việc đầu tiên của tôi là một kỹ sư đã làm
cho tôi mệt. My first job as an engineer
made me bored.

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