A question (or interrogative sentence) is used to ask something. It ends with a question mark (?). Question is one of types of sentences classified according to purpose of utterance. In general, there are two kinds of questions: genuine questions and rhetorical questions. Genuine questions are questions whose purpose is to get information. They are questions which need answers while rhetorical questions are “asked only to make a statement or to produce an effect rather than to get an answer” (Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary, 2005).
E.g: (1) Do you speak English?
(2) Where do you work?
(3) “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?” ( H. L. Mencken)
(4) Why are you so stupid?
(1) and (2) are genuine questions.
(3) and (4) are rhetorical questions.
With genuine questions, questioners want to know answers and to obtain the information from answerers. Genuine question is the main kind of questions in every language. There are different opinions of genuine questions in English and Vietnamese. However, we can summarize into the following table. (Le Quang Thiem, 2004, p. 228)
Non-alternative questions (câu hỏi không lựa chọn)
(câu hỏi yes-no)
Alternative questions (câu hỏi lựa chọn)
Wh-questions (câu hỏi Wh)
This paper presents the observation of alternative questions in English and Vietnamese. Firstly, I give the definition of alternative questions. Alternative questions offer two or more alternative responses. In other words, alternative questions are questions which have two or more choices to answer. However, alternative questions in English and Vietnamese have something different; so I explain more clearly in next pages. Moreover, I contrast them.
Alternative questions in English
In the above table, we can see that alternative questions in English include yes-no questions and alternative (choice) questions.
Yes-No questions (also general or polar question) are defined different ways. Firstly, a yes-no question “needs no question words and the answer is either “yes” or “no”.” (Phan Ha, 2008, p. 29). Another definition is that “a polar question has as answers a pair of polar opposites, positive and negative.” (Rodney Huddleston & Geoffrey K.Pullum, 2002, p.868).
E.g: Are you a student?
- Yes, I am.
- No, I’m not.
Does he work hard?
- Yes, he does.
- No, he doesn’t.
Is it ready?
- It is ready. (or Yes, it is.)
- It is not ready” (or No, it isn’t)
Yes-No questions are formed like this:
Answer Yes or No
Yes, I do.
No, I can't.
Yes, she has.
No, they didn't.
Exception! verb be simple present and simple past
Yes, she is.
No, he wasn't.
Moreover, tag-questions and declarative questions belong to yes-no questions.
Tag-question is “a weak form of question already know by the speaker”. (Tran Van Dien, 1996, p. 215)
E.g: He is a good boy, isn’t he?
We cannot sing, can we?
Tag-question include 2 part: statements (he is a good boy, we cannot sing), and question-tags (isn’t he, can we). If statements are affirmative forms, question-tags are negative forms.
About a declarative question, “it has declarative not interrogative syntax, with the question meaning normally signaled by rising intonation or punctuation.” (Rodney Huddleston & Geoffrey K.Pullum, 2002, p. 868)
E.g: You are ready?
That is yes-no questions, another kind of alternative questions in English is alternative (or choice) questions. Choice questions “have as answers a set of alternatives given in the question itself.” (Rodney Huddleston & Geoffrey K.Pullum, 2002, p. 868)
E.g: Is it right ↑ or wrong ↓?
Would you like to meet in the morning ↑, the afternoon ↑, or the evening ↓?
In the above examples, alternatives given in the questions are “right, wrong, the morning, the afternoon, and the evening”. They are the choices to answer and they are linked by conjunction “or”. We also can find that intonation is used in choice questions.
In form, alternative questions are similar to yes/no questions.
Answer In the question
She went to London.
Exception! verb be simple present and simple past
Alternative questions in Vietnamese
According to Le Quang Thiem, alternative questions in Vietnamese involve 3 types: alternative question with “là/ hay là”, “ …có …không, …(có)…phải không”, and “ à, ừ, nhỉ, nhé…”
Alternative question with “ là / hay là”:
E.g: Anh lấy cái bút nàyhaycái bút kia?
Anhhay làtôi lên lớp chiều nay?
Given alternatives ( cái bút này, cái bút kia, anh, và tôi) are not limited, as long as they are clear. Alternatives can be sentences (câu), phrases (cụm từ), lexical words ( thực từ), and empty words ( hư từ) (Diệp Quang Ban , 2005, p. 224)
“à, ư”: often no feeling, although sometimes expressing questioners’ surprise
“ạ”: expressing respect
E.g: Mày (anh, chị) lấy quyển sách này à? ( no feeling)
Mày (anh, chị) lấy quyển sách này ư? (surprise)
Bác lấy quyển sách này ạ? (respect)
“nhỉ, nhé”: questioners need answers’ sympathy, or acceptance. If the answerers give unexpected answers, that makes the questioners unsatisfied, uncomfortable.
E.g: Cái áo này đẹp nhỉ?
Tối nay đi xem phim với mình nhé?
That is all the things about English and Vietnamese alternative questions.
In next pages, I would like to discuss the contrast them in their types.
Firstly, yes-no questions in English contrast with alternative questions with “…có …không” in Vietnamese. There is equivalence between them. In these questions, there are only 2 choices to answer: yes (có) or no (không)
Do you like me?
Anh (có) thích tôi không?
- No ( Không)
Can I ask you some questions?
Tôi có thể hỏi anh một vài vấn đề không?
- Yes (Có)
- No (Không)
However, we can see the difference between them in their structure. In English, there are operators (auxiliary) and version in structure while in Vietnamese, the questions are formed by adding the words (có, không)
Mai can swim. → Can Mai swim?
Mai có thể bơi. → Mai có thể bơi không?
They learn English. → Do they learn English?
Họ học tiếng Anh. → Họ (có) học tiếng Anh không?
In sum up, we have the general structures. (Le Quang Thiem, 2004, p.233-234)
Operators S V … ?
S (có) V không?
The second one is the contrast of tag-question in English and alternative questions with “(có) phải không” in Vietnamese. In translation, the equivalence between them is the question-tag “(có) phải không”
Your sister is a teacher, isn’t she?
Chị của bạn là giáo viên có phải không?
He used to live here, didn’t he?
Ông ta quen sống ở đây phải không?
The above examples can show that although these question types express the same meaning, the structure in English is more complex. In English, there is the exchange of affirmative and negative form in statements, and question-tags.
You can speak French, can’t you?
(affirmative statement- negative tag)
She don’t like coffee, does she?
(negative statement- affirmative tag)
In addition, there are some special difficulties with tag-questions, for example: question tags of “I am”, “let’s”, and “imperatives”
In Vietnamese, in contrast, putting “(có) phải không” at the end of sentences can form questions which is similar to tag-questions in English.
E.g: You are a student, aren’t you?
Bạn là sinh viên có phải không?
Besides, the meaning of tag-questions depends on intonation, whereas alternative questions with “(có) phải không” do not. Particularly, if a tag-question is said by falling intonation at the end of the sentence, it means that the question is quite right and the questioner expects the answer “yes”. If the questioner is not sure about what he/she says, the tag-question is said by rising intonation. (Lai Van Cham, 1997, p.184)
Thirdly, there are some similarities and differences between declarative questions in English and Vietnamese.
In English and Vietnamese, declarative questions are popular in informal communication.
How are you?
I’m fine. Thank you. And you?
Ban khỏe không?
Tôi khỏe. Cảm ơn. Còn ban?
We find that “And you?” is a question but there is no interrogative syntax. Raising your voice can make a question. On the other hand, in Vietnamese the word “còn” is added at the beginning of declarative questions.
E.g: Thứ sáu cậu làm gì?
Mình đi học thêm Anh văn.
Còn thứ bảy?
Furthermore, Vietnamese declarative questions are made by using the particles “à, ừ, nhỉ, nhé…”
You are going to the cinema tonight?
Anh đi xem phim tối nay à?
He will speak to the boss today?
Cậu ta sẽ nói với sếp hôn nay ư?
(Le Quang Thiem, 2004, p.239)
In Vietnamese, if a declarative sentence without those particles cannot be questions although you rise intonation at the end of the sentence. They often express surprise.
E.g: Hôm nay bạn đi học.
The example means that “bạn” is often absent. Today “bạn” is in the class. That makes the speaker surprised.
The last one is the contrast of choice questions in English and alternative questions with “hay/ hay là” in Vietnamese.
“hay/ hay là” in Vietnamese is like “or” in English. Moreover, alternatives (choices) in English and Vietnamese questions are equivalent.
E.g: Does Mrs. Ngan teach EnglishorChinese?
Cô Ngân dạy tiếngAnhhaytiếng Trung?
The alternatives in the example are English, Chinese, tiếngAnh, and tiếng Trung.
Operators S V alternative+…+ oralternative?
et, their structures are different.
S V alternative+…+ hayalternative?
E.g: Shall we go by car, by bus or by train?
Chúng ta sẽ đi bằng xe hơi, xe buýt hay xe lửa?
That’s all the thing about English and Vietnamese alternative questions I want to give. After contrasting, we can see that there is some equivalence and differences between alternative questions in English and Vietnamese. However, the more important purpose of the contrastive analysis is that I, as a teacher, can apply it to teaching English questions. Teachers can help their students to avoid making mistakes and to correct their mistakes. The teachers show the equivalence between alternative questions in English and Vietnamese so that their students can make or translate an alternative question easily.
E.g: Do you come from England?
Bạn đến từ nước Anh phải không?
Beside that, the teachers also explain differences between English and Vietnamese alternative questions. For example, there is the difference in their structure, as I mentioned above. Moreover, there is not only one way to translate a Vietnamese question to a Vietnamese one, and the contrary. The teachers should find the difference between them so that the students aren’t confused. In teaching, the teachers should pay much attention to the differences between two languages and give the students more opportunities to practice. For example, the teachers can create communicative tasks for their students to practice asking and answering questions. Since then, difficulties because of the differences between English and Vietnamese are overcome easily by the students.
Nam was there, wasn’t he?
Was there Nam?
Cậu Nam đã có mặt ở đó phải không?
You didn’t see him, did you?
Anh không nhìn thấy cậu ta phải không?
Anh không nhìn thấy cậu ta à?
(Le Quang Thiem, 2004, p. 237)
Questions, as well as alternative questions are very important in communication, so teaching them is also important. We find that English and Vietnamese alternative questions have the similar and different points. Therefore, teachers should spend more time to analyze questions, to compare the two languages and to remark the differences for their students to notice. In other words, contrastive analysis is necessary in teaching English because all learners are influenced by their mother tongue. Contrastive analysis help teachers recognize advantages and difficulties which their students can meet during learning English. Then, teaching and learning are efficient.