A Contrastive Analysis of Questions in English and Vietnamese in terms of Formal Structures
Student: Trần Thị Thanh Trà
Lecturer: Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ
When studying and teaching the second language, I realize that questions are posed in students’ communication with high frequency and they create difficulties for students to listen to and use. Therefore, this essay will make a contrast between Vietnamese questions and English questions to help students see similarities and differences between them and more importantly find it easy to make English questions. In addition, I will suggest some teaching implications in the contrastive analysis.
A question is a kind of communicative sentence that connect some people with others in their lives. Richard Nordquist makes a definition of question as follows:
A type of sentence expressed in a form that requires (or appears to require) an answer. Also known as an interrogative sentence, a question is generally distinguished from a sentence that makes a statement, delivers a command, or expresses an exclamation( n.d., par. 1).
According to the Wikipedia website a question is used for making “a request for information … .This information is provided with an answer( “Question,” n.d., par. 1).
In fact, babies can communicate with adults by using simple words like ba, bye, cat, etc. When growing older, they seem to be active and curious to discover everything around them. For example, they may ask their parents: who is uncle Nam? How many people are there in his family? As a result, questions are very necessary for them to receive answers from others. To tell the truth, there are so many things in the world or in our lives we do not know and want to learn about. For example, we may ask others: what shape is the earth?; why were dinosaurs extinct?; why didn’t you go to school yesterday?; what is your favorite food?, etc. Together with other types of sentences, questions help enrich human communicative activities. A French scholar says that when people talk to each other, questions and answers can be heard. Another scholar believes that a question is one of the most three important speech acts of human beings. Therefore, questions always play a significant role in communication.
In the real life, we sometimes make questions not to find out the unknown but to express our feelings and to serve our purposes for example greeting, threatening, requesting, etc. Thus, questions are classified into many types in terms of pragmatic force. However, this contrastive analysis will only be based on formal structures between Vietnamese and English questions.
Questions In Vietnamese
Vietnamese grammarians have a quite common point of view on depicting question in terms of formal structures. Here we take Nguyen Kim Than’s study information to classify Vietnamese questions in terms of formal structures. According to him, in Vietnamese there are three main types of questions: general question, partial questions and alternative questions( as cited in Do, 2004) .
A general question is a kind of question that needs an answer to unclear things located in predicates or the core of sentences. The answer to the question has to specify the rightness or wrongness of the unclear things (“Vietnamese Grammar”, p. 77). General questions have six structures:
1. C + V?
Ex: Hương định tự tử ?
2. C + V + modal particles( tiểu từ tình thái)
2.1. C + V + à, chứ, nhỉ, nhé, hả, chứ gì?
Ex: Cháu không đi chơi à ?
Anh mới đến hả ?
Cậu sẽ đi Cần Thơ chứ ?
2.2. C + V + (có) phải không / đúng không?
Ex: Cậu là người miền bắc có phải không ?
Cháu là sinh viên đúng không ?
2.3. C + V + được không/ được chứ?
Ex: Bạn gửi giúp tôi bức thư này được không ?
3. Modal particles before and after predicates
3.1. C + (có) + ĐT + B + không?
Ex: Cậu có học tiếng Hoa không?
3.2. C + (đã)+ ĐT + B + chưa?
Ex: Các em đã làm bài tập ở nhà chưa?
3.3. C + có phải +( “là”) + B + không?
Ex: Cậu có phải là Hương không ?
4. Modal particles before subjects and after predicates: Có phải + C + ĐT + B + (không)?
Ex: Có phải chú làm nghề lái xe không ?
5. (Có) + ĐT + không? (impersonal questions)
Ex: Thật không ?
6. Words or noun phrases (predicative elliptical questions)
Ex : Ba tháng rưỡi?
A partial question is a kind of question raised to ask about the unknown in the core of sentences. The unknown is manifested by interrogative pronouns. The answer to the question is offered by replacing interrogative pronouns with key words of answers( “Vietnamese Grammar”, p. 77). The structures of partial questions are classified as follows:
9. Elliptical question: ở đâu, vì sao ,sao lại, sao đấy, để làm gì, bao nhiêu, gì cơ, sao ?
An alternative question is a kind of question that presents two or more possible answers and presupposes that only one is true. This question uses conjunctions like “hay”, or “hay là”. The conjunctions can connect the same word classes together or a clause with a clause( “ Vietnamese Grammar”, p. 78). Let’s see some following examples:
Ex: Anh đi hay ở lại?
Cô Bình hay cô Mai dạy Toán ở lớp em?
Anh đỗ trạng nguyên hay thám hoa, bảng nhãn?
Bác đạp xe lên Sài Gòn hay là anh Bảy chở bác đi?
Questions In English
There are three main types of questions recognized in English: Yes-no questions, Wh-questions, and alternative questions.
A yes-no question “is a question whose expected answer is either "yes" or "no"”( “Yes-no Question,” n.d., par. 1). There are three types of yes-no questions: genuine yes-no questions, tag questions, declarative questions.
Genuine yes-no questions are the questions whose operators( auxiliaries, modals, to be) are placed at the beginning of sentences and in front of subjects( Le, 2004, p. 237). Genuine yes-no questions can be formed in both positive and negative forms with a rising intonation at the end of sentences.
Ex: Are you a student?
Have you ever been to Nha Trang city?
Can you swim?
Don’t you love him?
Isn’t it beautiful?
Declarative questions are “yes-no questions that have the form of declarative sentences but are spoken with a rising intonation at the end” ( Nordquist, n.d., par. 1). The purpose of declarative sentences is “to express surprise or ask for verification” ( Nordquist, n.d., par. 2). According to Nordquist, “the most likely response to a declarative question is agreement or confirmation”( n.d., par. 2).
Ex: He was sick?
You won the lottery?
She will go abroad?
Tag questions are questions “added to declarative sentences, usually at the end … verify that something has been understood, or confirm that an action has occurred”( Norquist, n.d., par. 1). The basic structure is:
Ex: You like that film, don’t you?
Sue didn’t sleep last night, did she?
However, there are also some exceptions. To make a question tag for a imperative sentence, we may either use “ can you”, “could you”, “will you”, or “would you”. We will add “ shall we” for sentences starting with “ Let’s…”.
Ex: Turn off the TV, will you?
Don’t turn on TV, can you?
Let’s go to the cinema, shall we?
A wh-question is “a term in generative grammar for a question that is formed with an interrogative word … and that expects an answer other than "yes" or "no””( Nordquist, n.d., par. 1). There are some types of wh-questions below:
1. Questions about people:
1.1. Who + V + O\C\A?
Ex: Who is your best friend?
Who did that?
Who went to Nha Trang last summer?
1.2 Who\whom + Op + S + V + (A)?
Ex: Whom are you working for?
Who should we ask?
1.3. Whose + N + V + O +(A)?
Ex: Whose story made you laugh most?
1.4. Whose + N + Op + S + V + (A)?
Ex: Whose books do you like best?
1.5. Whose + To Be + NP?
Ex: Whose are those keys?
2. Questions about things
2.1. What + V + O
Ex: What made you do those things?
2.2. What + Op + S + V + (A)
Ex: What did you do last night?
2.3. What\which + N + Op + S + V + (A)
Ex: What city are you living in?
Which color do you want?
3. Questions about time
When + Op + S + V + (O) + (A)
Ex: When did he leave?
4. Questions about places
Where + Op + S + V + (O) + (A)
Ex: Where are you going to do this Sunday?
5. Questions about reasons
Why + Op + S + V +(O) + (A)
Ex: Why do you say that?
6. Questions about manner
6.1. How + Op + S + V + (O) + (A)
Ex: How does it work?
6.2. How + To Be + S
Ex: How was your exam?
7. Questions about purposes
What + Op + S + V + (O) + ( A) + for?
Ex: What did you do that for?
8. Questions about quantity
8.1. How many\how much + N + Op + S + V + (O) + ( A)
Ex: How much time does it take you to go to school?
How many books do you read every week?
8.2. How many\how much + N + V + (O) + ( A)
Ex: How many students came late?
9. Questions about distance
How far + To Be + S + ( A)
Ex: How far is Vietnam from the USA?
10. Questions about age
How old + To Be + S
Ex: How old are you?
11. Question about length( space)
How long + To Be + S
Ex: How long is the river?
12. Question about length( time)
How long + Op + S + V + (A)
Ex: How long will it take?
13. Questions about frequency
How often + Op + S + V + (O) + (A)
Ex: How often do you write to your friend?
14. Questions about weight
How weigh + To Be + S
Ex: How weigh are you?
15. Questions about height
How tall + To Be + S( for people)
How high + To Be + S( for things)
Ex: How tall Nam is?
How high is the tree?
16. Questions about width
How wide + To Be + S
Ex: How wide is the river?
17. Elliptical questions: where, why, what for, how many, how much, what?
“An alternative question is a kind of question that offers the listener a closed choice between two or more answers” ( Nordquist, n.d., par. 1). In conversation, an alternative question has both a rising intonation before “or” and a falling intonation after “or”. This question uses the conjunction “or”. The conjunction can connect the same word classes together or a clause with a clause.
Ex: Do like tea or coffee?
Will he come or you come?
Compare English Questions with Vietnamese Questions
Yes-no Questions in English versus General Questions in Vietnamese
The first similarity is that both specify the rightness and wrongness of things said. Listeners can refuse to answer a question if it raises the wrong information that the listeners cannot say “yes” or “ no”.
Ex: A: Do you remember the trip to Vung Tau last year?
B: I’m sorry. I didn’t go there in the trip.
Ex: A: Hôm rồi lũ ở miền trung to ghê. Nhà cậu có bị làm sao không?
B: Nhà tớ có ở miền trung đâu mà bị lũ.
The second similarity is that both have the same structure in declarative questions with a rising tone at the end of the sentence.
Vietnamese: C + V?
English: S + V +(O) + (A)?
Ex: Bạn ấy trốn học?
He played truant?
The third similarity is that both have predicative elliptical questions.
Ex: Three months?
The first difference is that compositions of the two types above are different. Genuine yes-no questions in English have inversion between operators and subjects. Operators will be placed at the beginning of sentences right in front of subjects to make genuine yes-no questions with a rising intonation at the end of questions. General questions in Vietnamese have no operators and inversions. They are made by using modal particles at the end of sentences such as à, chứ, nhỉ, nhé, hả, chứ gì, được không, đúng không, được chứ or by using couples of modal particles such as “có…không”, “đã…chưa”, “ có phải…không”, “có…chưa”. General questions in Vietnamese do not use any intonation.
The second difference is that genuine yes-no questions in the negative form expect positive answers more than negative ones from listeners. However, general questions in the negative form expect answers suitable with real situations.
A: Isn’t it wonderful?
B: Yes, it is
A: Hôm nay em không đi học à?
B: Dạ, em xin nghỉ
A: Don’t you know that song?
B: Yes, I do
A: Con chưa ngủ à?
B : Dạ chưa, con phải làm nốt số bài tập này đã
The third difference is that the ways English people and Vietnamese people answer to the genuine yes-no questions and general questions in the negative form respectively are different. Let’s see and analyze some examples:
A: Won’t you go there?
B: Yes, I will. ( B will go there)
C: No, I won’t. ( C won’t go there)
A: Anh sẽ không đến đó ư?
B : Không, tôi sẽ đến chứ.
C : Vâng, tôi sẽ không đến.
From the examples we have the following structures:
Yes, + positive statement
No, + negative statement
Ừ, Vâng, Đúng( means “yes”), + negative statement
Không ( means “no”), + positive statement
The fourth difference is that tag questions are used in English but Vietnamese.
Wh-questions in English versus Partial Questions in Vietnamese
The first similarity is the positive transfer. If question words in English are who, what, when, where, why, how, etc, the equivalents in Vietnamese are ai, cái gì, khi nào, ở đâu, tại sao, như thế nào, etc.
The second similarity is that both English and Vietnamese have elliptical questions:
Để làm gì?
Tại sao không?
Như thế nào?
The third similarity is that when “ what”, “who”, “cái gì”, “ai” are the subjects in the questions, both types of the questions have the same structure.
In English: S + V + O\A\C
In Vietnamese: C + V
Ex: Who makes you sad?
Ai làm cháu buồn?
Questions about people, things, places, manner.
In English operators are placed before subjects and after question words or question phrases such as who( functions as an object), whom, whose, whose + N, what( functions as an object), which, what + N, which + N, how, where . By contrast, in Vietnamese, there is no operator at all and question words or phrases are placed at the end of questions. Let’s see and compare the two following structures:
English: Question words\question phrases + Op + S + V + O\C\A
Vietnamese: C + V + question words\question phrases
Ex: Where do you come from?
Bạn đến từ đâu?
Sometimes we make a change of translation from English into Vietnamese with “ what”. Here are some examples:
What made her laugh?( Vì sao cô ấy cười vậy?)
What happened to make you happy?( Tại sao anh lại vui thế?)
When we make questions about means of transportation, English people use “how” and Vietnamese people use “bằng phương tiện gì” instead of “ như thế nào”. Look at some examples.
English: How do you go to school?
Vietnamese: Bạn đi học bằng phương tiện gì?
Questions about time.
In Vietnamese question words like “bao giờ”, “khi nào” have two different positions in sentences depending on tenses. “Bao giờ”or “khi nào” will be placed at the beginning of questions if the tense is the future one. On the contrary, they will be placed at the end of questions if the tense is the past one.
Ex: Khi nào cậu về quê?( the incident doesn’t occur)
Cậu về quê khi nào vậy? ( the incident did occur)
Therefore, we have the structures:
When + Op + S + V + O\A
Khi nào\bao giờ + C + V
(the future tense)
C + V + khi nào\bao giờ
(the past tense)
Questions about reasons.
The only difference is the inversion of operators and subjects in English questions. Let’s compare the two structures:
English: Why + Op + S + V + O\A
Vietnamese: Tại sao\vì sao + C + V
Questions about distance, age, quantity, length, width, height, frequency.
To ask the questions, English people use “ How + adj” at the beginning of sentences whereas Vietnamese people use words or phrases such as“ mấy”, “ bao nhiêu” before or after key things they want to ask about. Look at some examples below:
How old is he?
Anh ấy bao nhiêu tuổi?
How much money do you spend everyday?
Mỗi ngày bạn tiêu bao nhiêu tiền?
How tall are you?
Bạn cao bao nhiêu?
How wide is the river?
Con sông này rộng bao nhiêu?
In spoken Vietnamese, to express politeness or informality, people usually use modal particles at the end of questions.
Ex: Ai đi ạ?
Ai đi đấy nhỉ?
Alternative Questions in Vietnamese versus Alternative Questions in English
The first similarity is that both offer two choices or more.
Ex: Which color do you prefer, yellow, red, or blue?
Bạn thích màu nào, vàng, đỏ, hay xanh da trời?
The second similarity is that both use the conjunction “or” in English and “hay” or “hay là” in Vietnamese to connect the same word classes together or a clause with a clause.
English: Do you like tea or coffee?
Vietnamese: Ban thích trà hay cà phê?
English: Do you like playing football or watching TV
Vietnamese: Bạn thích đá bóng hay xem ti vi?
The first difference is that alternative questions in Vietnamese do not employ intonation, while alternative questions in English use a rising intonation before “or” and a falling intonation after “or”.
The second difference is the inversion of operators and subjects that just appears in English but Vietnamese.
English: What would you like, football or badminton?
English and Vietnamese belong to different language families, so it goes without saying that they are different in many aspects. Although we see many similarities between English questions and Vietnamese questions, it doesn’t deny that differences are quite big. The first difficulty to Vietnamese students who study English is the appearance of operators in questions or the inversion between operators and subjects. They may ask questions without using any operator. For example, they may say “what you think about that?” instead of “ what do you think about that”. Therefore, the fact that teachers point out the big difference will help students make correct English questions. The second difficulty is that Vietnamese students are accustomed to translating word by word from Vietnamese into English. For example, instead of “ what do you learn from the story?” they may say “ you learn what from the story?”. This error that people call pidgin is so common to people who are English beginners and people who have knowledge of vocabulary but grammar. As a result, focusing much on that point, teachers will help students not be influenced by their mother tongue. The third difficulty is intonation. Intonation is an outstanding feature in spoken English. English people use a falling intonation in wh-questions, a rising intonation in yes-no questions, and both falling and rising intonations in alternative questions. In contrast, Vietnamese people are not in habit of using intonation. Thus, there is no surprise to see that Vietnamese students speak English with a flat intonation. In consequences, at first, teachers should be good models, later instruct students how to make a correct intonation. In conclusion, this analysis helps student not only distinguish between English questions and Vietnamese questions but also familiarizes them with the formation of English questions.
It is obvious that when starting studying a certain second language, learners have to face difficulties. However, no problem has no solution. Whether solutions are found or not depends much on learners’ efforts. Besides, teachers are necessary to give precise instructions to help student go on the right track. To master foreign languages, learners need much time to practise and persistence to acquire knowledge.
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