Contrastive Analysis: Making request in English and Vietnamese

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Contrastive Analysis: Making request in English and Vietnamese

Student: Nguyễn Phương Thảo

Lecturer: Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ
Ho Chi Minh city University of Pedagogy

December, 2010


As many people can know, the differences in culture between many countries are keys resulting into misunderstanding in communication. Day by day, many countries are brought closer and closer by cultures and languages as well. Still, there are some difficulties in using the target language appropriately in different situations. In communication, how to make a request is so important. A request brings an act of asking for something that we want. And it is really useful to understand how to reply these requests as well. Any lack of socio-pragmatic knowledge can lead to awkward situation or misunderstanding in intercultural communication, that the reason why I choose to work with this issue “Making request in English and Vietnamese

In this paper, I focus on request in English and Vietnamese, some ways declining a request. In addition, I will mention the politeness strategies of refusals, and draw out some similarities and differences between requests the two languages. Then, some implications for language teaching are discussed for learners to avoid pragmatic transfers from their native language to the second one and I give some suggestions how we help language learners overcome difficulties caused by the interference when facing with these sticky situations to enhance the communicative competence for the Vietnamese learners of English. I hope this paper will bring a deeper look into two languages in making request.

Making request in English and Vietnamese


According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, request means the act or an instance of asking for something.

In English, we can say:

"Come here, please."

"Could I take this seat?" …

In Vietnamese, we can say: “Tắt nhạc đi nhóc”

“Cho con đi chơi mẹ nhé”

Making request in English

When someone asks to do something or asks if they can do something, they can make a direct request in informal form.

“Open the door”

“Keep silent!”

With friends and family we usually use the informal register. Imperatives are often given as imperatives, sometimes very strongly, and often in a friendly fashion. "Give me a hand over here."
"I'm trying to watch TV, if you don't mind."
"Billy, you put that down at once!"
"Come for dinner next week."
"Don't wear that dress with those shoes.
"You take that one, I'll have this."
"Wait here, I'll be back in a moment."

However, when you ask someone to do something for you, or ask if you can do something, it's important to sound polite. The neutral register is perhaps the most common. It is used with people you know casually (acquaintances) or people you work with. Requests can be used in addition of modifier “please”. "Please" is often used to change an order into a request. It does this by suggesting that the person receiving it can choose whether or not to do it. ("Please" is a short way of saying "if it pleases you".) As with vocatives "please" comes at the beginning or the end of the request. Generally, if there is a vocative and "please" in a sentence, they go at different ends. For example:

"Samantha, please come here."
"Samantha, come here please."
"Come here please, Samantha."
"Please come here Samantha.

Or, we can make a request with question tags. Indirect requests are more common for requests that might be refused.

For example:
"Do you want to open that window, Mike? "
"Call me when you are finished, would you?"
"Can you tell me what to do here?"
"Turn out that light when you go, please."

Indirect requests are statements of fact. Requests for changes in behavior begin with the words "I wish".

For example:
"I wish you would remember to lock the back door.”

Sometimes an introductory phrase is used.

"Do me a favor. Pass that file there, please."
"Have you got a moment? I need some help here."

Formal requests are indirect, or very polite. Sometimes the meaning and the words are very different.

For example:
"Excuse me, is this place taken?" (Translation: I want to sit here.)
" You'll find an ashtray in the smoking area, over there." (Translation: Please don't smoke here)
" Maybe you should leave now." (Translation: Get out.)
" Perhaps you would like to pay now?" (Translation: Pay.)
" I'm sorry, but our salt has run out" (Translation: We want to use your salt)
" It is after midnight, you know" (Translation: Please be quiet)

People in official positions often make polite requests when they are commands.

As a rule, the more strongly we suggest that we expect the person receiving a request to do it, the less polite the request is. The more modifiers we put in, and the more remote we make the possibility seem, the more polite it becomes. If it becomes too polite, it is sarcastic, which is not polite at all.

For example:

"Lend me ten pounds until Friday, will you?" (informal, not polite)
"Lend me ten pounds until Friday, would you?"
"Do you think you could lend me ten pounds until Friday?"
"Do you think you could possibly lend me ten pounds until Friday?"
"I don't suppose that you could possibly lend me ten pounds until Friday?"
"I don't suppose that you could possibly lend me ten pounds until Friday, by any chance?"
"I don't suppose that you could possibly lend me ten pounds until Friday, by any chance, could you, please?" (very humble)

To make a request more polite, we might use the subjunctive form of the verb. Very often English requests are indirect. Instead of asking someone to do something, the speaker asks if the person is able to do it. Therefore modals of ability ("can", "may" etc.) are very often used.

Now, I want to give a look of making request in Vietnamese. When talking to friends or someone in close relationship, Vietnamese people also use direct request, such as:
“Cho mượn xe đạp cái” (Lend me your bike)

Mở giúp tôi cái cửa (Open the door for me).

And, sometimes, people make indirect requests by asking questions.

Bạn làm ơn giới thiệu về mình đôi chút được không?

(Could you please introduce something about yourself?)

Ông có thể cho chúng tôi biết quan điểm của mình về vấn đề này được không?

(Could you give us some of your opinion about this issue?)

Anh có thể hoàn thành bản báo cáo vào thứ Bảy này được không?

(Could you finish this report by Saturday?)

Chị có thể kiểm tra lại những thông tin về công ty A và sau đó báo cáo lại cho tôi được không?

(Can you check the information about company A, then give me a report back?)

Moreover, some requests also comes into conversation by adding modifiers

“NHÉ” “Em thắp đèn lên nhé?” (May I lighten up?)

“NÀO” Các chị xách giúp tôi tí nào!” (Please, bring this for me for a while!)

“CHỨ” “Thêm một chút đường chứ?” (Would you like some more sugar?)

“NHỈ” “Ta chơi ván cờ cho vui nhỉ?”(Would you like to play a chess?)

Next, I will introduce some ways to refuse a request.

Direct refusals:

In English

In Vietnamese

Direct refusals

No, I don’t need.
No, thanks.
No, thank you.

No, thanks anyway

Thôi, cảm ơn.

Không, cảm ơn

Khỏi cần, cảm ơn.

Chả cần đâu, cảm ơn.

Indirect refusals

We’d love to, but we are busy now.

Another time.

Cảm ơn, nhưng tôi lấy làm tiếc vì không thể.

Ồ, tôi bận rồi, hẹn dịp khác nhé.


Some ways of making request in English as well as in Vietnamese and some ways to decline a request have been just clarified. In this section, I would like to discuss the contrast between English and Vietnamese request.

Firstly, requests in both English and Vietnamese carry the act of asking for something. They can be used in two kinds which are formal and informal form.

Additionally, both English and Vietnamese greetings use the form of question or addition of modifiers, usually in formal settings. Requests are very complicated in use, because it is important not to offend people by giving orders. (This is also why many insults are given as orders.) To avoid offence, orders are often given as requests, even if the person receiving them must do as he is told. On the other hand, suggestions or encouragement from friends are often given as orders. Indirect requests are often questions related to what the speaker wants, but which do not directly ask for something.

In English

Do you think you could lend me ten pounds until Friday?

Could you please introduce something about yourself?

In Vietnamese

Công việc của con cần thêm tiền. Bố mẹ giúp con nhé?

Chị cho em mượn ít tiền được không?

The ways to decline a request in English and Vietnamese also share some common things. The refusals are used by giving reasons to decline.

We’d love to, but we are busy now.

Cảm ơn, nhưng tôi lấy làm tiếc vì không thể.

However, English situation seems to be simpler and more standard thanks to its informality. In English, “Could you please…?” “Would you mind…” are certain ways of requesting. In contrast, Vietnamese ones are very flexible because they are respectful of hierarchical relationships. So, there are plenty of ways to make a request. In her research on Politeness Strategies in Hanoi Vietnamese Speech (2003), Srichampa listed many patterns in Vietnamese request. Different people have different strategies of making request.

We can see the rules to make request to seniors in Vietnamese

(Reason) + Question.

“Công việc của con cần thêm tiền. Bố mẹ giúp con nhé?”

“My work needs more some investments; would you parents please help me?”

In addition, addressee forms in English are not as complicated as ones in Vietnamese. Different usage to junior and senior addressee forms in English is not very clear since English culture puts high value on equal or horizontal relationships. “All men are created equally” and liberation of each individual is what everybody wishes. In contrast, Vietnamese has more complex system of address terms in kinship than English does. The reason is that Vietnam has a long history of feudalism.

Thus, Vietnamese sociopolitical life has been strongly influenced by the theory of Confucianism which lays great emphasis on relationship. Moreover, the Vietnamese society is hierarchical in nature. Therefore, the differences in age and paternal and maternal relationship are reflected in how to make appropriate requests.


After giving a contrastive view into making request in Vietnamese and English as mention above, I would like to discuss some implications for English and Vietnamese teaching at high school in our country.

As we discussed, we can see that there are many problems in making request and declining requests in English and Vietnamese which Vietnamese learners must overcome if they want to use English effectively. For this reason, they must practice a lot and they need the help of the teacher. The teacher can give them some solutions and teach them the ways to learn English better.

Firstly, teachers should draw students’ attention to the aspect of politeness and rudeness requests they would make so that they will not make mistakes in communication as well as translation due to negative transfer. Then, students can deal with people appropriately when the situation calls for it, achieving language competence.

When facing a request like this “Would you like something to drink?” some students tend to response “Yes, we do/No, we don’t.” That’s not natural at all. They should response “Yes, please/why not? /sure /we’d love to. Or, No, thank you/ we’d love to, but we are busy now. Another time.”
That’s the problem leading into misunderstanding in communication that learners should overcome.

Secondly, the task of learning imperatives can be made more fun and less stressful by using games, role-play to practice the form of making request and how to decline (if so)

Thirdly, as a role of an English teacher I think we have to introduce to them some problems which they often meet and help them to focus on some kinds of making requests and learn how to decline them. In addition, they must learn carefully to avoid the misunderstanding. Teachers should help students familiar with the structure of making request so that they can know the way to respond and make the conversation more smoothly, not to be confused, embarrassed in real life. And teachers should be more generous and helpful to the students because if teacher doesn’t teach, maybe they will not know how to correct their mistakes and learn English better.

Fourthly, teachers they must have the profound knowledge of Vietnamese question. If teacher teach all new things, and no time revision, the students will repeat their old mistakes many times because they do not know the correction and because teacher does not correct their mistakes. Teacher should also show the similarities and differences between English and Vietnamese questions. When they know the comparison clearly, they will use it more easily and correctly. So, the teacher plays an important role in teaching language and helping students to master English.

Last but not least, beside the important role of teacher, the students must also do their best to learn and try to read a lot of books to know much more about the questions so that they can use them in different situations. If the teacher tries a lot to help students but the students don’t try, don’t cooperate, don’t learn, the studying progress is not successful and ineffective.

The learner will gain some more effective learning methods and be more confident when communicating in their daily life and in academic issues. I believe with some aspects in this paper can help you much for further studying and bring some useful information for language teachers to apply for their English teaching.

Work cited

Chi. “Bước đầu tìm hiểu đặc trưng văn hóa "duy tình" qua ngôn ngữ giao tiếp tiếng Việt”. 25 Sept. 2010

Hồ. T.K.Oanh. “Một số tiểu từ tình thái biểu đạt tính lịch sự trong hành động ngỏ lời bằng tiếng Việt”. 14 Dec. 2009

Trần.M.Hải. “Văn hóa mệnh lệnh”. 10 Oct. 2007

“Commuicative English - Making polite request coversation example”. 23 Aug. 2010

Nguyễn.V.Độ. “Tìm hiểu về mối liên hệ giữa ngôn ngữ - văn hoá”. Ha Noi Publisher. 2004

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