Today we will introduce to you an interesting fact about Vietnamese language for expats who are learning Vietnamese or living in Vietnam.
Every language has its own way to express time. For example, in English, “-ed” is added to the verb for past tenses. “Tenses is a grammaticalized location of an event in time” – (Comrie 1975).What about the Vietnamese language? Do the tenses in Vietnamese truly grammaticalize time as English and other languages do?
Some teachers will instruct students as follows: the use of “đã” means past tenses; the use of “đang” means present tenses; and “sẽ” is for future tense. This is because it is sometimes useful to compare with English to help learners understand.
- Jack came back home (Jack đã về nhà)
- Jack is coming home (Jack đang về nhà)
- Jack will come home (Jack sẽ về nhà)
These sentences are not incorrect, but the words “đã”, “đang” and “sẽ” are not necessary to express tense. It is OK to omit them, and let other words in the sentence like “yesterday” or “tomorrow” show tense. The meaning of the previous sentences is the same as the following ones:
- Anh ấy về nhà rồi (He came back home)
- Anh ấy trên đường về nhà (He is on the way back home)
- Anh ấy sắp về nhà (He is going to come back home)
This mean “đã”, “đang” and “sẽ” are not always required to express time in Vietnamese.
When being translated into Vietnamese, the use of “đã” to express the “past tense” can lead to confusion because it suggests more than just time.
- It was eight o’clock (Đã tám giờ). This not only describes tense, but the speaker is also emphasizing it’s time to do something or it’s late.
“Đã” is even used to represent time in the present or in the future:
- In two days, you will arrive and I depart to Hanoi. (Hai ngày nữa anh đến thì tôi đã đi Hà Nội)
In addition, “đang” does not always represent “present time”:
- At that time, I was working at a foreign company while he was unemployed. (Hồi đó tôi đang làm cho một công ty nước ngòai, còn anh ấy thì đang thất nghiệp)
- Next week, when you are in Singapore, he will surely be in trouble. (Tuần sau, khi em đang ở Singapore, chắc chắn anh ta sẽ gặp rắc rối)
Because of the differences in languages, Vietnamese students of English often question why English verbs need to be altered to signify tense when there are other time signifiers such as “last year”, ”now” or “next week” in sentences.