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“Giữ Gìn Sự Trong Sáng Của Tiếng Việt”: Vietnamese Accent Discrimination At Home and Abroad

(Image via Britannica)

I would like to acknowledge the support and inspiration of Vietnamese Professor/Visiting Lecturer Trần Diễm Trang from the East Asian Studies Department, without whose tireless work this article would not have been possible. 

From 1558 until Japanese occupation in 1940, the city of Huế was imperial Vietnam’s seat of power. Vietnam’s early aristocrats and nobles were likely some of the first speakers of the Huế accent. While Vietnam is home to dozens of smaller dialects, three accents are predominant among the country’s 100 million speakers: The Southern Accent, the Central Accent (where the Huế dialect is most prominent), and the Northern Accent, considered by some to be the “standard accent.” It may come as some surprise, then, that in 2014, Anh Phương became the first reporter with a Huế accent to deliver the midday news on Vietnam’s national television station, VTV. It’s difficult to overstate how large a controversy Anh Phương’s hiring became. Viewers across the nation engaged in heated online debates about the role of local language on VTV programs. Many users believe that the Huế accent is more difficult to understand given its tonal differences from other accents, and as such, Anh Phương’s reporting could lead to “confusion and information misinterpretation.” Anh Phương worried as much at the start of her job in 2014: “I still know that the Central accent will not be easy to hear,” she told a reporter. “Hopefully, in the near future, everyone will get used to it and be completely satisfied with a central voice on VTV.” But Anh Phương was wrong; after one year, VTV took the Huế reporter off the airwaves, and she has yet to appear on the network since. 

As is the case in so many Western countries, accent discrimination is used in Vietnam to silence voices that those in power do not want to hear. But, unlike in Vietnam, accent discrimination in the West is inseparable from a long history of racism. For example, the legacies of 19th-century minstrelsy have direct ties to contemporary issues surrounding “blaccents” in the United States. For Asian Americans in particular, researchers have identified accent discrimination as an understudied threat to mental and physical wellbeing. Given these barriers the Vietnamese diaspora faces in the West, the cross-section between understudied accent discrimination within Vietnam and understudied accent discrimination outside Vietnam may well reveal lessons for unheard voices in both communities. Despite its contrasts with Western accent discrimination, accent discrimination in Vietnamese media and education stems from the same nationalism and discomfort with the unfamiliar that plagues language appreciation and silences underheard voices across the world. 

As previously mentioned, the role of race plays a fundamental difference between Vietnamese and Western accent discrimination. In the West, accent discrimination is merely one tool that the powerful can use to suppress voices of those who are already systemically marginalized. But in Vietnam, accent discrimination may fundamentally have more to do with the actual sound of your voice. Vietnamese is a tonal language, so words carry entirely different meanings with different inflections. Whereas Northern and Southern accents have between five and six tones, most speakers near Huế pronounce only five distinct tones with smaller differences between each. While some suggest that this development is the product of efforts to keep the imperial capital of Huế “dignified, respectful, and quiet,” few Northern and Southern Vietnamese speakers would agree with that characterization today. When Anh Phương started delivering the afternoon news update, viewers who saw her voice as “small and cute” or “unique” seemed outnumbered by those who were concerned about her interpretability. Some viewers found her accent “unreasonable” to serve “the whole country,” and others suggested that “if you have a special Huế accent… you should change it a bit.” Notably, though, these viewers do not see these beliefs as accent discrimination but merely a decent request to get daily news in an accent that they can easily understand and not misinterpret. Some even recommended further dividing national television so that each region could have its own commentary to meet its needs. To many in Vietnam, discomfort with other regions’ accents is a personal preference rather than an overt discriminatory act. 

At the same time, Vietnamese accent discrimination has been inseparable from domestic politics after the end of the Vietnam War. Language is, of course, inherently political: Media and government control over what can and cannot be said publicly bears significant consequences for decision-making and public opinion. After Hồ Chí Minh’s 1945 Declaration of Independence, the government began to work on implementing a standardized language across controlled portions of the country. The campaign to promote one standard Vietnamese language in schools and literature bore a slogan that sought “Giữ gìn sự trong sáng của tiếng Việt” — “conservation of the purity of the Vietnamese language.” Consequently, the political connotations around a pure and standard language must substantially undermine well-meaning explanations for aversion to different accents. This paradox bleeds visibly into Vietnamese language education both at home and abroad. One recent study found that political beliefs and regional differences in upbringings have led to moderate-to-great accent discrimination within Vietnamese higher education. Despite the fact that most Vietnamese Americans hail originally from the South, the vast majority of Vietnamese language instructors in the United States have the Northern accent. A product of political stigmas, Southern speakers often still refer to their Northern instructors as “communists,” and Northern instructors still berate their students’ accents as “improper,” “outdated,” and “backwards.” In fact, Brown’s recent hire of Cô Trần Diễm Trang, the university’s first-ever Vietnamese language instructor, makes her one of the only such professors with a Southern accent in the United States. Political attitudes between people from Vietnam’s different regions have provided the foundation for Vietnamese accent discrimination across the globe. 

Two lessons for the West stand out from Vietnam’s experience with accent discrimination. First, silencing unheard voices serves to embolden societal divisions rather than erase them. Dr. Nguyễn Hồng Cổn, the dean of linguistics at Vietnam National University, remarked that television viewers’ and employers’ belief that Northern Vietnamese is standard would only deepen employment disparities in Vietnam’s regions, especially in entertainment and radio. Not only do these attitudes fuel resentment that defeats Vietnam’s nationalistic goals, but they also strip millions of citizens of the ability to hear their local accent spoken in a movie or radio song. Since much of Western accent discrimination comes from an urge to subvert ethnic minorities, employers and decision-makers alike should consider whether accent isolation merely reinforces undesirable social divisions. 

Second, comfort can bear real, difficult tradeoffs with diversity. Historical context aside, many viewers’ concerns about Anh Phương’s accent purport to be about accessibility; after all, understanding the afternoon news report is a reasonable expectation. But realistically, exposure to the Huế accent is the only way to fully grasp local perspectives and, eventually, learn to be comfortable with their intonation. Likewise, there can be no substitute for minority perspectives in American society except directly hearing from Black, Latino, Asian, and other American voices themselves. Incorporating speakers from different ethnic and geographic backgrounds in news and entertainment might be the surest way to pop the media bubbles so many now find themselves in. 

Lastly, accent discrimination in Vietnam affirms that linguistic stigmas fundamentally distract from the appreciation for a nation’s cultural identity. “In my opinion,” one VTV viewer wrote during the Anh Phương controversy, “which voice is common, which is local, is all self-imposed by humans.” Indeed, just as languages are a social construct, so too is our disdain for those that we do not like. To understand American culture without listening to any voices with a southern drawl or country twang would be virtually treasonous. Likewise, one cannot grasp the daily happenings of Vietnamese life without hearing from all the different voices who live it. To take back Hồ Chí Minh’s words from 1945, Vietnamese media, teachers, and citizens must fight as one to encourage the conservation of not the purity but the complexity of the Vietnamese language.