Vietnamese have a long history of learning languages. One can say it is in the blood of the people. The tiny strip of land in the heart of Southeast Asia is just so rich and resourceful, that foreigners come from time to time trying to take what they can. One rather unexpected result of colonial influence is that Vietnamese have constantly been learning foreign languages. It used to be Mandarin and Cantonese for hundreds of years, then French was hot for roughly another 80. The Russians enjoy their popularity for a while, before English finally takes over the crown as the trendiest second tone of modern Vietnam.
It seems whenever Vietnamese have to adapt to a new foreign language, they go at it with fever. From pre-school kids to middle-aged adults, it is a world of English now. It is the most obvious choice for a second language, and that also applies for minority groups who do not speak Vietnamese as the first one. In tourist destinations like Sapa, where foreign travelers by far outnumber the local Viet-ethnic community, children of Yao and Hmong people learn to speak English at a very early age. There is no formal training whatsoever, but as the kids wander around town all day socializing with foreigners, one can often be very amazed at how native their accent can be. It is only as strange as a Native American flows French fluently while stumbling with English.
Photo: Sapa Hmong Tour Guide Speaks very fluent English but barely any Vietnamese (Source: baolaocai.vn)
It is not only people who need the language to communicate that are learning. People of all ages are rushing to pick up the tool and pride themselves on knowing it. From government office to private contractor posts, there is often a requirement of English proficiency if young (and old) job seekers hope to land some employment. Some positions never have the candidates actually use their skill, but it is considered a must-have on the resume. HR simply puts it there, but does not possess the manpower needed to perform check. The consequence is many literally buy their certificate. The fake degree business in Vietnam has reached some unprecedented level that officials are trying in vain to find a solution. While this occurrence is not just a minority, some places are indeed genuine, as foreign investors are pouring the country and taking advantage of the workforce. Certainly there are venues like restaurants and hotels that dictate visitors on the use of English. Now and then, an internationally-standardized big corporation jumps in the local market and its employees all have to use English in the normal operation. It is there that the true English speakers gather.
The way old is quick to change. Only a while back, it uses to be Russian that is hip. The switch to English gets off to a slow start when Vietnam initiates "doi moi" in 1986 and since then gradually picks up its pace. In many modern elementary schools, English is the only choice of foreign language as much as it is a requirement. Certainly having the kids learn a subject is one thing, but either they are interested or not is an entirely different story, but the move represents the government's sincere intention to raise new generations of Vietnamese that are able to navigate the globe and bring forth Vietnam into the future. There are students in the remote areas that do not have foreign language in their curriculum, and the better-funded schools often offer choices, but for the majority of Vietnamese youths, formal English training is a given.
Photo: English gets universalized in Vietnamese local schools
The fact that students are required to learn English calls into question the quality of instruction at schools. Many teachers in the modern class only have proper training in Russian, but as time changes, make the ultimate decision or are forced to switch. Some hold up well, but the majority falters. This in turn creates insufficiency for entire classes across the country, as many students are only familiar with English grammar structure and not the speaking part. Also, as is the case with most other subjects, Vietnamese schools lack the infrastructure needed for students practice. For English, the damage is so severe that parents these days do not trust schools in educating their kids in language any more. Instead, they opt to send children to the many English-training centers as an extra-curriculum activity. There go more jobs for expats.
Vietnam is seeing a boom in the number of language centers across the country. Starting in 1994 with the appearance of then the-only-in-its-kind Apollo, the first FDI-funded school, Vietnam has now seen the raise of many others. Some say the market is already over-saturated by now. There are the projects with official endorsement by foreign governments like ACET and British Council, the ones with funding from oversea like ILA and various centers that are founded by locals. For the most parts, native English speakers teach at these centers, with the occasional TAs for beginning classes. Teaching in Vietnam is the one job that brings quite good income for a large number of expatriates currently in the country. But it takes more than being born into an English-speaking community to be a good teacher.
Photo: one among the many English centers in Vietnam with foreign instructors
Driven by popular belief, the demand for foreign teacher is still high these days. Any white English-speaker qualifies! Most of the teachers in Vietnam eventually have TESOL certification, but its standard seems rather low. The friendliness and respect bestowed on visitors of the Vietnamese people only makes the situation worse. If one asks, students will testify that many teachers are incapable and just show up to make some quick extra bucks. The number of foreign expats that truly stay in Vietnam for long and do teaching as a full-time occupation is very few. Most are wanderers that manage to stay with students for less than six months. Some are dedicated to the job, but one should never be naive enough to assume that much progress can be gained in such little time. Ill-suited seasonal teachers, combined with frequent changes in instruction style do not make for good students. Reputable centers usually do not employ such short-term staff, but many do and still are thriving just because of fierce demand. In $1200 a year GDP per capita Vietnam, some owners of English centers can often make as much as $10,000 a month, a disfiguringly large return on investment. So despite the market being extremely saturated, many are still eager to join in the game of ripping off less-knowledgeable folks.
Other than being trendy, English is also the obvious choice for its convenience. Unlike neighboring countries, Vietnam adapts a Latin alphabet in the early 1900 and it is now the official written language. Vietnamese letters are also spelled out and for some part the sounds actually resemble those of English. This familiarity makes learning English easier for Vietnamese students, as they do not have to relearn another alphabet all over again. Some will also argue that Vietnamese have the closest-to-native English accent of all the Asian people. Not at the discount of the well-known adaptability, Vietnamese students, possessing better English, seem to find it easier to fit in classes overseas. This is also one factor that is driving the trend, evident in the case of Hanoi-Amsterdam High school, which sees two-thirds of its students going abroad.
The path to academic excellence is long, and shy conservative Vietnamese students, who are, on the other hand, not really well-known for their confidence, often rely too much on instructors at times. For every field of study, there is a time when the student has to get up and get go by himself. But in conservative Vietnam, where individual opinion often yields to that of the public, many are afraid of going their own way. After getting a hold of fairly advanced English, instead of choosing to do self-study, many still keep going to classes and refer to foreign (and domestic) teachers, to little effect. Some are nconfident, some are just plainly lazy. But perhaps the reason that is mostly to blame is they are not used to self-criticism or having to fly with their own wings without mother birds giving a lift. This mentality gives a golden opportunity for language centers to score on hapless knowledge-thirsty students.
With English taking an invasive maneuver into the life of Vietnamese, especially youngsters, some have developed a taste for mixing the two languages in normal conversations. Pioneering this trend is the students that have been sent abroad to study, and their number is growing fast. With the newly-imported-back kids using English as a frequent means of communicating, others do not want to fall behind either. This makes for a small world of languages gone mad. Some critics are claiming the original Vietnamese language "spoiled", "degraded" and "stripped of its lore". While that is certainly true that some like the "mystical feel" of popping in words others cannot understand and thus there is legitimate reason to consider such act "degrading the language", it is also wise to remember that a good portion of the Vietnamese vocabulary has a foreign source. Be it Vietnamese, German or English, languages evolve and new words are formed every day, and one can do nothing to stop the work of time and progress.
While it is true that the new language has opened the door of opportunities for many, it can also be said that the English-studying trend in Vietnam is showing some of the ugly side. It is a familiar question anywhere in the world that rebellious students keep asking "what do we go to school for?" Only that such question is not easy to answer here.
Or, if you just wanna rock indeed, you will have to learn English too!