English becomes important in Vietnam

By Larry Goldsmith

“Will you speak English with me so I can practice?”

Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake is the cultural center of the North Vietnamese city’s Old Quarter. On a Saturday night, couples and families stroll along the paths or sit on benches looking across the lake at The Huc Bridge and the 18th-century Temple of the Jade Island.

An American visiting the lake will find it easy to make new friends among students from the nearby universities. Nhung, a 20-year-old economics student, explains that her teacher expects her to practice English two hours a day.

“I try to study by myself, but it is hard to learn pronunciation without practicing with someone who knows it as a native,” she said.

Bao, who proudly informs a visitor that he is studying finance at a university known as “the Harvard of Vietnam,” wears a button that says, “I (heart) study USA.” For these and other students relaxing at the lake after a week of study, a trip to the United States may be a distant dream, but a working knowledge of English is the ticket to a successful career in business.

English is an important topic in Vietnam these days. The Southeast Asian nation’s Ministry of Education and Training’s National Foreign Language Project 2020 aims to have most graduates from Vietnamese colleges and universities speak English or another foreign language by the year 2020. More than 80,000 teachers in state elementary and secondary schools are expected to pass an intermediate-level proficiency exam. Project 2020 is part of a nationwide effort to continue the country’s impressive economic development.

Although still a communist country, Vietnam embraced market-based economic reforms beginning in 1986, and has transformed itself from one of the poorest countries in the world, increasing per-capita income from less than $100 annually to more than $1,100. It also has welcomed western investment, as well as development projects funded by Chinese, South Korean, Japanese and European investors.

Although its rate of growth has slowed in recent years, the country’s economy is still experiencing five to six percent annual growth.

Nguyen Ngoc Hung, who heads the MOET project, recently told representatives of the American-based Library of Vietnam Project that the ministry will spend approximately 85 percent of its $450 million budget on teacher training.

“He told us that it was particularly important to train teachers in the more remote areas of the country,” said Francis “Chuck” Theusch, a U.S. Army veteran from Wisconsin who founded the Library Project in 1999.

“Since almost all of our 24 Vietnam libraries are in small, rural communities, there’s a very important role for us to play there,” said Theusch, who served in Quang Ngai Province in 1969 and has returned to Vietnam 37 times since 1999.

The project’s libraries include a library in Kien Giang Province funded by the Kinsley, Kan., Rotary Club, and one recently completed in Binh Dinh Province by a group headed by Manhattan, Kan., veteran Ken Embers.

The Library Project is collaborating with Dr. Paul Wong of San Diego State University to develop English-language training programs at Library Project sites throughout the country. The initiative is based on similar projects developed by Wong and his team in Afghanistan.

“MOET has promised to provide DSL internet service to our libraries. There also will be scholarships available for Vietnamese students to come to the United States for a year of study. We want to ensure that some of those spots go to students from some of our poor rural communities as well as those from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City,” Theusch said.