English Proficiency in Viet Nam: Giving Credit Where Credit’s Due


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Courtesy of VietnamNet Bridge

An article entitled What is the real English profiency level of Vietnamese? (yes, the word “proficiency” was misspelled) recently graced the Internet in Viet Nam with this description:  While an education organization has ranked Vietnam in the seventh position among 21 Asian countries in proficiency of English, some experts call the result ‘flashy’, saying it does not reflect the real situation of English learning and teaching in Vietnam.

Of course, no one survey can provide an accurate overall picture of the state of affairs of whatever it is measuring.  It is but a snapshot, an impression, a baseline for comparing an apple in Viet Nam, in this case, English proficiency, with the same apple in other countries. 

Yes, there are many students who are not performing well in English, based on high school final exam results.  Yes, many employers complain that most university graduates cannot communicate fluently in English.  Yes, English language instruction methodology in Viet Nam is archaic.  And, yes, there are too few opportunities for many students to practice what they learn in the classroom.  

According to the article, the EF ranking “shows the high readiness of Vietnamese youth for global integration,” an assertion I happen to agree with and that I bear witness to on a daily basis.  Interest in studying English is at peak levels and while much of the instruction is not of the highest quality in terms of teacher quality, methodology, curriculum, and materials, growing numbers of student find a way, including by taking advantage of a plethora of online resources.  

English as an Official Language?  

There’s even been talk about making English an official language in Viet Nam?  Such is the level of enthusiasm about English.  Why?

The reality is that not all Vietnamese need to be proficient in English.  While English is the most popular foreign language, young Vietnamese are studying a number of other languages, East Asian, e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Korean and European, e.g., French, German, Spanish. Many will require no foreign language proficiency once they enter the world of work.  

Therefore, any curriculum should be designed based on the current and future needs of the target student audience.  Why not offer English as an elective to students who are interested in learning it for whatever reason, including some who are linguistically gifted?  The current “shotgun” approach, while well-intended, is not likely to bear fruit in the long term. 

Let me conclude with some good news.  Based on my rather extensive in country and regional experience, Viet Nam compares very favorably to other Asian countries, including those with huge economic, educational, and historical advantages such as China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand.  What’s needed is a more balanced perspective.  Yes, there’s room for improvement but we should always give credit where credit’s due. 

Congratulations to Viet Nam for its progress to date!    

Shalom (שלום), MAA

P.S.:  For the record, in response to the question in the second article about whether or not Viet Nam should make English an official language, I voted a resounding NO.  The majority vote to date was YES, but 311 votes, most probably cast by foreigners, does not a scientific survey make so take it with a grain of salt, dear reader.  🙂

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