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

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.  🙂

eng official lang vn



English to be second language in Vietnam HE (The PIE News)

Educational institutions in Vietnam have been directed to implement English as a second language on campus, it has been announced, which could increase student mobility and international collaborations with the country.

I was recently interviewed by The PIE News, an industry newsletter for professionals in international education, about a new initiative in Viet Nam involving the use of English as a second language at 61 institutions that was recently announced by Dr. Phung Xuan Nha, the new minister of education and training.

Here’s a choice excerpt that will hopefully whet your appetite for more:

Mark Ashwill, managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), told The PIE News that the new regulation is a “bold move”.

“It sends a very strong signal that English proficiency is important for Vietnam, its ongoing integration into the global community, and its long-term sustainable development.”

Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.


Peace Corps Coming to Vietnam for First Time

I’m very happy to see this development.  It’s yet another indication that Viet Nam is coming of age as a full-fledged member of the global community of nations because it reflects the government’s confidence in itself and its country.

In the past, the Peace Corps was viewed with official suspicion.  (This is not without cause, based on past experience.  In 2008, for example, it was revealed that in Bolivia, Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar were asked by a U.S. Embassy official to provide details on Cubans and Venezuelans in that country.)

The announcement came during a press conference with President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi.  Photo courtesy of of the government of Viet Nam via UPI.

While the Peace Corps is very much a part of US soft power strategy, it represents another step forward in the bilateral relationship.  The English teachers supplied by the program will help improve the English proficiency of many Vietnamese, both teachers and students.  Note that the program is initially limited to English teachers, which makes sense, given past concerns.


Vietnam Ranks 29th in Annual EF English Proficiency Index & 5th in Asia

 Vietnam is among the top performers in the region, ahead of Japan and China. Graphic: EF
Vietnam is among the top performers in the region, ahead of Japan and China. Graphic: EF

EF logoHere’s some more good news for Vietnam and colleagues from English-speaking countries who recruit here at the secondary and postsecondary levels.  According to the results of the EF (Education First) Proficiency Index, which profiles 70 countries, including 15 in Asia, Vietnam ranks 29th with “moderate proficiency” in English.  Last year, it ranked 33rd out of 63 non-native English-speaking countries.  Among Asian countries, Vietnam ranked higher than Cambodia, China, Japan and Thailand.  This will come as no surprise to those who have visited those countries or worked with their students.  For example, when you walk into a department store in Bangkok in what has been a middle-income country for quite some time – with many more socio-economic advantages than Vietnam – the staff will usually scramble to find the one person who can communicate in passable to good English with foreign customers.

Here are a couple of interesting findings from the Vietnam survey:

  • As in most countries, women speak better English than men.
  • Adults in Hanoi are somewhat more proficient in English than those in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).

As the survey points out, research shows that better English correlates with higher income and better quality of life.  Since English is an international language, it also allows its speakers to tap into an international network of information and knowledge, as well as develop relationships with an estimated half a billion people whose native language is English or who speak it as a foreign language.

Why is Vietnam making so much progress so quickly?  The sheer number of number of young people, including children, who are studying English, the growing ability to pay for instruction at proprietary centers, combined with opportunities to practice English, the result of Vietnam’s integration into the global economy.

These impressive increases in the English proficiency of growing numbers of Vietnamese bode well for the country’s development, as well as the career prospects of those who are able to communicate in this important language.

If you want to read the “Monarch notes” version of the results, check out this article.  The original report can be found here.


Gifted high schools to teach more English

High schools for the gifted will soon begin teaching some of their classes fully in English to have at least 50 percent of their graduates achieve average English language skills according to European standards.

The target is expected to be hit by 2015, according to a new plan by the Ministry of Education and Training. The plan is based on the Common European Framework of Reference, developed by the European Council, which has established six levels of language skills. The rate is expected to increase to 70 percent by 2020, the ministry representatives told a gifted high school conference in the northern province of Nam Dinh on Saturday.

Source:  Thanh Nien Daily, 31.12.09

Here is a link to the assessment grid (MSWord file) for the Common European Framework of Reference for English.