Language Education and Foreign
Relations in Vietnam
A study of the history of Indo-China makes it very easy to understand why fi
foreign language learning has been problematic for recent governments of
Vietnam. Four decades of conflict with five different enemies preoccupied the
Vietnamese and soured relations with a large number of countries in the
aftermath of the various wars. The languages of Vietnam's enemies disappeared
from the school curriculum. Moreover, the enormous cost of keeping a large
standing army and reconstructing the country after massive damage, together
with a period of economic mismanagement, kept the education budget severely
depleted. There has not even been_ enough money to make primary education
universal and free. Thus, skill in many of the international languages was not
only undesirable for patriotic _ reasons; it could not be afforded.
. Nor was widespread language education necessary. The ideological division
of the world and the isolation of Vietnam, gravitating in turn to one or another
of the factions of the Communist world, limited the inter national networks in
which the Vietnamese were involved and restricted both the desire and the need
for foreign language acquisition.
When the Vietnamese government decided in 1986 to change political
direction, liberalize the economy, and attract foreign investment, it was clear
that it would also need to implement educational changes so that
the Vietnamese population could benefit from these developments. If incoming
companies could not recruit suitable staff from the autochthonous population,
they would go elsewhere or, if allowed, bring in staff recruited abroad. Thus, in
the past decade, improving foreign language skills among the population has
become one of the prime requirements for Vietnam's successful incorporation
in the world economic market. Yet this task has not been easy, given the weight
of Vietnam's history. This chapter will examine how foreign language study in
Vietnam historically has been a barometer of Vietnam's relations with other
countries and how the foreign language curriculum has been directly affected
by those relations.
THE MANDARIN LEGACY
The Chinese ruled Vietnam for 1,000 years, from 111 BC to 938 AD. During
this time, they created asystem of schools to train first their own children and
subsequently the children of the Vietnamese aristocracy to staff the state
bureaucracy, the mandarinate. Under the Tang dynasty (618-907), the
competitive examination system was introduced. Education was in Chinese and
followed the Chinese model. Outstanding students were sent to study in China.
In 939, Vietnam became independent. As a number of relatively stable
feudal dynasties succeeded each other during the medieval period, the influence
of China remained strong. An institution of higher education, Quoc Tu Giam,
was established in Hanoi in 1076, in the first instance to teach the royal family.
In the 13th century, this school, renamed Quoc Tu Vien, admitted commoners
as well to prepare them for the mandarinate. Chinese remained the language of
state; formal education was conducted in Chinese using Chinese text books (Lo
Bianco, 1993). The Chinese system of competitive examination, which had
lapsed, was also reintroduced at this time. The Van Mieu, the Temple of
Literature, was of great importance as a center of Vietnamese literature and
Taoist-Confucian thought (Pham Minh Hac, 1998). It was here in the course of
the 13th century that scholars developed Nom, a script for the Vietnamese
language based on Chinese characters. A complex diglossia resulted, with
Chinese used as the written language appropriate for law and government, Nom
used as the written form for Vietnamese culture, and the various (mutually
intelligible) dialects used in spoken exchange (Nguyen Phu Phong, 1995).
From the 16th to 18th centuries, Vietnam was tom by civil strife. In the
unstable conditions of this period, European adventurers and missionaries were
able to gain a toehold in the country. The Portuguese arrived in 1516,
11. LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN VIETNAM
with Dominican missionaries following in 1527, Franciscan missionaries
In 1580, and the Jesuits in 1615. The Church had much greater success
In penetrating Vietnamese society than the traders. Although the French
Nere not the only Christian missionaries in Vietnam, their influence was
:he greatest, particularly after Bishop Pigneau de Behaine recruited
French idventurers to help put down the Tay Son rebellion and establish
Nguyen Anh as emperor.
Taking the name Gia-Long, Nguyen Anh brought political unity to
the country and founded a dynasty that would last until 1945. State
power was centralized, as Gia-Long created a new legal code,
strengthened the army, and invested in education. A national academy
was built in the imperial deity of Hue (Osborne, 1997). Gia-Long was
open to French influence in that he saw, for example, the utility of
fortresses constructed on the Vauban model. Nevertheless, in cultural
and political spheres, French influence did not extend very deeply and
was comprehensively rejected by Minhrienh, Gia-Long's successor.
Minh-Menh was a Confucian scholar who built a solid
administrative framework for the country and elaborated and extended
the competitive examination system, using it to recruit his elites.
Although the mandariate was chosen by merit, certain families
dominated, taking on the character of hereditary public servants. Their
children inherited cultural capital Bourdieu, 1989) that gave them greater
opportunity to achieve the levels of scholarship necessary to succeed in
the meritocracy. However, as Osborne (1997) argues, it was possible for
a scholar with no connections to rise through ability alone. An advanced
Vietnamese scholar in this period would master the Four Books that
collated the precepts of Confucius and his followers, as well as other
important works of the Confucian non. Literacy was primarily in
classical Chinese. Most scholars also had a knowledge of Nom that
allowed access to the Vietnamese literary tradition.
Few among the elite, either emperors or mandarins, showed
great interest in the ideas or languages permeating Asia from Western
Europe. However, Christian missionaries had adapted the Roman
alphabet so that could be used to write Vietnamese. This endeavor is
usually attributed to Alexandre de Rhodes, a French missionary working
in Vietnam in the early 17th century, although the writing system is
clearly based on other) Romanized systems in Southeast Asia
developed by Portuguese missionaries. Although Romanized
Vietnamese is called Quoc-Ngu, or national language, in its first two
centuries of existence it had very limited use, beingS the language of
literacy for those converted to the Catholic faith and educated in the
mission schools. It had, however, one vital advantage: It is much easier
to learn than the ideograms based on Chinese.
THE FRENCH COLONIAL PERIOD
By the end of the 18th, century the French had lost their first colonial empire to
the British and so the French government, seeking to redress the balance in the
race for colonies, looked to Vietnam as an area where French commercial
interests could be furthered and imperial ambitions realized. This colonial
interest in Vietnam coincided with the evangelical aspirations of the French
Catholic Church, which was coming increasingly to see Indo-China as its
preserve. In return for Louis XVI's help in his bid for the throne, Cia-Long had
promised both exclusive commercial privileges to the French and protection of
Catholics. After his accession to the throne in 1802, he reneged on both these
promises. Under his successor, Minh-Menh, the persecution of Catholics was
intensified. At first France was in no position to retaliate, but by 1843 part of
the French fleet was permanently deployed in Asian waters, and there were
several clashes between French forces and the Vietnamese. In 1862, the
emperor, Tu Duc, was forced to sign a treaty with the French, granting them
religious, economic, and political concessions. In 1867, the south of the
country, which the French termed Cochinchina, became a French colony. In
1883, Annam and Tonkin in the north of present day Vietnam became French
protectorates and in 1887 France created the Indo-Chinese Union, bringing
together all the territory they had acquired: the protectorates, Cambodia, and
French colonialism was marked by the theory of assimilation and the policy
of direct r:ule. The French did not generally attempt to administer their colonies
through the existing ruling class and according to prevailing so_ial norms, as
was largely the case during the British Raj in India. Indeed, there was a desire
to assimilate the regime to French ideals and to create a francophone,
francophile native administration. However much their actual deeds may have
belied this, the French subscribed wholeheartedly to the idea that their
colonialism was a mission civilisatrice, in which imperial ambition could be
made to benefit the colonized as well as the colonizers. In 1898, Bishop
Depierre, the bishop of Cochinchina, expressed this belief in the following way:
The precise honour of our country is to place intellectual, culture and moral
progress above any other preoccupations. Instead of exploiting its subjects and
pressuring them to death as is still done in the Indies and to some extent
throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, Frenchmen have always made it a point
of honour to bring to the nations in which they establish themselves their ideas,
their civilization and their faith (quoted in Osborne, 1997, p. 42).
For the task of assimilation, France had a ready ally in the Vietnamese
Catholics, who had benefited from French protection and shared the same
LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN VIETNAM
belief system. Educated in mission schools, they had become literate in Quoc-
Ngu. The Vietnamese Catholics provided the local work force of the new
administration and native soldiers for the French army. In the south, where
French influence and power were most concentrated, Confucian thought and
Chinese characters waned as the mandarins withdrew. A small minority of
French colonialists, such as Luro and Philastre,l regretted this, seeing many
qualities to admire in the mandarinate; the majority of French colonialists,
however, disagreed and the mandarinate is portrayed in much French
contemporary writing as corrupt and inefficient (Osborne, 1997). Quoc-Ngu
soon became the written form of Vietnamese throughout the French Indo-
Chinese Union. Colonial policy was to use the Romanized script for
Vietnamese as a first step to an eventual shift to French (Osborne, 1997). By
1878, only Quoc-Ngu and French were permitted in official documents. Thus
colonization brought about the fall of the old Mandarin class and the rise of a
new elite of French-speaking Vietnamese administrators.
The first civilian governor of Cochinchina, Le Myre de Vilers, appointed in
1879, carried out a number of policies aimed at promoting French culture and
language. The French legal system was introduced; French medium education,
begun in 1861, was extended; and a branch of the Alliance Francaise was
established to further promote the learning of French. A few young Vietnamese
were sent to France to complete their education so that they might return “in
some way impregnated with our national genius, informed of the causes and
effects of our civilization" (Le Myre de Vilers, 1908, quoted in Osborne, 1997,
p. 50). When six Vietnamese were appointed to sit on the Colonial Council, the
action was criticized because they could not speak French.
The term in the literature for the French-speaking elite required by the
colonial regime is “collaborateurs,” which may have a pejorative sense, de-
pending on the stance of the author. Because of the language issue, it was
perhaps inevitable that linguists would play a central role in the collaboration
process. For instance, Petrus Ky and Paulus Cua, two noted linguists, were
Catholics educated in the French missionary schools and literate in Quoc-Ngu.
Ky was one of the first interpreters for the French, working both with the army
in the south and with the negotiators of the treaties. He then taught in the
College des interpretes, produced French-Vietnamese teaching materials, edited
Gia-Dinh Bao, the French government sponsored
1 Luro and Philastre were in the Service of Native Affairs in Cohinchina. They may have
admired the Vietnamese, but they were nonetheless men of their time and committed to the
colonial adventure, even if they wished conquest to be "by peace and good administration, by
the propagation of our civilisation" (Luro, 1975, quoted in Osborne, 1997, p. 440).
newspaper published in Quoc-Ngu, and acted as an advisor to the French
administration. Cua joined the French administration in the south in 1861 and
remained a colonial civil servant until 1907. He was also a scholar, translating
numerous Chinese texts into Quoc-Ngu and French. In 1896, he published a
Quoc-Ngu dictionary. He too was closely associated with the newspaper, Gia-
Nevertheless, it is important not to overestimate the numbers of Vietnamese
who were educated in French. French medium education continued to be
available only to a tiny minority until the end of the colonial period. Although
statistics are scarce and sometimes unreliable, this general point is
incontrovertible (see Osborne, 1997).
The early colonial regime had started its education program rigorously,
requiring each commune to provide one or two children to be taught Quoc-Ngu
and French in government schools, yet there was scant enthusiasm among the
Vietnamese. Communities often fulfilled their obligations by paying the
children of the poorest families among them to attend. The bourgeois class still
valued Confucian education, which continued in private establishments. In
1919, however, these were banned.
Having acquired a small core of French speakers for the administration of
the colony, the French were concerned to develop education "horizontally not
vertically," in the words of Governor General Merlin in 1924 (quoted in Pham
Minh Hac, 1998, p. 4). Primary schools were the main concern, together with
technical training colleges. These schools were to provide the workforce and
medium-level technicians necessary for the colonial economy. The higher
education sector remained small. From 1919, there was a university level
Natural Science Faculty, and beginning in 1923, a Medical Faculty. A Legal
Faculty opened in 1941 and Agriculture in 1942. These schools constituted the
Indo-Chinese University. Enrollment in the 1939-1940 school year was only
Despite Merlin's goal of extending participation in the school system,
numbers remained low. Pham Minh Hac (1998) gives the figures in Table 11.1
for the public school system at the end of the colonial period.
Public School Enrollment
Number of Schools
Number of Pupils
Senior secondary level
Junior secondary level
Source: Pham Minh Hac. 1998.
11. LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN VIETNAM
When the figures in Table 11.1 are taken together with private, education
(mainly Catholic establishments) and compared to the total population of 22
million, the restricted nature of education becomes clear. Only about 3% of the
Vietnamese were in school in 1941-1942, the great majority enrolled only for
three years, to a level that could not guarantee literacy in Quoc Ngu nor
competence in French (see also Sloper & Le Thac Can, 1995).
Only a small Vietnamese elite was educated in French to secondary level.
The traditional French practice was to deliver the same curriculum as in the
metropole with the same rigor, to the same standards, and leading to
competition in the same examinations. A small proportion of this group could
progress to third-level education, either in France or in Indo-China. As events
developed, it included both those who served the colonial power and those who
would fight to depose it. Ho Chi Minh and many of the revolutionaries of his
generation were educated in the French tradition. For instance, the Thang Long
school a private establishment set up in 1919 to increase the very limited
provision for Vietnamese in Hanoi, functioned on the French model and was
overseen by the colonial administration. Nonetheless, it became the nursery of
the revolution, with a teaching staff that included Vo Nguyen Giapand Dang
Thai Mai. In 1938, the group associated with this school created an
organization to promote Quoc-Ngu (Nguyen Van Ky, 1997).
Dang Thai Mai, president of the Writers Association, expressed the com-
plexity of the position for many of this group:
Although we fought the French we grew up with a life plan derived from French culture.
We had schooled ourselves in French literature and art. We oriented ourselves according to
European philosophy…. French literature, classic as well as modern, was close to my heart.
I found in it the will to think things through and to analyse the human condition. I found
high moral and ethical values (quoted by Weiss, 1971, p. 45).
At the other end of the spectrum, however, the vast majority of the
population received no schooling. Most were peasants or workers on the tea,
coffee, and rubber plantations, in the coat tin, tungsten, and zinc mines, and in
other industrial enterprises run by the colonialists. For most of these people,
contact with the French was minimal. Of course, some Vietnamese did speak
French in their capacity as servants, employees, and workers. However, for the
vast majority the language of contact was a Vietnamese/French pidgin, with a
limited vocabulary and simple syntax, and documented in much French
literature where the pidgin is reproduced (e.g., Delpey, 1964).
It would thus be erroneous to believe that the colonial period left a reserve of
French language skills in Vietnam. In present day Vietnam, those
who were educated through French are a very tiny and aging proportion of the
population. Moreover, the colonial regime was a harsh one, the French
colonialists notorious for low wages and inhuman treatment. The great majority
of Vietnamese who served (rather than profited from) the French were unlikely
to cling to an idiom associated with “so painful a period of social and political
turmoil that even five decades later the scars still remain visible" (Nguyen Xuan
THE FRENCH WAR, 1945-1954
The seven decades of French colonial rule were marked by active defiance,
revolt, and resistance. The harsh economic exploitation of the colony led to
inevitable unrest that nationalists were able to harness. In the period between
the two World Wars, the leaders of those who were opposed to French rule
were a cohesive and increasingly revolutionary group.
When the metropole capitulated in 1940 and the French government
collaborated with the Germans, the colonies followed suit. The Governor
General accepted the Japanese occupation of Indo-China and continued to
govern in collaboration with them. The only resistance in the country was led
by Ho-Chi-Minh and the Viet Minh, which he founded in 1941. As the sole
opposition to the Japanese, they were given a small amount of logistical support
by the Americans.
In March 1945, under the pressure of the advancing Allied forces, the
Japanese demanded that French troops in Vietnam be put at their disposal.
When this was refused, they took over, declaring the country independent under
the rule of their puppet, the emperor Bao Dai. The meeting of the Allies at Pots
dam in July came to the agreement that the Chinese would liberate Indo-China
from the north, the British from the south. When Japan capitulated in August
1945, the Allies had not yet arrived in Vietnam and thus there was a power
vacuum. On September 2nd, Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of a
united Democratic Republic of Vietnam. During September, Chinese, British,
and Free French troops arrived in the country. When the French declared a
colonial crisis, the country was divided between a reinstated colonial regime in
the south and a Vietnamese nationalist regime in the north. After elections in
the north in January 1946, confirmed Ho Chi Minh as leader, the French offered
to recognize Vietnam's independence within the French Union, a newly
conceived body which would replace the colonial system with a kind of
commonwealth. However, what both sides understood by this was
irreconcilable. Ho Chi Minh wanted a unified Vietnam; the French wanted to
retain control in the south. In 1947, negotiations broke down and the French
LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN VIETNAM
in the start of a campaign to retake the north by force (Aldrich, 1996). The
Franco- Vietnamese war lasted until 1954, when the French were defeated at
the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Conference of 1954 divided Vietnam
along the 17th parallel, pending national elections. Refusing to participate in the
nationwide elections, Ngo Dinh Diem, the prime minister in the south, took
power in a coup d'etat. In the context of the Cold War, the communist regime of
Ho Chi Minh in the north and the American-backed regime in the south were
poised for conflict (Karnow, 1994).
COMMUNIST POLICIES AND, CHINESE BACKING
In his Declaration of Independence, Ho Chi Minh promised that his government
would combat famine, ignorance, and foreign aggression. To achieve the
second aim, the revolutionaries started to establish basic education for the
masses, with a goal of full literacy throughout the population. Literacy was to
be in the national language, and Quoc-Ngu was the script to be used. Additional
educational goals included free and obligatory schooling the primary years,
improvement in peasants' agricultural and technical skills and an increase in the
education of women.
Despite the war footing of the society and the incredible economic
difficulties and pressures of the period, the government claimed moderate
success in its main educational aims. The literacy campaign, begun in July,
1948, in the areas controlled by Ho Chi Minh's forces, included education for
adults who had not received schooling as well as schooling for primary age
children. Nineteen schools of secondary professional education were
established between 1947 and 1950 to train teachers and agricultural specialists.
Three university centers were set up: higher level teacher training in Thanh Hoa
and Nanning,2 and medicine and pharmacy in Viet Bac (Sloper & Le Thac Can,
1995). During the literacy campaign, a reported 10 million northerners became
literate (UNESCO, 1979). During the nine years of resistance to the French,
literacy levels in the national language rose to a reported 90% or more in the
cities, lowlands and midlands of the north, although it needs to be understood
that "literacy" covered a wide range of competence (Pham Minh Hac, 1995).
In terms of foreign language acquisition, the situation changed dramatically
after 1947. Obviously knowledge of French was not an asset in the
2Nanning is actually in China, just across the border, a detail that underscores the close
relationship between Vietnam and China at that time.
Viet Minh controlled areas. Bui Tin3 (1995) recalls that possessing copies of
Baudelaire and Lamartine was considered evidence of bourgeois leanings in the
purges of the 1950s. He was accused of decadence because of his French
medium schooling and was only saved by being able to prove that he had been
a member of the Communist Party as early as 1945. As the People's Republic of
China supported the Vietnamese Communists with military and civilian aid,
there was a steady stream of cadres from Peking to advise the Vietnamese.
Thus French was replaced by Chinese as the most desirable foreign language
(Bui Tin, 1995). Chinese books, films and songs poured across the border.
Young Vietnamese were encouraged to learn to read and speak Chinese, and a
favored few were sent to university ill China.
However, education to degree level, indeed past primary level, was a luxury
in a society where the young were needed as soldiers. Bui Tin's memoirs refer
to the fact that the political elite that took over from the Ho Chi Minh/Giap
generation were generally uneducated in the traditional sense. They had been
formed in prison and battle. Bui Tin sees many of the mistakes of the post war
era as stemming from the lack of formal education among that group of
THE AMERICAN WAR, 1955-1975
American involvement in Vietnam brought English into the linguistic equation.
English had no presence in the area before World War II. The first contacts
with English speakers in any numbers were with the Allied troops who
appeared briefly in 1945. The next contacts were the American "advisers" who
arrived to train soldiers to fight the Communists, beginning in January 1955.
From 1964, D.S. involvement in the war between the north and the south
escalated. At its height, there were more than half a million U.S. troops in the
country (figures from 1968). Obviously, a large number of Southern
Vietnamese had to acquire some competence in English, including politicians
and bureaucrats, as well as ordinary soldiers who fought with the Gis. Outside
the barracks, drivers, shop keepers, servants, bar staff, and prostitutes who
serviced the needs of the largely monolingual U.S. military were also pushed to
accommodate to the English speakers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the
situation replicated the accommodation of the
3Bui Tin was a noted North Vietnamese soldier and journalist who documented the land
reform purges, the fall of Saigon, and the Cambodian war before leaving Vietnam in 1990 in
order to be able to comment freely on the situation in Vietnam.
11. LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN VIETNAM
French colonial period, with many South Vietnamese in lowly positions
developing an English-Vietnamese pidgin to meet communication needs.
As the southerners adapted to the developing situation, the foreign language
learning statistics for South Vietnam for the period 1958 to 1968 reveal the shift
from French to English. In 1958-1959,34,774 secondary pupils were learning
French and 18,412 English. In 1968-1969, with more children being schooled,
the number learning French had doubled to 76,628, but the number learning
English had increased sevenfold to 112,657 (Republique du Vietnam, 1968-
1969). The utility of French was still very evident; South Vietnam continued' to
employ it for administrative purposes. Nonetheless, the elite in Saigon saw the
advantage in their children acquiring the language that gave access to American
military and political influence. Outside the school system, there was a
mushrooming of private English language schools hoping to profit from the
need of so many to acquire some English (Crawford, 1966).
This is not to say that American involvement in Vietnam left significant
numbers of English speakers. First, the period in which large numbers of
English speakers were present on Vietnamese territory' was very limited. (The
Paris cease fire agreements, ended U.S. military involvement in the war in
March, 1973.) Second, the victory of the Communists and the fall of Saigon in
1975 led to a massive exodus of perhaps 100,000 people, though exact numbers
are unclear (see Terzani, 1997). Finally, the violence of the war, including 1.5
million civilian deaths (Vietnam Courrier, 1982), fuelled a virulent anti-
Americanism. Those who had acquired a smattering of English found it
expedient to forget it quickly in the aftermath of the Communist victory.
After the victory of the north, the southern Vietnamese who had opposed the
Communists were portrayed as nguy (puppets) under the influence of decadent"
American imperialist" influences. The end of the war was to be seen as the
defeat of the foreigner and the victory of all Vietnamese. Thus a key national
goal of the post-war period was the need "to eliminate the enslaving decadent
culture that destroys the old and beautiful traditions of the Vietnamese people"
(quoted in Terzani, 1997, p. 176). Two carriers of this decadent culture were the
English and French languages. Thus both disappeared from the educational
system and from individuals' linguistic repertoire.
REUNIFlCATION AND ISOLATION
Because of financial difficulties and the demands of reconstruction after the war
education was severely under-funded in the first two decades after
reunification. The lack of formal education of the majority of the leadership
may also have led to education being a low priority. For whatever reasons,
education was not generally a success in this period and the focus of the
curriculum narrowed. After the 1981 reform, emphasis was on ideological and
moral training first and acquisition of technical and scientific skills second
(Pharm Minh Hac, 1998). The traditional humanities, including foreign
languages were largely absent. Funding was never adequate. State investment
was low, amounting to only 1 % of GDP in 1989, much less than in
neighboring countries such as Thailand (3.5%) and China (3.4%). Participation
was never 100%. This stems in part from the fact that schooling is not free in
Vietnam, and although the fees are modest, for the poorest families they are a
considerable disincentive. Universal education has still not been achieved
despite the National Assembly's 1991 law which aimed to make it so. Groups
such as the hill tribes in the north and the fishing communities of the Ha Long
Bay and Mekong Delta areas continue to have very low rates of participation.
Finally, the average number of years of attendance remains low, only 4.5 years
in 1990 (Chan Weng Khoon et al., 1997). The poor in both rural and urban
areas do not stay in education long enough to acquire significant skills. Thus,
the fight against illiteracy, apparently so successful in the early years of the
revolution, has been undermined by new cohorts of young illiterates (Pham
Minh Hac, 1998).
After 1975, education at all levels suffered from staffing difficulties.
Teachers' pay was not enough for the teachers to support themselves or their
dependents; a tradition evolved of teachers having other work to supplement
their incomes. The deleterious effect that this has on their performance and
commitment is recognized (Khoon et al., 1997). In addition, many teachers
were under qualified for the work that they were doing in comparison with
neighboring countries. In the late 1990s, only 30% of teachers had relevant
qualifications; in the universities only 19% of the lecturing staff possessed
postgraduate qualifications (Kl1,oon et al., 1997).
The departure of thousands of Vietnamese by boat, beginning in 1978, and
more recently by other means, had unplanned side effects on the nation's
language skills. First, the "boat people" of 1978-1982 were disproportionately
Vietnamese of Chinese origin; perhaps a half million of this group may have
left (Bui Tin, 1995; Rigg, 1997). Although not all spoke one of the varieties of
Chinese, many did, and as they left the country, so too did a pool of
competence in Chinese and literacy in the Chinese script. Second, the boat
people often came from the old bourgeois - the people most likely to be
educated and perhaps to have received education in French and English.
Yet the language competence of the population was not of great official
concern in the immediate post war period. By 1978, Vietnam was at war again,
intervening in Cambodia to stop the genocide of the Pol Pot
11. LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN VIETNAM
regime and to counter the threat from Khmer Rouge incursions along the
Vietnamese border. In 1979, war broke out also along the border with China.
Though lasting only a few weeks, the war caused the two countries to sever
relations, which were not renewed until November 1991. Thus Chinese joined
French and English as the language of an enemy of the Vietnamese state. From
1975 to 1986, provision for these three foreign languages almost completely
disappeared (though they were not banned). There were other priorities for the
education system and no sufficient reason to institute large scale teaching of the
languages of states with whom Vietnam had no' diplomatic relations. A limited
number of special secondary schools provided foreign language courses and
one institute of higher education specialized in foreign languages. Outside the
education system, the acquisition of a foreign language could be suspect.
Language learning for the purpose of studying Confucian or Catholic teachings
or to prepare for leaving the country clandestinely could bring retribution.
A continuing issue was the ideological and experiential gap between those
who fought the war and those who did not. Bao Ninh's novel, The Sorrow of
War, describes the distance between the guerrilla fighters and those who did not
share their terrible experiences. The novel paints a bleak portrait of soldiers'
lives as they struggled to come to terms with the legacy of their experiences.
The narrator has contempt for the college graduate who spoke two foreign
languages and lived "an easy life" (Bao Ninh, 1993, p. 56).
SUPPORT FROM THE USSR AND EASTERN EUROPE
One consequence of the American war was an increasing flow of aid, material,
and advisors from the Eastern Bloc to Vietnam. Of particular interest for
patterns of language use were the university scholarships granted to
Vietnamese. Between 1965 and 1974, 26,000 Vietnamese gained first degrees
in the Soviet Union (USSR) or Eastern Europe and 3,000 gained postgraduate
qualifications (Vietnam Courrier, 1982). In the period 1975-1991, the USSR
became the main supporter of an impoverished Vietnam, isolated from the
Western capitalist world by the U.S.-led trade embargo, from China after the
1979 border war, and from the rest of its neighbors because of fears of
Vietnamese expansionism after the invasion of Cambodia. The COMECON
countries (communist trading block) became the principal trading partners of
Vietnam and the sole providers of technical assistance and training.
Thus Russian became the most commonly taught language in the secondary
school system. A number of "friendship schools" were set up to give school
children some contact with the world outside Vietnam and
to promote the learning of Russian and to a lesser extent the other Slavic
languages. The only non-Slavic educational links in 1990 were those with Cuba
and the Netherlands (Vietnamese Ministry of Education, 1990). Pham Minh
Hac (1998) records that Vietnamese pupils were among those winning prizes
for Russian-speaking in international competitions in 1987. Despite such
achievements, the number of Vietnamese learning Russian was not large, and
the number of pejorative terms for Russians coined in that period suggests that
the Vietnamese never accepted them wholeheartedly.
The reliance of the Vietnamese on COMECON was so great that its collapse
in 1991 nearly brought economic ruin to Vietnam. Trade aid relationships
ceased and the Russian language quickly disappeared. Although prior to 1991
Russian was learned at secondary school level by the brightest pupils and many
of the political and technological elite completed their studies in the USSR,
there is little evidence that significant numbers of Vietnamese still possess this
foreign language skill. Few of the present generation are now learning it.
Indeed, teachers of Russian are being retrained (interview, Vietnamese Ministry
of Education, 1999). Thus the large collection of Russian language books
donated by Moscow to the National Library is now a resource impenetrable to
many of the young students who use the library. In a study on higher education,
Pham Thanh Nghi and Sloper note that study is difficult for this generation
because "materials are either written in languages they do not understand or
from ideological perspectives that are no longer dominant" (Pham Thanh Nghi
& Sloper, 1995, p. 114).
DOl MOl AND THE END OF ISOLATION
In 1986, under the influence of Russia and following the pattern of Gorbachev's
economic reforms, the Vietnamese introduced their own version of perestroika.
Called "Doi Moi," this change was to entail economic liberalization only,
accepted as a necessity after a disastrous period of incompetent government and
economic isolation that had brought the country close to famine. Like Deng
Xiao Ping's reforms in China, Doi Moi did not include a political thaw.
However, it did involve increased contacts with other countries, as Vietnam set
out to build economic relations with the West. In consequence, the early 1990s
witnessed exchanges between Hanoi and non-communist regimes on an
unprecedented scale, including France and neighboring Thailand.
Commercial relations increased rapidly under a 1987 Foreign Investment
Law that permitted foreign business to invest in joint ventures (Sadec Asia
Pacific, 1999). From 1988 to 1995, capital flowed into the country from
Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, and
11. LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN VIETNAM
France (see Vietnam Investment Review figures, 1996; Nguyen Tri Dung,
1998). After ten years of liberalization, Vietnam had developed trade relations
with more than 100 countries and direct investment from more than 50
Analyses of this rapid increase in international business in Vietnam cite two
major difficulties. The first was a shifting legal environment, in which "officials
trained in the universities of Eastern Europe or in the guerrilla camps of the
war" were often out of sympathy with developments and interpreted legislation
inconsistently and unsympathetically (Birolli, 1999;'Carlson, 1998). The second
difficulty was lack of foreign language competence. Investment analysts
advising foreign businesses reported that those Vietnamese who had completed
12 years of national education were well prepared for technical work but had
low levels of competence in the languages of potential investors (Carlson,
1998; Dickson, 1998; Sadec Asia Pacific, 1999). Nguyen Tri Dung suggests
there were cultural as well as language barriers: "The lack of knowledge on
business practices, laws and a poor knowledge of foreign languages are some of
the main reasons many people fail to perform in foreign companies" (Nguyen
Tri Dung, 1998, p. 10).
In the late 1990s, foreign investment slumped by as much as 40%, in part
due to the Asian financial crisis (Pham Ha, 1998 Economist, 2000). However,
in this period, Vietnam normalized its foreign relations: ASEAN (Association
of South East Asian Nations) admitted Vietnam in 1995 and the United States
established diplomatic relations after having lifted its trade embargo. Vietnam
also became a member of AFTA (Asia Free Trade Area) and APEC (Asia
Pacific Economic Cooperation). The language of business in these groups is
mostly English or Chinese (Cantonese or Mandarin), leading to a demand for
Vietnamese who speak these languages (CNN, 1996). This is not a demand that
can be easily met.
THE RETURN OF ENGLISH AND FRENCH
Although in the latter half of the 1990s, the interest of most foreign investors in
Vietnam decreased, investment from France tripled. The French were also
present in Vietnam as participants in a large number of non-profit programs in
medicine, psychiatry, dentistry, pollution control, environmental health, and
sustainable development operated by non-governmental organizations and
private associations. Indeed, the French government seems to be using the
former colonial links between France and Vietnam to create a special
relationship in the diplomatic and educational spheres. Its motivation stems
from the French belief that former Indo-China can
be cultivated as an area in Southeast Asia where Francophones can challenge
Anglophone-dominated globalization. The French president, J acques Chirac,
was quite explicit:
Asia, already a major center for economic development and world trade, will also
realize its full political importance in the near future, fulfilling the promise of its
ancient and wonderful civilizations, and truly reflecting its dynamism and its power. . .
Francophonie already possesses a historic base in Indo-China and in the Pacific. . .
Francophonie is perhaps above all a certain vision of the world. We are building a
political association founded on a virtual community, that of the language that we have
in common and which unites despite our cultural diversity. . . Our raison d’etre stems
from a conviction that in the 21st century language communities will be key actors on
the international political stage (Chirac, 1997).
Chirac admitted that competence in French had been "eroded" among the
Vietnamese, but was optimistic that French could be reintroduced. This
optimism was based in no small part on the generous funding and vigorous
efforts that the French government was making to extend French-medium
education and French language learning in Vietnam.
For its part, Vietnam has seen membership in Francophonie as one of the
ways out of isolation. (South) Vietnam had become a member of the first
institution set up by Francophonie, ACCT, the agency for technical and cultural
cooperation, at its creation in 1970. This historical link provided a rationale for
representatives of the SRV (Socialist Republic of Vietnam) to attend the first
Francophone Summit in 1986. Vietnam then became a full member of
Francophonie and in 1997, hosted the 11th Francophone Summit, the first
intergovernmental meeting to be held in Vietnam.
Membership in Francophonie was also one of the ways to gain aid for the
Vietnamese educational system. In the 1997-1998 school year, the Francophone
agency, AUPELF, financed 14,000 school children in 491 bilingual (French-
Vietnamese) programs staffed by teachers from Francophone countries,
principally France. These programs are generously funded, with new text books
and audio-visual and computer technology that are largely absent in the
Vietnamese system. Entry is by competitive examination, with scholarships
available for families unable to fund extended education. The scheme has
acquired a reputation for high standards and rigor, and there is intense
competition to be admitted. The bilingual secondary streams lead into a
university program in which, in 1997, 5,000 Vietnamese students were being
taught medicine, management, law, basic science, agricultural science,
engineering, and computer science through the medium of French. Moreover,
these students are then eligible for work experience in a variety of Francophone
businesses that are in partnership in the scheme and recruit from among the
graduates. These companies
11. LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN VIETNAM
include giants such as Alcatet Rh6ne-Poulenc, Credit Lyonnais, and Air France.
The goal of this program is that 5% of all those completing 12 years of
schooling (6-18 years) in the full Vietnamese primary and secondary system
should do so in a bilingual French-Vietnamese stream. To this end, AUPELF
plans to augment the number of classes available by 125 per year through 2010.
In addition, there are small numbers attending the Lycee Francais and learning
French with the Alliance Francaise. As the major funder of AUPELF, France
now educates a greater number of Vietnamese than during the colonial period.
Given present trends, it seems likely that French will continue to gain in
importance in Vietnamese society.
COMPETITION FROM THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING WORLD
Although the French initiative has had some impact on language learning in
Vietnam, English is the language that most Vietnamese wish to acquire. As the
lingua franca of the ASEAN and APEC countries with which Vietnam does
business and the language of globalization, it is widely perceived as having the
greatest economic value. Australia is currently the major provider of long-term
overseas scholarships and of English language training to teachers and
personnel in key ministries in Vietnam, through AUSAID, the Australian
agency for international development. More than 2000 Vietnamese students per
year have studied in Australia in the last five years (for budgetary data, see
Fatseas, 1998). The Australian International Education Foundation (AIEF)
organizes links between universities and joint publications.
Despite the presence of government agencies from Australia and to a lesser
extent other English-speaking countries, English language teaching is
dominated by the private sector. International organizations have set up schools
in the main towns and there has been a growth of small enterprises, often
established by travelers who have decided to stay in the new Doi Mai Vietnam.
These programs are of varying quality and often ephemeral. Their success and
proliferation, despite their obvious deficiencies, are evidence of the strong
feeling among the Vietnamese that English is now an important asset.
In the cash-strapped public education system, the main foreign language is
English. There is no foreign language in the basic general prov:ision, which
now has well over 10 million pupils. There is a possibility for foreign language
study in basic secondary (11-15 years), which has over four million pupils,
although how far this part of the curriculum is fully implemented depends very
much on the availability of teachers,
particularly in English. In upper secondary, there are over one million 15-18
year-olds in education, the great majority studying a foreign language for three
hours a week (pham Minh Hac, 1998). The Ministry of Education and Training
(MOET) recognizes that this is an area where staff with appropriate
qualifications are urgently needed (personal communication, MOET, 1998).
MOET also recognizes that English pedagogy needs to be reviewed. The
traditional emphasis on accuracy in the written language rather than the
acquisition of fluency in the spoken language is inappropriate for many
Vietnamese today (Lo Bianco, 1993). Given the importance of spoken fluency,
there is growing likelihood that changes in pedagogy will be forthcoming. .
The history of Vietnam has been marked by war and troubled relations with the
outside world. Given the strong sense of national identity and diplomatic
isolation in the post-1975 period, it is understandable that formal foreign
language provision has been a low priority and that individuals until recently
have not taken the personal initiative to acquire foreign language skills.
However, as Vietnam industrializes, language learning is necessary if the
country is to participate in international networks and profit fully from fore.ign
investment. The need for high quality language education can only grow as
Vietnam seeks to create a new kind of knowledge based economy, where access
to information is overwhelmingly in other languages, particularly English. Thus
a sizeable investment and much effort is needed in foreign language education.
This undertaking is understandably difficult. However, unless Vietnamese
workers acquire the languages demanded by investors, Doi Moi is unlikely to
succeed in bringing employment for the Vietnamese, except in the most modest
The group that has begun to take advantage of the demand for language skills
is the Vietnamese who left the country and are fluent in both Vietnamese and
the language of their adopted country. In the late 1990s, the Vietnamese
government abolished the heavy taxes on expatriate money, lifted other
restrictions, and invited the overseas Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) to return. Of the
two million overseas Vietnamese, the number returning is relatively small, and
most returnees have kept their foreign passports as a precaution in case policies
change and they are no longer welcome (Lamb, 1996). Since the Viet Kieu are
primarily based in the United States, Australia, and France, most returnees have
competence in the languages
11. LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN VIETNAM
most in demand. As the children of the capitalist and bourgeois classes expelled
by the revolutionaries, they also have access to capital for investment. Yet their
return involves a risk: If they are perceived as the main beneficiaries of
economic development, resentment and conflict could result.
In Vietnam, foreign language learning has always reflected historical events
and been a barometer of waxing and waning relationships with other powers.
This is, of course, the case in all foreign language learning, which inevitably
reflects economic and political association. The interesting aspect of the
Vietnamese case study is the abruptness of the changes and the very evident
In the future, foreign language learning will no doubt continue to be a
barometer of social change in Vietnam and play a central role in the important
economic and political developments taking place. In a follow up visit to South-
East Asia in January 2001 I encountered an informal opinion among English
mother tongue journalists that the communication difficulties they had been
experiencing in Vietnam appeared to be easing, and that more English speakers
could be found among the younger members of the Vietnamese political and
business elites than was the case a few years ago. When this can be confirmed
and quantified, it will indicate the beginning of a new phase in this narrative.
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