Traditional Versus Modern |
Pham Hoa Hiep, M.A.
A teacher reflects on his language learning experiences and notes
classroom implications for today’s Vietnam.
This article reflects on the nature of language learning
described as “I be + verb + ing.” Memorization of these
and teaching. By describing his own learning of two
formulas was the main part of our learning. In addition,
foreign languages, the author complicates the issue of
we had to memorize the rules of each usage. We tried
teaching a foreign language, showing the importance
to learn by heart in Vietnamese many sentences such as,
of context, learners’ motivation, and learning styles.
“The present continuous tense is used to refer to an
action that happened in the past.”
Becoming an EFL teacher has made me often reflect
There were also weekly written tests for us to do.
upon several of my own more memorable language
The most popular model of question on tests in those
teachers—some taught so well that I would choose their
days was,“Put the words in the brackets in the follow-
model of teaching in my classroom, and others used
ing sentences into the correct forms.” So we had to find
methods I strictly avoid. However, from my experience,
a way to write the correct forms of words in sentences
it seems strange that I learned more with teachers who
such as, “Yesterday, John [go] to the market” or “Peter
applied “old” or traditional methods of teaching, rather
than with those who incorporated totally new methods
Strangely enough, despite the boredom and hard-
in the classroom. What follows are my contrasting expe-
ship of the English lessons, I liked them, and even liked
riences in learning English and French, the former with
the teacher. At that time I believed that the only way to
a traditional teacher, and the latter with a “modern”
study English was through this method.
teacher. My different results in learning these two lan-
because of my knowledge of grammar (helped by the
guages will suggest some implications for teaching.
year of French I had taken in middle school before start-
ing to study English), or perhaps because of my intrin-
Traditional Learning of English
sic motivation, I was Mr. Quang's most beloved student.
I always scored perfectly on the grammar tests and felt
When I began to learn English at secondary school
proud to produce the correct past and past participle
in Vietnam many years ago, my teachers all modeled the
forms of irregular verbs when I was called on in class. I
idea that learning a foreign language meant learning the
did not know how to learn English in any other way.
grammar and vocabulary of that language. Mr. Quang
For me, knowing more grammar rules and memorizing
was my first teacher of English. His teaching methodol-
more vocabulary were all I should aim to achieve in my
ogy and techniques greatly influenced my following
class. I believed that with vocabulary and grammar I
years of language study. Every morning when Mr. Quang
could read more books in English, and that I would not
entered the classroom, we had to stand up and greet him
be able to speak until the time when I had mastered all
in English. Then we began to recite our previous gram-
the grammar rules and had “enough” vocabulary.
mar lesson in chorus. We had to say “nonsense phrases”
My family tradition of learning foreign languages
such as “I am,”“you are,”“he is,”and so on. Then he would
was a good motivation for me. I made a serious attempt
point at someone in the class and that student had to
to achieve a good knowledge of English in the same
produce the next line. If someone failed to produce the
way as my father had done in French. I admired his
correct form, the teacher shouted “Wrong!” and asked
scholarly knowledge of French, though I rarely heard
him or her to sit down and listen to the other students.
him speak the language. I was also struck by the story
Grammar explanations were presented in formulas.
of my uncle, a Communist in the struggle against the
For example, the present continuous tense was
French. While imprisoned by them for political reasons,
— 20 —
he spent most of his time trying to memorize thousands
I was terrified of her, though she never humiliated
of words from his French-Vietnamese dictionary.
students by yelling “Wrong!” or “Sit down!” like Mr.
I felt proud to be pushed by Mr. Quang to strive to
Quang. I remember well the first time Mme.Thuy came
do better and better. He was constantly encouraging me
to my class speaking French to us. It was our third
to go beyond my present level in order to make me try
semester of French in college, and for me, my third year
a bit harder. Therefore, despite the stressful hours in
overall of learning French, yet when she spoke it to us I
class, which may have scared many of my peers, I
experienced feelings of fear, discomfort, and distress that
enjoyed learning English in this way. Looking back now
I shall never forget. I never looked up, for fear that she
at those days with the eyes of a modern language
would pay attention to me. When she moved closer to
teacher, however, I am saddened by the realization that
me, I was dying and hoping she would move on to the
many students were probably discouraged or inhibited
next person. When I was called on, I just muttered
in their language learning as a result of Mr. Quang yelling
something like French and prayed that she would not
“Wrong!” at them.
question me more. There were oral and written tests
I continued to receive instruction in grammar more
that I did very well on, thanks to my careful preparation.
or less in this way throughout secondary school and col-
But Mme. Thuy never knew that her lesson was my
lege. I was content with my progress in grammar.
nightmare, because for me conjugating verbs was a hun-
However, as my knowledge of grammar became more
dred times easier than speaking. Mme. Thuy would be
and more developed, I longed for someone to commu-
disappointed to know that despite her great effort to
nicate with in English.
make us speak French in class, I could never utter a sin-
The opportunity came when Vietnam began to open
gle sentence in French whenever I encountered French-
its doors to the outside world. When I tried to speak
English to American and British tourists whom I hap-
Recalling Mme. Thuy’s methods, I can imagine the
pened to meet on the street, however, I realized that—
situation of Vietnamese students, who, with a learning
despite my perfect knowledge of English grammar,
style and expectations similar to mine, are put into
which worked wonderfully for reading and writing—I
English classes with a new and modern teacher such
spoke with great difficulty. Although I knew the rules
as Mme. Thuy.
These students would experience
very well, I simply could not make it come out easily and
frustration and fear caused by the new roles of the
most of the time forgot the rules when I was trying to
teacher and learners, by the new methods used, by the
speak. I had a constant underlying fear of making mis-
new learning atmosphere, and by the new goals or
takes, which was very discouraging. Speaking was a def-
targets for learning.
inite challenge for me. But later on, when I overcame my
fear of speaking and became more used to it, I realized
Implications for Teaching
that the grammar instruction I had received in school
had played an important part in developing my profi-
My experience in language learning has convinced
ciency. So I still had reasons to thank Mr. Quang.
me that the best possible teaching methods are those
that consider many complicated issues, such as the con-
Modern Learning of French
text of teaching, learners’ motivation, learning styles, and
The way I learned French in college was not at
Nowadays, the need to communicate in English
all similar to the way I had learned English. The result
with people from many countries in business and edu-
of many years spent learning this language was also
cation requires Vietnamese learners to have a working
command of English rather than a merely academic
My French teacher, Madame Thuy, did exactly what a
knowledge of the language. Therefore, the traditional
communicative language teaching instructor should do
grammar-translation method is certainly out of date.
in class. I could say that in some ways she was the best
language teacher I had ever had. Madame Thuy never
However, it would be misleading to get rid of all parts of
explained explicitly the grammar points in class.
the traditional grammar-translation method.
Instead, she always tried to teach grammar in a living,
Vietnamese language learners often come to class with
context-embedded way. She always used the target lan-
an expectation that teachers will explain the vocabulary
guage in class and tried to make us communicate in
and bits and pieces of grammar rules and style points,
French as much as we could.
they would be disappointed and confused if teachers
— 21 —
ignored all these things in a lesson. One student learn-
and even forcing students use the target language
ing English in Hue with an instructor who was applying
whenever possible in the classroom. CLT is viewed as a
a totally new teaching approach commented: “I don’t
unitary, indivisible methodology that must be applied in
understand why the teacher doesn’t teach us grammar.
a “pure” manner.
I just want to learn more grammar. How can I write and
Due to this misleading belief, a majority of trainees
speak without learning the grammar rules? The teacher
report that CLT or the techniques of CLT learned at
just ignores grammar and always wants us to speak.”
workshops cannot be applied in Vietnam because of dif-
As a result, grammar analysis, structure explanation,
ferent teaching contexts and students’ different learning
and limited use of translation must be essential lesson
styles. From this, they conclude that it is impossible to
plan components in teaching Vietnamese learners, espe-
apply any ideas from the new methodology.
cially beginners and adult learners. But the way gram-
Unfortunately, the concept of adapting whatever aspect
mar is taught can be different from the traditional
of a methodology is appropriate to them, or of pragmat-
method. Instead of deductively explaining grammar
ically using whatever works, is seldom considered.
rules, then asking students to do drills and exercises in
According to Kramsch and Sullivan, the principles
the textbook, teachers can relate language points, sen-
of CLT in Hanoi might be the same as those in London,
tence structures, and grammar drilling to the meaningful
but in real classroom practice, what is appropriate and
use of language in the students’ own lives. For example,
effective in Hanoi is different from what is appropriate
an instructor teaching the past tense in context could
and effective in London. The application of CLT should
tell what he or she did last weekend, then ask students
be seen as a multicultural, multilingual exchange of
to do the same. The focus should be on meaning rather
pedagogy, rather than as a “transfer of pedagogical
than on form. In this way, teachers can help students to
know-how” (p. 201). Instead of strictly adhering to the
realize that the ultimate purpose of learning English is to
processes of applying CLT, as learned in some
be able to communicate in English, rather than to master
methodology workshop, Vietnamese teachers should
all the rules and vocabulary for their own sake.
attempt to analyze which aspects of CLT will work for
When incorporating a new teaching method, teach-
them and their students, and research and develop
ers should adapt it to the specific contexts of Vietnam.
which communicative activities will fit their students
New methodologies such as communicative language
and their contexts.
teaching (CLT) often meet with failure in Vietnamese
It is also important for teachers to be aware that stu-
classrooms when they are rigidly or formulaically
dents will not communicate with their peers or with
applied. Due to time constraints and other limitations,
teachers if they do not feel a real need to do so. Many
many short-term workshops funded by NGOs and devel-
times, Vietnamese teachers attribute the failure of new
opment agencies in Vietnam fail to introduce
methods to the stereotype, “Asian learners are shy and
Vietnamese teachers to a complete or adequate quiet by nature, so it is hard to spur to them to talk in
knowledge of CLT.
For many Vietnamese teachers
class.” This might be true. However, teachers should also
in such training programs, “CLT” simply means making
question whether or not the tasks they develop are
Resource Bulletin Board
Update Re: English Teaching Forum
As of October 1, 1999, the United States Information Service, publisher of the English Teaching
Forum magazine,“was abolished and certain of its functions were transferred to the Department of
State,” according to a posting on their Website.
The new Internet address is:
On this page, you can find links to other TESOL sites, online versions of English Teaching
Forum articles (searchable, dating back to 1994), links to TESOL publishers, and an online journal
called Language and Civil Society (updated weekly). As of this writing, you can still receive a com-
plimentary subscription to the print magazine by contacting the American embassy in Hanoi (as per
the notice in our October 1999 issue).
— 22 —
meaningful and relevant to students’ lives and appropri-
To avoid this, teachers must seek a compromise to their
ate to their linguistic ability.
power. Rather than being a dominant authority, teachers
My lesson on the last Women’s Day revealed that
can make use of their respected position in the class-
even the shyest and quietest students can be active in
room to facilitate the learning process by giving sup-
class, if given a real motivation to communicate with
port, advice, and guidance when necessary to various
their peers. When I entered the classroom on that day, I
communicative tasks. Teachers need not fear a loss of
noticed that all the female students had candy and flow-
prestige, because they are still an indispensable language
ers on their desks. One of the women told me happily
resource for their students.
in English that they had just received these small gifts
from their male classmates. Another woman said jok-
ingly that the men in their class were nice to the women
once a year—only on Women’s Day. Upon hearing this,
Since Vietnam certainly needs more people with a
some men started to defend themselves. It seemed
good working command of English to further its inte-
everyone wanted to talk at the same time. I asked them
gration into the world, traditional English language
to calm down, then made them sit in five groups, each
teaching is undoubtedly no longer useful. For practical
consisting of both women and men. I asked each group
reasons, modern teaching methods should be intro-
to discuss and reach a consensus about things that
duced into the educational system. However, modern
Vietnamese women are not free to do in society which
teaching methods should be applied with a close and
men are able to do. The noise level rose as people began
careful consideration of the cultural values of Vietnam.
working actively. To my amazement, many women who
It would be advisable for teachers to strike a balance
had usually been shy and quiet in class were actively
between the traditional extreme of Mr. Quang and the
involved in the group discussions. After the discussion,
modern extreme of Mme.Thuy. To ensure effectiveness
the secretary of each group wrote a list of the things
in teaching, new methodology should be adapted into
they had agreed upon on the blackboard. The noise con-
traditional learning contexts. Since education is deeply
tinued as people expressed their agreements and dis-
rooted in specific philosophies of teaching and learning,
agreements about the lists. With my help—giving vocab-
teachers cannot develop an appropriate methodology
ulary and structures relating to the issue of gender—a
until they reflect on it in relation to the sociocultural
class discussion followed. The class talked about many
contexts in which they are working.
issues, ranging from Vietnamese women’s values, to shar-
ing housework in the family, to lists of “Do”s and
“Don’t”s for Hue women. Everyone was involved in
sharing experiences and exchanging ideas. We had a
Brogan, M. “Training Needs Analysis: Teacher In-Service
great time on that day, and I believe that the students in
Education for Teachers of English in Teacher Training
our class learned a great deal,
not only Colleges at Lang Son, An Giang, Dong Thap, and Ben Tre,
in terms of language skills, but also in terms of life
Vietnam.” Unpublished report to AusAid, 1998.
experience—all through their meaningful communica-
tion in English.
Kramsch, C., and P. Sullivan. “Appropriate Pedagogy.” ELT
Journal 50 (3), pp. 199-212, 1996.
It is also my feeling that some Vietnamese teachers
are overly concerned with students’ and colleagues’
expectations, and worried about a loss of control and a
Pham Hoa Hiep (M.A., Bilingual/ESL Studies, University
loss of respect if they attempt to make alterations to
of Massachusetts-Boston) is the Head of the Division of
what they are doing. The loss of control relates to the
Culture and Literature in the Faculty of English at Hue
classroom environment, while the loss of respect relates
University. During the past two years, he worked as a
both to classroom situations and to their standing
teacher trainer in the Teacher In-Service Education
amongst their colleagues. Classroom teachers often hes-
Program, Vietnam-Australia Training (VAT) Project fund-
itate to try new ideas for fear of being laughed at or even
ed by AusAid in Hanoi. He has also written articles for
For these reasons, adopting a
Easy English, Vietnam News, and The Gioi Moi.
Western learner-centered method, which might lead to a
change in teacher-learner relationships and affect
teacher’s power, would be considered risky in Vietnam.
— 23 —