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Multilingual education in the community of minority peoples of Vietnam1
Buøi Khaùnh Theá, Ph.D.
National University, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Vietnam is a multinational and multilingual nation, with 53 ethnic communities in addition to the
majority Kinh people.

Before 1945, under French colonial rule, all Vietnamese languages were secondary to French in
social and functional uses. After the Declaration of Independence in September 2nd, 1945, Vietnamese,
the language of literature, the press, publications and daily life, took the place of French for all social
functions and officially became the language of the independent nation. Vietnamese was revitalized
and developed through cultural and social uses, becoming the voice of the whole Vietnamese
community as it struggled for independence and freedom. The role of Vietnamese as the national
language has now been affirmed.

This same process of revitalization has taken place among many of the ethnic languages. In addition to
helping create a new vigor for Vietnamese, Viet Nam’s language policy also stresses the expansion
and quality of multilingualism and bilingualism in Viet Nam.

In Viet Nam today, four ethnic communities—Cham, Thai, Tay and Khmer—use traditional scripts and
twenty-one have Latinized scripts established since the beginning of the 20th century. The creation of
scripts for other ethnic languages is still being carried out. The training of teachers and compilation of
textbooks in minority languages has played a decisive role in implementing bilingual and multilingual
educational programs in dozens of regions in Viet Nam.

These activities have also contributed actively to the formation of a batch of native writers, poets and
journalists capable of composing works in two languages and around twenty minority communities
broadcast programs on the national, international or regional radio or television networks.

Social and lingual background
Viet Nam is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country. According to official statistics of the State Statistics
General Department, Vietnam currently has 53 minority groups who, with the Kinh, the majority people,
make up the Vietnamese community comprising 76,323,173 inhabitants. This multi-ethnic and multi-
lingual characteristic, according to historical documents as well as legends, dates back to the first
formation of her elements of civilization in Viet Nam and became more obvious in her historical
development. All languages of the present community of Vietnamese people belong to eight groups of
languages: Vieät- Möôøng, Moân-Khmer, Taøy-Thaùi, Hmoâng-Dao, Kadai, Chaêm, Haùn, Taïng-
Mieán, and are classified into the three language families – Austro Asiatic, Austronesian and Sino -
Tibertan. The first two families are distributed mainly in the South-East Asian region.
Before 1945, under French colonialism, all languages spoken in Vietnam were secondary to social
functional activities as the official language in Vietnam as well as in other countries in Indo-China, such
as Cambodia and Laos was French. This situation was not favourable to the all-around development of
Vietnamese, a language that has been the means of expression for a centuries-old national literature and
the language of many Vietnamese minorities – the owners of a rich folk literature with well-known poems
such as Ñam San, Xinh Nha, Abundance in Land and Water, Sweetie seeing-off, Chöông Haïn, etc…The
fact that this rich traditional and folk literature which continued to be preserved and developed in such

1 © Buøi Khaùnh Theá, 2003
Buøi Khaùnh Theá

unfavorable conditions has served to nurture their languages and provided them with continuous
encouragement so as to, in favourable conditions, assume appropriate social functions required by their
new life.
Since August 1945, in Vietnam, the social situation and language activities have undergone radical
changes. Starting with the September 2nd, 1945 Declaration of Independence, Vietnamese-the language of
literature, the press, cultural publications and daily life – has replaced French as the language all social
functions and has officially become the national language of an independent country. This is due to the
fact that Vietnamese with its roma-nized script, even during in the French colonization, has been put to
the test of a rich cultural and social life. This fact has been reflected in newspaper and magazines, novels
and many other publications by a contingent of writers having the people language and culture at heart.
Once a language continues functioning braving all limitations, it ceaselessly develops and perfects itself.
Once the limitations in the administrative field are no more, Vietnamese has a good opportunity for
development. Moreover, with more than half of a century since 1945, Vietnamese has been revitalized
and has fully met all communication requirements of an ever-changing life and has reassured its position
as the national language.
Before August 1945, the situation was all the less favourable for the development of minority peoples’
languages. During this period of time, most of these languages functioned within the scope of families,
hamlets and folk festivals and in the fields of customs, culture and creed. In these functional activities,
the peoples’languages not only preserved traditional features but also reflected their constant changes.
Multilingual education in the present Vietnamese education system
After the Declaration of independence on September 2nd 1945, the Vietnamese educational system
gradually shifted to using of Vietnamese in teaching from primary schools to universities. This was the
first area of interest by the new state – the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (before 1975) and the
Socialist Republic of Vietnam after national reunification – concerning its language policy. Another
domain of interest in by the national language policy is regarding the ethnic minorities’ languages and
cultures, which has its own factual social background. The ethnic minorities’ in Vietnam account for 30%
of the entire Vietnamese population ( about 24 million people). They live in areas holding important
political, economic and strategic positions – mountain areas, borders, etc…- covering 75% of the national
territory. The minority groups’ languages have so far contributed a great deal to the preservation and
development of each concrete group as well as of the whole community of Vietnamese. The constitution
of independent Vietnam, through stages, has been perfected and supplemented to be appropriate to the
practical social development (1946, 1960, 1981 and 1992) has consistently affirmed the legality and the
organic relationship and mutual supplementation between the two factors – the national language and the
languages of ethnic minorities – in the language life in Vietnam. This spirit is also expressed in the
compulsory primary education. (1)
The above-mentioned legal texts have created the basis for bilingual/ multi-lingual education(2) for the
ethnic minorities in Vietnam. One of the first requirements of bilingual/ multi-lingual education is the
script. In Vietnam 20 of the 54 ethnic groups have their own script. Among them, six script systems could
be considered traditional, meaning its formation dates back from long ago, with the specific time of
development needing additional research to be found out. The Chaêm, the Khmer and the North-West
Thaùi scripts derived from the South Indian script system, while Chinese-transcribed Taøy, Dao and Cao
Lan scripts were set up based on Chinese characters. Other scripts, including the Romanized Vietnamese
script, were set up on the basis of Latin script. Except for Quoác ngöõ, the Romanized Vietnamese script,
which took form around the beginning of the 17th century, most of the other romanized scripts were
formed at the beginning of the 20th century. Except for a number of scripts such as those of Bahnar, Jarai,
Eñeâ existing before 1945, many other scripts were jointly created by Vietnamese teachers, linguists and
the members of the ethnic minority (in the North) or by the American Summer Institute of Linguistic and
the Ministry of Education in the South.
Buøi Khaùnh Theá

Today, in Vietnam, over 10 languages of ethnic minorities with a population of around 1,000,000 people
are made use of in bilingual education: These are the Taøy-Nuøng, Hmoâng, Möôøng, EÂñeâ, Jarai, ,
Bahnar, Kôho, Xeâñaêng, Mnoâng, Chaêm, Khmer. The number of ethnic minorities’languages used in
radio and television systems and other cultural activities are about the same. The two necessary tasks
needed to service these cultural and educational activities are the compilation of books - the tools that
highlight traditions and socio-cultural reality of each people - and the training of the people’s contingent
of teachers and educated people. These two tasks should be done under strict collaboration between the
peoples’intellectuals and the educators and linguists. Thanks to this collaboration, the traditional features
of the languages and cultures of ethnic minorities will be preserved and, in the mean time, the changes in
the peoples’ languages will also be reflected in textbooks and cultural publications.
The above-mentioned is most clearly shown in the languages with traditional scripts. It is necessary to
add that a Government document clearly affirms this: “The existing languages and scripts of the ethnic
minorities are respected and supported by the state for their maintainance and development”(Decision 53-
CP, February 22, 1980). Its effectiveness is to promote even further the exploitation and research of the
traditional cultures of the ethnic minorities to fulfil the present task of bilingual/multi lingual education.
Following are a number of images illustrating this remark.
The 10-minute-long documentary film is about the researcher who went looking for the origin of the
Chaêm culture in the service of the work of bilingual education and the composition of today’s
literature. (Introduction to the documentary ”Inrasara, looking for Cham origin to reserve present
The author’s latest book (May, 2003) “Self-learning book of Cham language” is for people of
differing backgrounds, ages and levels of general knowledge in and outside the community. To my
knowledge the subjects outside the community are not just researchers at home and abroad, but also
the common Viets (Kinh) living in the areas shared by both the Viets and the Chams. In the case the
bilingual requirements is a real fact today. Moreover, there are also people who would like to have a
high level of bilingual knowledge, e.g. they can read comprehensibly texts written in the Cham
traditional script.
In comparison to the bilingual level of Viet-Cham, the level of Viet-Khmer, in general, is lower.
According to premilinary remark of a young researcher Dinh Lu Giang, in the area shared by the
Viets and the Khmers, the equal bilingual ratio is just around 5%, while in most cases, the level is at
the level of daily conversation among villagers. Because the Viets and the Khmers resided in the Cuu
Long delta area where villages and hamlets were far apart. Consequently, the time for language
contact between the Viets and the Khmers was not as frequent as long as that of the Viets and the
Chams in the region they shared. It is the reason why bilingual education in this area should be
concentrated on the two tasks of teacher training and textbook compiling. The tasks have been
delegated to the Soùc Trang teacher’s Training Secondary School and a group of authors comprised
of both the Khmer and the Viet teachers and linguists.
The textbooks teaching Khmer at the teacher’s Training Secondary School (Volume I and II) are the
results of scientific work collected under the guidance of the Khmer People’s teacher Laâm ES.
Buøi Khaùnh Theá

Buøi Khaùnh Theá

People’s Teacher LAM ES,
editor-in-chief of the above book set

The books have been used effectively in bilingual Viet-Khmer teacher training courses. The
two volumes, some thousand pages thick, comprise various parts of a language structure.
Owing to the fact that the traditional Khmer script is different from the Romanized one, the
authors of the books have devoted a considerable period of time to the script and all the parts
are presented bilingual.
Last June, 2003 the University of Social Sciences and Humanities organised a scientific seminar
on education in the Cuu Long river delta. All the authors acknowledged the effectiveness of the
bilingual education form and system in the living area shared by the Viets and the Khmer.

Some characteristics of bilingual education in Vietnam
As a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual nation experiencing a long language contact, Vietnam has many
bilingual areas at many different levels. There are areas of generalized bilingualism. In many areas
bilingual individuals(3) are limited to a certain strata of the people in the communities of minority peoples:
local officials, people doing business, people dealing with cultural activities, and people who have
Buøi Khaùnh Theá

relationship with other communities. Elderly people, especially children, whose scope of communication
is mostly within the family or hamlet, generally have no or a very limited bilingual capability. This means
that minority peoples’ children, even the ones living in bilingual areas, who want to become bilingual
individuals with full free access to education (4), and be able to participate in scientific and technological
and cultural and social activities need the capability of equal bilingualism (5), e.g. the capability of use of
their mother tongue and the national language – the language-media of communication and language-
media of instruction (6) – about the same level. This requires minority children, even the ones who live in
bilingual areas, need bilingual language skills in order to gain access to an all – around bilingual
Bilingual educational curricula in Vietnam is used in primary schools. Upon entering the school, the
children of ethnic minorities already were listening and speaking skills of Vietnamese, besides those of
their mother tongue. The objective is heighten the school children’s bilingual capability through speaking,
to supply them with vocabulary used in corresponding subjects, helping them gradually get used to the
Vietnamese written style and initially simple to more complex texts. Another goal is also to meet the
requirements, the primary school bilingual curricula are arranged parallel the school children’s mother
tongue and Vietnamese with a view to helping them consolidate and improve their communicative ability
of both languages.
The bilingual educational curriculum in Vietnam today is not applied to all subjects but just the ethnic
minorities language and Vietnamese. This practice is based on two things. One is that language helps
learners train their thinking in the two languages through orientated bilingualism as expressed by
M.Houis when he discussed bilingualism in black Africa. The other is that, thanks to Vietnamese
vocabulary accumulated over a long process, all scientific terms used by minority groups in Vietnam
derive from a common source, the Vietnamese language. Thus, in many concrete subjects in primary
schools, the difference is focussed on descriptive language and not in concrete terms.
Among the minority peoples’ languages with a bilingual curricula, Cham and Khmer are the languages
having their own traditional scripts. Beside textbook compilation and bilingual teachers training (see
2.4.1, 2.4.2), Cham and Khmer teaching has been properly and flexibly carried out. The thing that needs
special care in the field is the fact that Cham and Khmer scripts are different from Latin script, so they
need aids out of class hours which are still so limited. Aids differ from place to place. For instance, in
areas where the Chams live in a dense group (Ninh Thuaän, Bình Thuaän), a center compiling books in
Cham language
was established and has been functioning since 1975. The center published not just
textbooks but also books on culture and books popularizing sciences to be widely spread among the
population. These kinds of cultural publications help make youngsters care about the spoken language
and the script of their own people. In areas where the Khmer people live , pagodas are also places
teenagers and school children can get help to consolidate their knowledge on the traditional spoken
language and script of their people.
During over half a century since 1945, owing to the fact that the state has an appropriate language and
educational policy towards the country’s multi-ethnic and multilingual state, the bilingual educational
activities have become more active in improving the people’s general knowledge, thus creating more
intellectuals within the minority communities. These intellectuals have not just contributed to the
building, development and prosperity of their homeland, many of them have also effectively taken part in
leadership, social management, scientific and technological and economic activities of their society.
However, in the area of general economic and social development, the average general knowledge of
ethnic minorities is still poor, especially for those who live far from city centers, motorways or in
mountainous severed and border areas.
Buøi Khaùnh Theá

Bilingual teaching in a number of areas still faces sereral disadvantages including: a proper ratio of
teaching periods to different subjects not being achieved and a lack of teachers for bilingual curricula.
Teachers’ training schools at different levels, with a section for training bilingual teachers like the one in
Soùc Traêng, are still rare.
The attitude of many school-children and their parents is one of impatience as they just want the teaching
at school to be done in Vietnamese, so as not to waste time on learning the minority people’s mother
tongue. However, to the minority school children whose Vietnamese is not good, e.g they have not got an
equal bilingual capability (Vietnamese and minority group’s language), such an impatient attitude only
brings negative effects.
Lack of material means and teaching instruments to carry out bilingual curricula (models, audio-visual
aids, bilingual reading books etc…) is also an obstacle for a number of regions.
In summary, the bilingual educational plan in Vietnam has been actively carried out and has returnued
encouraging results. It is expected to be expanded to other mixed population regions. However, there are
still difficulties lying ahead in the field. Many additional lessons need to be learned from other countries
with multilingual curriculums.
Recently, the Ministry of Education and Training of Vietnam has issued a decision on establishing the
Minority Peoples Educational Research Center. At the ceremony of proclamation of the decision (on the
afternoon of September 8, 2003), a deputy minister of Education said: “The Center has the function of
studying all the problems concerning ethnic minorities education, supplying sources of documents and
scientific findings so that the Ministry of Education and Training can work out decisions, policies and
measures for the development of ethnic minorities education with a view to meeting the requirements of
the schooling and training of human resources for the mountain areas and areas far away from cultural
centers”. (News from “Tuoåi Treû” on September 9, 2003). There is much probability that in the scope of
these functions, exist the function of study of bilingual education, Therefore, it is safe to say that from
now on, conditions for a more thorough study and more appropriate guidance will be given to bilingual
education in VietNam.

The 1960 Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam states: “All the peoples have right
to maintain or read just their customs and habits and use their spoken languages and scripts to
develop their own cultures”. The 1981 Constitution put it: “The state of the Socialist Republic of
Vietnam is a unified state of all the peoples living in the territory of Vietnam and they are all have
rights and obligations… All the peoples have the right to use their spoken languages and scripts,
maintain and bring into full play their traditional customs and habits and their fine cultures.” This
content is also mentioned again in 1992 Constitution. Article 4 of Primary Education Law
affirms: “ Primary education is carried out in Vietnamese. The minority peoples have the right to
use their own spoken languages and scripts together with Vietnamese to achieve primary
education “ (1991)
In this text bilingual/ multilingual are referred to in this sense: to each concrete ethnic minority
peoples is carried out on a bilingual basic – Vietnamese as the national language and the language
of the ethnic minority, whereas on the national scale, the second component in bilingual
education refers to different ethnic minorities.
Generalized bilingualism, a term used by Houis M to denote a situation where a high ratio of
community members have bilingual capability, eg bilingual individuals. There are different
factors that constitute the bilingual ability of these individuals: the contact areas of the two
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languages –owning communities are interwoven or compact, the result of political, historical,
The fully system of education in Vietnam today after pre-school years comprises primary school
(5 years) secondary school (7 years), college (4-6 year depending on subjects), master’s degree
and doctor’s degree. Apart from primary education that can be carried out by using bilingual
curricula, other grades from secondary education upward, Vietnamese is used as the medium in
teaching and learning as it is the national language and the communi language among different
ethnic minorities.
As far as an equal bilingual standard is concerned, even in a minority community with
compulsory bilingual education like the Chaêm, this standard is only achieved at a certain age
range. Following is a number of figures that illustrate this remark.
Concerning the ability of speaking Vietnamese, a rather big difference between that of men and
women is found on calculating the ratio of different age ranges.

Table 1. Age ranges
Ratio of age ranges
From 03-06 years old
From 07-14 years old
From 15-30 years old
From 31-45 years old
From 46-60 years old
Over 60 years old

Table 2. Number of people who can read and write the national language, the Vietnamese Romanized script.
Age Male
the population
From 3-6 years old
From 7-14 years old
From 15-30 years old
From 31-45 years old
From 46-60 years old
From 61 upwards
Total 877
Table 3: Number of people who know Akhar thrah, the traditional Cham script
Knowing traditional Cham script
Male Female

From 3-6 years old
From 7-14 years old
From 15-30 years old
From 31-45 years old
From 46-60 years old
From 61 upwards
Total 152/2630
Source: Buøi Khaùnh Theá, 1979

6. The terms are taken from M.Blanc in Societal Bilingualism.

Buøi Khaùnh Theá


Blanc.M., 1994. Societal Bilingualism. In “the Encyclopedia of language and linguistics.”
Pergamon Press-Oxford-New York – Seoul – Tokyo.
Bui Khanh The, 1979. Mot vai cu lieu ve song ngu va van de nghien cuu song ngu o Viet Nam. Tap chi
Ngon ngu, so 1/1979.
Bui Khanh The, 1997. Language contact and language Policy in Viet Nam. In “ Semenar on Vietnamese
Bankok, 1997
Bui Khanh The, 2001. Ngon ngu dan toc va chinh sach ngon ngu o Viet Nam. Trong “nghien cuu ngon ngu
cac dan toc thieu so o Viet Nam tu nhung nam 90”.
Thong tin KHXH, Ha Noi.
Doan Thien Thuat, 1993. Ve van de xay dung chu viet cho cac dan toc it nguoi o Viet Nam. Tong “Nhung
van de chinh sach ngon ngu o Viet Nam”.
Hoang Thi Chau, 2001. Xay dung bo chu phien am cho cac dan toc thieu so o Viet Nam. NXB dan toc ,
Ha Noi, 2001.
houis m, 1962. Apercu Sociologique sur le bilinguisme en Afrique Noire “Notes Africaine”, 96/1962.
Letts C., 1994. Bilingualism And Language Acquisition. In “The Encyclopedia of Language And
Pergamon Press-Oxford-New York – Seoul – Tokyo.
Ly Toan Thang, Nguyen Van Loi, 2001. Ve phat trien cua ngon ngu cac dan toc thieu so o Viet Nam
trong the ky XX.
Tap chi Ngon ngu. So 2/2001.
Nguyen Van Loi, 2000 Mot so van de ve chinh sach ngon ngu o cac quoc gia da dan toc. Tap chi Ngon
ngu, so 1/2000.
Tran Chi Doi, 2001. Ngon ngu va phat trien van hoa, xa hoi. NXB Van hoa thong tin, Ha Noi, 2001.
Buøi Khaùnh Theá

Appendix: Inrasara on origins serving the present life

The figure introduced in this documentary is one of the new generation Chaêm culturists. These culturists
include scientists, anthropologists, linguists, historians and other people whose works are related to
culture such as, art, painting, music and carving. Notably, the man in this documentary has characters of a
researcher and an artist. He is not interested in earning high titles of scholarship. He has patiently worked
on scientific works highly valued by local and foreign researchers. Although he does not spend his entire
time writing literal works, his poems are still read and attract the attention of both Chaêm and Vietnamese
His name is Phuù Traïm and his “pen name” is Inrasara which is Chaêm word for “salt”. This “pen name”
may come from this saying: “ If salt on the ground loses its saltiness ,it is not useful”. He applies this
concept “ If a man does not preserve and develop his traditional and national characteristics, he plays non-
sense roles in his people’s society”. More deeply, through his experiences in life, working, living with his
people and reading books to enrich his knowledge, he has realized a paradox related to his Chaêm
culture: Traditionally, Chaêm culture is very rich in oral folklore, written documents and other resources.
However, this culture has not been highly valued. It is acceptable if foreigners say that Chaêm culture can
be summarized in 20 pages. However, even Vietnamese researchers have not deeply understood the
Chaêm contribution to Vietnamese macro cultures.
Irasara says in about 1 minute:
“From the various parts of the country we have contributed.
A lot of tomb statues and epics
And hundreds of Chaêm towers in my Son, and the bronze drums, and the poetry of Nguyen Du, Nguyen
We have contributed, too
Thousands of folk poems and proverbs
And our common pride and private pains.”
Even young generation Chaêm do not pay attention to and do not understand their culture clearly. In
order to change this matter, Inrasara thinks that traditional properties, language being the most primary,
should be used to serve their present lives. With careful analysis, he has conducted hundreds of field
studies related to culture and linguistics. He has also collected and translated Chaêm literary works of
older people into Vietnamese. His works have been published into Chaêm and Vietnamese to be easily
popularized. He also joins in “Editing Chaêm books” and cooperates with linguists in writing bilingual
dictionary. He quietly edits books introducing Chaêm literature. His books have been published and
valued highly. Therefore, he received awards from E.F.E.O (French Far East Organization) and “
Vietnamese Committee on Ethnic Minority”.
• (Prof. Bui Khanh The talks for 1 minute)
In order to feed his inner spirit, he needs an occasional recess to write down some poem verses and
epics. Whenever his poems have been published, they are always received with respect. His particular
Buøi Khaùnh Theá

poems contributing much to Vietnamese contemporary literature, and are always highly appreciated
by Vietnamese artists. As a result, his poem “Thaùp naéng” was awarded second prize from “The
Vietnamese Literary Committee” in 1997. His second poem “Caây xöông roàng” was awarded
second prize from “ The Vietnamese Ethnic Minorities’ Artistic and Literary Committee” in 1998.
Cooperating with other young Chaêm culturists, he has published “The Tagalau Magazine” regularly.
This magazine has been published 3 times. He spends most of his time researching and popularizing
Cham language through writing books, teaching Chaêm language and “akhar thrah” to Chaêm young
generation and those interested in studying Chaêm language and Chaêm culture. One scientist said
that Inrasara is one who discovers traditional origins by his creative labor in order to serve present –
day life. His contributions have been also reflected in bilingual educational forms. His latest book is
“Töï hoïc tieáng Chaêm” (Learning Chaêm language by youself)
Inrasara is regarded as “Ñöùa Con Cuûa Ñaát – The Son of the Earth) fed by “folk resources”. His
poem “Naéng queâ höông” was written in Chaêm, his mother tongue. His works and experiences
have been transferred to offspring through many means including bilingual forms which he studied.

Buøi Khaùnh Theá