With four years remaining, Vietnam’s twelve-year plan to improve foreign language teaching and learning by 2020 will be subject to a thorough review, the country’s education minister said on Saturday.
In 2008, the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) introduced the plan for a national foreign language project, Project 2020 for short, which aimed to “renovate thoroughly the tasks of teaching and learning foreign languages within the national educational system in the period 2008-2020.”
On Saturday, a seminar chaired by MoET Minister Phung Xuan Nha and attended by government officials and heads of higher education institutions was held in Hanoi to review the project’s progress and to implement its final phase over the period 2016 to 2020.
The minister stressed that it was necessary to review the project after making significant progress, as one “cannot travel fast without solid footing.”
‘It’s better not to learn at all than to learn from a bad teacher’
Minister Nha said, "it’s better not to learn at all than to learn from a bad teacher," when addressing the quality of English teachers in the country, a factor he saw as most important in the success or failure of Project 2020.
According to the minister, both the quality and quantity of English teachers in Vietnam are falling short of the project’s requirements.
Shortcomings in training courses for educators were one reason for substandard English teachers in the country, according to Dr. Do Tuan Minh, rector of the University of Languages and International Studies under the Vietnam National University-Hanoi.
Minh said many teachers received only intense training until they met standards set out by MoET, without further training or workshops throughout the course of their career to update their skills.
“Many [teachers] forget the skills and knowledge they have acquired through the training after a short period,” Minh said.
Meanwhile, many teachers ‘beat’ the system by 'legitimizing' their teaching standards through training courses at 'easy' centers, or by cheating on their tests, said Dr. Pham Van Hung, director of Thua Thien-Hue Province’s Department of Education and Training.
This has led to the alarming trend of teachers paying to illegally obtain language ability certificates without even going through any type of training, the director claimed.
In response, Minister Nha said a new method would be implemented next year whereby the training and re-training of teachers would be based on the needs of specific localities, with the application of technology to allow more regular skill updates.
The minister also promised a limit on the number of authorized training centers to a few trusted ones, a move he hoped would prevent teachers from abusing the system.
What do we need this for, students ask
Many participants at the seminar agreed that failure to see the purpose of studying foreign languages was one reason why Vietnamese students lacked the motivation to study the subject.
While students in needy areas were reluctant to go through with Project 2020 due to a lack of understanding as to its purpose, students in big cities looked at the project with skepticism, since they preferred being trained and assessed by internationally recognized standards rather than a system that “localizes foreign standards and language ability certificates,” according to Dr. Pham Van Hung.
Other officials at the seminar attributed students’ lack of motivation to the fact that what is being taught in these classes is miles away from the knowledge tested in exams.
“The testing and ability assessment system for foreign languages from high school needs to be changed, especially when it comes to testing students on all four skills [speaking, listening, reading, and writing] in the national high school exam,” stressed Vu Van Tra, deputy director of Hai Phong City’s Department of Education and Training.
Pham Van Hung went further, suggesting that universities in the country include foreign language ability as a compulsory requirement for admission, in addition to setting a minimum foreign language standard for graduation.
Minister Phung Xuan Nha encouraged education institutions in the country to 'import' recognized foreign language courses to be used in schools, while promoting the use of English in teaching natural science subjects.
MoET also gave the green light for appropriate institutions to offer optional second foreign language courses for students.
With a budget of VND10 trillion (US$446.43 million), Project 2020 is falling behind many of its initial targets for 2020.
As of 2016, just over 20 percent of 7.7 million students in third, fourth, and fifth grades in Vietnam are taught four periods of English a week.
The goal of having 100 percent of third graders following a ten-year English program by the year 2020 seems far-fetched, as only 20 percent of third graders currently have access to the program.
Over 50 percent of grade school English teachers in Vietnam still fail to meet standards set by the six-level ability framework of Project 2020, which means money and time will have to be spent training these teachers first before grade school students can study in the new English program.