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Vietnamese man quits engineering job to build free English community

Friday, August 07, 2015, 18:10 GMT+7

A man has given up his well-paid engineering job to dedicate all his time and energy to founding and running a free English community in major cities in Vietnam, which has drawn up to 30,000 participants from different walks of life and age brackets.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Dat Café on Nguyen Cong Tru Street in Hue City, located in the central province of Thua-Thien Hue, was brimming with groups of youths who were keenly conversing in English.

An agile-looking man took the stage and shared his experience in learning English, and showed his expectant audience of almost 100 members how to pronounce English words correctly and bolster their ease and confidence in communicating with foreigners.

The session was one of the weekly gatherings at the IZI English community in Hue City, and the man is Tran Gia Thong.

Thong, a 30-year-old Hue native, founded the community during his time in Ho Chi Minh City, and he then expanded the model to Da Nang and Hue.

The model is thriving, with the current membership of over 30,000.

Starting afresh

Four years ago, Thong was a great source of pride for his family as he had a stable, well-paid job as a software engineer and project manager at a technology group in Ho Chi Minh City.

While working with his foreign partners, he realized that an inadequate command of English left many of his colleagues at a disadvantage compared to their English-speaking partners.

“I felt hurt and kept pondering the competitive edge that English-speaking staffers from such countries as Malaysia and India enjoy even though English is their second language, not their mother tongue,” Thong said.

The thought drove him to set up the IZI English community, which hinges on ensuring that learners have easy access to English learning and innovative, communicative approaches.

The model started on a modest scale, with a limited membership of some 30 or 40 people to start with.

With Thong’s zeal and dedication, the community soon flourished and its membership burgeoned exponentially.

The young man gradually gave up on his hobbies to devote a major chunk of his time to his project.

He even considered quitting his daytime job to sink wholly into his English sharing passion.

“I did a lot of thinking then, oscillating between the options of continuing my well-paid job and developing IZI in the long run. The latter would mean starting from scratch and would obliterate all my hard work during my nearly 10 years in Ho Chi Minh City,” Thong added.

He finally decided to quit his job, to the shock of his family, friends and colleagues.

Despite his family’s objections, Thong remained adamant over his “revolutionary” choice.

His decision strained his relationship with his parents, who were dubious about their only son’s future career. Thong admitted he was gambling his life on IZI.

Undaunted, he threw himself into such tasks as working out development and promotion strategies, devising lesson plans and launching a website.

There were times when Thong worked for up to 12 hours a day and did not mingle with his friends for a month.

As his savings ran out after a few months, he offered English tutoring sessions to office workers to provide for himself.

Such hurdles and frustration are relieved by the IZI members’ noted progress in English, Thong said.

Weekly IZI English sessions, which are mostly offered at cafés on various themes, focus on improving participants’ pronunciation and target native-like ease and confidence when speaking in public or communicating with expats in English. 

The sessions drew mostly students to start with, but have now become a rendezvous for middle school students, office workers and even retirees. Thirty volunteers are currently helping Thong run three IZI communities in Hue.Time for expansion

The blossoming growth of the IZI communities comes with a price, as many wrongly associate them with multi-level marketing companies.

Not a few also remain doubtful about the long-run growth of the IZI communities.

Faced with such doubts, Thong does nothing but focus on honing his own and standing members’ English skills to prove these skeptics wrong.

After participating in IZI sessions for six months, Nguyen Anh Huy, 22, matured from a shy English speaker into a confident job applicant at a Japan-based company upon his university graduation.    

After performing well in the job interview in English, he now works as a software developer at the firm.

“I joined IZI sessions not to learn but to acquire Thong’s experience in English and soft skills. What he has to share is quite practical and of great help,” Huy remarked.

Thong divulged that he plans to expand his IZI model to other large cities throughout the country in the time to come.

He will also offer sessions targeting specific groups, including office workers, businesspeople, children and those working in tourism.

“I’m quite surprised at the IZI community-learning model, which creates a dynamic, friendly milieu and encourages everyone to join, share their experience and help one another better their English skills,” Dr. Dan Guyette, from Western Michigan University in the U.S., commented.

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