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The English teachers in Vietnam

Sunday, April 27, 2014, 19:38 GMT+7
The English teachers in Vietnam
A teacher training class in Ho Chi Minh City

HANOI – Today, this nation of 90 million is ranked as “moderately proficient” in English in a survey of 60 countries by the organization Education First, but trending upward, ranking 5th in pace of English acquisition.

This reflects both the interests of individuals and the national priorities. I’ve met a fluent businessman in his 40s who first taught himself by studying captioned TV shows and repeating the words, and young men whose British inflections reflect their university years abroad. Two of my 12-year-old son’s friends sound like they were born in California but are Hanoians through and through.

To all of them, and other Vietnamese who speak English, please accept my heartfelt “cam on.” (And “Toi xin loi” for not trying harder in Vietnamese.)

The determination of so many Vietnamese to learn English is striking. The English as a Second Language (ESL) industry is booming. Demand has attracted thousands of foreigners to teach English, with or without training and certification. In Hanoi alone, there might be 2,000 foreigners teaching English, one person in the industry told me.

Wouter Sligter, for example, graduated from university back home in the Netherlands with a degree in art policy and management and poor job prospects. A few years ago, he decided to visit his pal Peter de Fretes, who’d found success teaching English in Hanoi.

“I liked it here so much, I thought why not?” Now, after eight months, Wouter has no regrets. “The money is good and I like the Vietnamese lifestyle.”

The money is good relative to the low cost of living here compared to the U.S., Europe, Australia and most other places that a lot of English is spoken. My informal survey suggests that pay ranges from about $15 to $30 per hour, based on a variety of factors. By living frugally, Wouter told me he is able to save money for travel and even put away a bit in a retirement fund.

I first met Peter about three years ago. By his accent, I had assumed he was American – but he’s a Dutch Indonesian who happened to do some of his growing up in Texas. He, too, had been casting about when a friend had mentioned ESL teaching in China. He sent resumes to ESL schools in several countries and wound up in Hanoi. The work, he found out, afforded the flexibility for other professional ventures – as a news presenter on VTV4 and as a special marketing rep for Tosy, the robotics toymaker, at an electronics trade show in Las Vegas.

After 5 years now Peter has moved up the career ladder at Language Link, one of the five largest ESL schools. He’s become a senior teacher and academic coordinator at Language Link’s fourth center in Hanoi, near Indochina Plaza in the Cau Giay District.

“I thought I’d try it for a year,” Peter said. “I found my calling.”

Both Peter and Wouter passed the intensive four-week training course that is expected in the major schools. Many people teach without such credentials, and are able to pay their expenses while working part-time. My free-spirited friend Dennis, who lacks the certificate, works a loose schedule earning about $25 an hour in both Hanoi and Da Nang, shuttling weekly between the cities. Some ESL teachers donate their time.

“In terms of demand, Vietnam is one of the best places in Asia for teaching English,” Peter said. Perhaps the best place. There is also great demand in South Korea, he points out. But South Korea’s public education is far superior to Vietnam’s, which makes the need here greater. A critical focus is for students who hope to study abroad and must pass rigorous tests to show they can handle university courses in English.

My U.S.-born Vietnamese-American sister-in-law will find all of this interesting. She has a nursing degree but is considering a move to Hanoi to teach English and improve her Vietnamese. Even with thousands of expats teaching English here, it would also be a step down the road less traveled. 

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Scott Duke Harris

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