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English language skills are a necessary evil in Vietnam

Sunday, July 01, 2018, 16:32 GMT+7
English language skills are a necessary evil in Vietnam
An English class in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

I get reminders every day about how important many Vietnamese see mastery of the English language as a key stepping stone to future success.

The other day I got hit right between the eyes with reality: I followed a documentary on television about two young school kids left on a rural farm by their parents to fend for themselves while the parents work in the big city.

The kids struggle like hell with daily life – school, housework, hiking to and from school, cooking, and studying. They survive by combing the fields adjacent to their little farm looking for solidified cow dung that they can sell to be used as fuel.

One of their biggest challenges is to decide whether they would buy meat to eat or an English-language textbook with the pittance they earned selling the cow dung. 

Otherwise, they survive on rice and fish sauce with the odd vegetable thrown in. With no Internet or television, or anybody to practice with, the kids are stuck in a vicious cycle unless they can learn something such as English to break out of that mold.

Most young people I volunteer for are affluent or certainly have enough money for class and books, so the impoverished rural farmers were a shocking new viewpoint. I had never thought of English as being such a critical factor to a good future!

Many ways to skin this cat

English is tricky, full of exceptions. No two learning styles are the same, no two sets of curricula match, media and learning tools vary, and every teacher has a different delivery method.

Learning a language isn’t like building a house or making a meal – there is no right or ideal way, no documented process that everyone follows, no standard to follow.

I’m a linguist but not a language teacher, so although I don’t qualify to teach I can offer up some suggestions based on my experience learning languages.

Too much grammar, not enough speaking

I get similar queries nearly every day: Students are stuck on a grammatical point and need directions from a native speaker and find me on social media. For example, the students will want to know if “that” or “which” applies in a given context.

I’m not sure if I could explain the above rule simply, nor do I think it’s worth it for a young student to worry about it unless you’re writing your PhD thesis.  

Most Vietnamese students get entrenched in all the technical grammar details of English and lose sight of the big picture, and, all too often, so do the teachers.

Speak and listen instead of writing everything

Put all that technical stuff to the side for a while – write less, listen more, and speak even more. You’re not going to succeed in the business world or when travelling abroad by exchanging little notes with people, so your communication skills will make it or break it for you out in the big, bad world.

Most students already take advantage of the common hacks available – video clips, TV shows, and movies. English subtitles together with English audio are the best scenarios so you can see and hear the terms, then mimic pronunciation and cadence.

Another handy trick is using one of the many audio messaging applications available instead of text messages. Every bit you practice talking and listening pays off in the long run. You can record your input and send it anywhere, so location doesn’t matter. Your practice partner can be anywhere in the world for this system to work.

Overcome cultural differences

Language is culture, revealing much about how people think and behave, and what they value. Speaking another language isn’t just converting over your Vietnamese thoughts to another set of words, it’s a new dimension and personality.

A new language is a new “you”!

How to create an English-speaking version of yourself for interacting with foreigners? Learn current events, history, music, travel, entertainment, food, and other topics that help you and your foreign friends communicate well.

Learn how to express and describe things concisely and clearly, make arrangements and organize things the way foreigners do. This is a great bonding tool that helps develop your new self in English.

For example, minimize the use of vague terms such as “maybe”, “tomorrow”, “soon”, “might”, “could”, “should”, replacing them with more definite directions. You’re in the “big city” now, behave like it. Turn things up a notch.

Recently I was waiting to meet a Vietnamese buddy who lives half a world away and was planning a trip to Vietnam. We had conversations on the Internet about his arrival date, then he suddenly went quiet for a few days. Suddenly I got a message stating “I’m here!” 

Finally I understood that he had arrived and was awaiting me for a coffee in our usual hangout! He’d forgotten to give me even a rough idea of when he would arrive.  

My friend probably didn’t give me a heads-up because he wasn’t exactly sure of his timing, so better to say nothing than show up late and disappoint. That’s the wrong approach with a foreigner – we like to stay in contact and advise progress.

Conversely, offer more information and ask less, that’s how English-speaking foreigners usually approach interaction, be it in business or among friends.

Nothing puts off a foreigner more quickly than to feel that he’s in a police interrogation about all details of his life while the other participant says nothing about their own.

Avoid the 20 Questions Game

One sure-fire way to shorten a conversation in English with a foreigner is to provide the minimum information instead of offering all the relevant information up front.

I get bored very quickly having to frame and ask every question so perfectly that I will get a meaningful answer instead of a simple yes or no.

Here’s an example of the 20 Questions Game that could easily be avoided:

l  Foreigner: “Can we meet later this afternoon to go shopping?”

l  Local: “Maybe, I’m not sure.” (Can explain instead of forcing another question.)

l  Foreigner: “Do you have other things to do?” (Seeking a solution.)

l  Local: “I have to meet my mother.” (Again, no explanation.)

It’s much simpler to come straight to the point and communicate clearly: “I need to meet my mother at some point, so I’m not sure if I can meet you too. I’ll give you a call before 3:00 pm to let you know. Is that OK?”

The above scenario is cultural – Asians in general are less direct and often take longer to make the point, but eventually the point is made all the same. We can meet in the middle – Westerners need to be more passive and patient, Asians more assertive.

Same deal with pronouns and word order, which can be messy because there are many ways to convey a thought in English: “When he finally found his friend, he was really happy!” 

Who was happy?

All that’s needed to solidify that thought is: “When he finally found his friend, his friend was really happy.” Or: “He was really happy when he finally found his friend.”

Don’t worry about what others think

A lot of Vietnamese students are scared they’ll pronounce something the wrong way and look like a fool, but that kind of thinking gets a student nowhere in a hurry. On one hand it’s true you avoid mistakes, but on the other hand you make little progress.

Take risks, ask for confirmation on your choice of words and pronunciation, and don’t worry too much. It’ll become fun because you can feel the progress and your confidence will grow. 

Anyway, nobody will remember that you pronounced a word incorrectly 50 times, then later learned the right way to say it and have pronounced it correctly ever since.

Above all, bolster your confidence by reminding yourself that you’re much better in English than the average foreigner in Vietnamese.

Some of my closest friends in Vietnam can barely speak a word of English, which goes well with my lousy Vietnamese. Somehow we’re connected and able to communicate effectively using various tools – we nod, wink, squint, smile, frown, gesture, point, gesticulate, use body language, and observe and listen very carefully.

It’s called chemistry, and either it comes into a relationship or it doesn’t, we can do a lot to help it along the way.

The bottom line is you can’t speak without putting priority on it.

Writing and grammar skills are also critical, but you can slot in practice time here and there, always putting speaking exercises first. 

It reminds me: Did you spot the deliberate errors I put in this article to see if you were on your toes while reading? Some mixed up tenses and grammar mistakes?

Just kidding!  

Or am I?

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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