Opinion is not divided on the desirability of learning English, but making it an official language is easier said than done.
At the Youth Entrepreneurship Forum 2018 last month, Minister of Information and Communication Nguyen Manh Hung suggested that the Prime Minister should soon recognize English as the second official language of Vietnam to help startups reach out to the world.
The proposal stirred a heated discussion on social media and prompted numerous professionals to pitch in with their views and opinions.
While some welcomed the idea and supported widespread use of the language in Vietnam, others were wary of the cultural, legal and other implications of formalizing it as an official language.
Everyone agreed that it was good to improve English use and fluency in the country, so the debate boiled down to whether declaring and using it as an official language was a feasible, practical option for Vietnam.
Professor Chung Hoang Chuong, who has juggled teaching at the University of California and doing research in Vietnam, was optimistic about Vietnam having two official languages.
Chuong, currently a senior researcher at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, told VnExpress International: “When you have English skills, you are more marketable. You will be able to catch up with world news, which translates into knowledge and power.
“English usage in Vietnam is already happening. Look at café menus, building names, there are even young Vietnamese people sitting in a Starbucks shooting English at each other.”
Chuong’s argument was the current linguistic climate in Vietnam would facilitate English being made the second language.
Management and Investment consultant Adam Edermo, who has been working in Southeast Asian markets for 12 years, also welcomed the initiative.
“An effort to make the population of Vietnam bilingual will be largely welcomed by, I believe, both the domestic and international business community.
“It would make the Vietnamese workforce more competitive, domestically for investors, as well as enable Vietnam’s workforce to enter foreign markets,” Edermo said.
The Swedish business professional said that 10 years ago, he’d conducted 100 hour-long interviews in Vietnam with senior executives of multinational and international businesses across different industries and business sectors.
“One of the goals was to identify challenges in leading a business in Vietnam. The level of English among employees was cited more often than any other issue,” he said, emphasizing that this was no longer the case, at least in the sectors and urban environment that he’s involved in.
He explained that while it might be difficult to meet the demand for English-speaking professionals like lawyers, doctors and engineers, this was not true of the hospitality or advertising industries.
Other experts were not so sure that declaring English an official language was such a good idea.
Vu Thi Phuong Anh, deputy director (Academic) of Education Quality Training and Support Center (EQTS) of the Association of Vietnam Universities and Colleges, told Thanh Nien newspaper: “It’s not that we just announce it, and the world will give us recognition. For a language to be seen as official in a country, it must at least be an administrative and legal language and be used in all public services.”
Anh had voiced her opinion on this issue in 2016, when the Ministry of Education and Training set a roadmap to making English a second language in Vietnam.
She also expressed concern about the amount of money the education ministry would pour into textbooks if English was to become the medium of instruction in schools. She felt this will be an opportunity for interest groups to step in.
She wondered whether Vietnamese authors would write textbooks in English and if they had the ability to do so. She also questioned how this would work across all 63 provinces and cities in the country.
“Interest groups are those who deem themselves the best. And we have to worry when they are the evaluators of their own work,” she said.
A foreigner teaches English to Vietnamese students of an English center at an open park in HCMC. The outdoor class is held every Sunday afternoon. Photo by VnExpress/ Thanh Nguyen
No threat to Vietnamese language
Responding to another concern, that having English as an official language could undermine Vietnamese language and culture, Prof. Chuong said this would never happen.
He referred to the historical struggles that the Vietnamese language has gone through, including more than 1,000 years of Chinese and 100 years of French colonization. “No language has managed to threaten Vietnamese language,” he asserted.
Even if students were to learn most subjects in English, the language used in the family and in other daily life activities would be Vietnamese, he said.
Furthermore, the nation’s charter states that the national language is Vietnamese, he noted.
“The government should support other language choices for learning,” he said.
The question then arises whether making English the second official language requires a constitutional amendment.
Diep Nang Binh with the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association pointed to Clause 3, Article 5 of the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which says that the national language is Vietnamese.
Article 29 of the Penal Code 2015 also stipulates that the Vietnamese language and script is used in criminal procedures. Participants in legal proceedings have the right to use their own spoken and written language, which must be translated.
“So, it is only when we amend the Constitution and it recognizes English as the second language can we then discuss the revision of other legal normative documents,” Binh said, as cited by local media.
And if it happens, “all levels of education, management agencies must gradually switch to teach, manage, and work in part in English. In some common areas of administration; communication between the government and the people must also happen in English.”
Southeast Asian countries like Brunei Darussalam, the Philippines, and Singapore have adopted English as their official language, but they’ve had a colonial association with the language.
In the absence of such long-standing association with the language, imposition of a foreign language as an official language can be problematic.
Taiwan recently announced that it will make English an official second language in 2019.
However, this has led to heated debate, because “it is almost mission impossible and lacks historical significance,” Tammy Huei-Lien Hsu, Assistant Professor of English Literature and Language at Taiwan’s Fu-Jen Catholic University told VnExpress International.
She said Taiwan is an EFL (English as Foreign Language) territory because Taiwanese learnt the language due to the U.S.’ dominant role in economics and business. In such a situation, learning English enhanced one’s qualification and professionalism, she said.
However, countries like Singapore, India and Kenya are ESL countries (English as a Second Language) where English is used as the result of colonization. While students learn the English language, they also learn why English is part of their cultures in relation to British colonizer. Furthermore, English is not only used for international communication, but it is also intra-national, as in the case of India, Tammy noted.
“That is why I said making English an official language in Taiwan lacks historical significance, particularly when English in Taiwan is mainly used for the purpose of international communication instead of intra-national communication,” she added.
Tammy also raised questions similar to that of Anh: “Can government officials speak English on formal occasions, without interpreters, and convey their meanings properly? Besides, are there enough English teachers to teach all subjects in English in school?”
The professor questioned the assumption that Taiwanese will improve their English proficiency level simply because English becomes an official language.
“The two do not necessarily correlate well with each other,” she said.
A Facebook photo shows Saigon students queue up from 4 a.m. on December 2 to register for the TOEIC exam, an English proficiency test. Photo courtesty of Tran Duy My Linh
Dr. Anh felt Vietnam should learn from Singapore’s experience and success in boosting English proficiency.
“Singapore’s success today did not just happen suddenly. It was a result of strong and persistent language policies for a few decades,” she wrote in an essay published by Thanh Nien.
Since Singapore gained its independence in 1965, the use of English has continued to increase, for instance as the language of law and administration. English has been the main medium of education in Singapore since 1987, according to Raymond Hickey’s research on Southeast Asian Englishes.
Alisher Sharipov, who has an MA in Applied Linguistics and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and has been teaching English in Vietnam for more than 10 years, did not foresee any complications for Vietnam in actualizing the proposal to make it an official language at the bureaucratic level. However, he said an inclusive public survey was necessary to gather public opinion on the topic.
He also felt American English was a more viable option for Vietnam to adopt.
“Historically, American English is much more logical just because America was present here on a political level for decades. South Vietnam learnt American management… during the Vietnam War…,” Alisher told VnExpress International.
“But then, a few decades later, we will most likely have a new form of English, Vietnamese-English like Indian or Filipino English.”.
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