Vietnamese English Learners Learning without Leaving Home

By: Sivaraj Pragasm

English is the third most widely-spoken language in the world, with about 360 million native speakers and with another half billion speaking it as a second language. However, its rising dominance as a second language in southeast Asian countries, especially Vietnam, is evident with the number of learning centres popping up across the country.

Vietnamese schools do provide English courses, taught by certified teachers. However, the focus is typically on the basics and often cannot establish fluency earned by practise that goes beyond class time.

Students who are genuinely interested in improving their language skills can continue their learning by watching English movies and television series, YouTube tutorials or by studying lyrics in English songs. Another option for students, with their parents’ financial support, is to enroll in language centres that can be found around the country.

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One such student is Bella Nguyen, 26, a fashion entrepreneur who picked up the language by watching plenty of English movies, socialising with more English-speaking people, including foreigners and also relied on resources online such as YouTube.

“There are many online tutorials on YouTube and Facebook that I follow. I also improved my vocabulary by watching BBC news programmes and talking to customers in English,” she said.

None of these options required her to fork over any cash, though the reliability of these methods is questionable. For example, she noted that part of this learning process involved additional work such as cross-referencing with words with a dictionary. Also, even though she could pronounce the words correctly, she was still unsure of which context the words could be used for, something which took quite a while to master.

However in the past few years, there have been new virtual alternatives that allow students to learn and practise the language in a more structured setting without needing to leave their homes, or even spend any money.

Duolingo is a free programme well known around the world for its innovative language courses.

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Its English lessons are wildly popular among the Vietnamese. There are currently 8.93 million students subscribed to their “English for Vietnamese Speakers” course.

With a learning tree structure, the programme teaches students the basic fundamentals of the language and provides tests which allow the student to progress to the next stage. It’s mobile app is popular among language learners.

However, the biggest drawbacks to the app is that it’s fully automated, right down to the lack of a human voice which may deter some learners. Duolingo’s model emphasises vocabulary but because of the complexities of the language, some students find it challenging to master grammar.

However, thanks to advances in communication technology such as livestreaming and Voice over IP (VoIP)—the technology behind Skye’s internet phone calls—a new model started to emerge in the past decade: online learning centres with actual teachers providing courses remotely that are similar to what can be found in colleges and universities.

Known as a massive open online course, or MOOC, these online courses provide options for various subjects and technical skills usually at college level. Some are taught by professors from renowned universities like Harvard. Certified English teachers teach the language lessons. These courses are usually free and provide students with the flexibility to attend classes whenever they like, from the comfort of their own homes.

Some popular MOOC sites include Alison, Udemy, Canvas Network, Coursera and MOOEC, which stands for Massive Open Online English Course.

Douglas, 30, a Canadian citizen who moved to Vietnam two years ago, teaches online from the comfort of his home to students learning online. He spends a few hours each day conducting English lessons for students in various countries from his apartment in Saigon. “It’s convenient for me because I have plenty of freedom to plan my schedule and the salary is competitive,” he said.

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“It works just like an actual language school, there is a lesson plan that I follow and often, I have students who understand the lessons but have problems with pronunciation or finding the right words to use in a given context and this is where I provide additional help. In most cases, the students get it”, he added.

We spoke to one student learning English online, Trang Min. The 24-year-old beautician started learning English so she could serve foreign customers

“Learning English online allowed me to attend classes whenever I was free in the midst of my busy schedule. One of the biggest benefits of this was besides the low cost, was the convenience of not having to leave my home. All I needed was an internet connection”, she said.

After completing two courses, I could feel my confidence grow and I was able to carry out entire conversations in English with strangers.”

According to Douglas, interest in learning the language has increased over the years, mainly because of the realisation by English learners that their chances of getting a better paying job outside the country decrease without a strong knowledge of the language.

With an increasing number of students learning English online through the use of MOOC platforms, as well as resources available on popular platforms like YouTube and even Facebook, Vietnam’s future generations may be able to master the English language, and teachers will be able to teach them from anywhere in the world with neither of them even needing to leave their homes.

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By: Keely Burkey

Stephen Coyle, an IELTS instructor for the Reliable English School (RES), didn’t just see the dawn of technology in the classroom—he heard it. “When I first started teaching [in Vietnam] 14 years ago, the noise level in the classroom was incredible; people were shouting, talking, laughing. Now, during the break, it’s completely silent. Everyone is just looking at their phones.”

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The heavy reliance on digital devices in Vietnam has come swiftly: over 35 million people use Facebook regularly in the country, and an estimated 32.43 million will have a smartphone in 2018.

The use of technology has irreversibly changed the way we look at the world and have become social, but in HCMC, will it change the way our kids learn as well?

A Tech Emphasis

Thomas Galvez, Saigon South International School’s Technology Learning Coach, acknowledged that technology can have detrimental effects on a child’s socialisation, but averred that it it’s all about balance. “It’s not about weaning them off [of smartphones],” he said. “It’s about teaching them the appropriate times to use it, and to understand the effects.”

With separate technology coaches for the elementary, middle and high schools and an overall ICT Director in the administration department, it’s safe to say that SSIS takes the role of technology in the classroom seriously. Earlier this year, SSIS became the first Apple Distinguished School in the country, a distinction both prestigious and rather nebulous.

SSISImage source: citypassguide.com

At the moment 400 schools spread across 29 countries are Apple Distinguished Schools. To hold this coveted title, Galvez said it wasn’t so much having Apple products (although SSIS is a completely Mac-driven institution and requires all parents to purchase a personal MacBook for their child when they enter the 4th grade), but rather promoting an innovative approach to learning. Finding ways to do this is Galvez’s bread and butter.

Although he acknowledged that it’s impossible to keep up with all the technological trends, he keeps current through an active world-wide professional learning network with other technology coaches. “Twitter is a great medium for this,” he said.

Once he discovers something he thinks might make learning more efficient, or connect kids in a deeper way, he meets with teachers to discuss how the program can be integrated into their lesson. For a language class, he said that SoundCloud is often useful, which allows teachers to comment in different places on a student’s audio file. For multimedia collaborations, he might suggest Explain Everything, an interactive whiteboard app that lets students create visual presentations in the cloud, so students and the teacher can interact as it’s created.

“That’s the great thing about these cloud-based tools,” he said. “They provide asynchronous capacities that students and teachers can access to provide feedback and learn anytime, anywhere.”

The emphasis on creativity and multimedia emphasised by Mac products is widely believed to help prepare students for future careers, many of which will require teamwork, collaboration and thinking outside of the box. However, as Rob van Driesum, a parent of an SSIS child (and, full disclosure, the freelance copy-editor of #iAMHCMC) points out, “Not all kids will end up working in multimedia. They’ll need skills in Windows-based Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook and so on.”

End in Itself?

The debate about technology’s role in the classroom has been raging for over a decade, since the concept of One-to-One learning was first propagated in the late 1990s. By providing students with personal learning devices, from which they could read digital textbooks and complete assignments, many claimed that the learning process could be more efficient and streamlined.

SSISImage source: citypassguide.com

Subsequent studies have suggested that digital learning isn’t the silver bullet some first believed it was, and some schools have tempered their expectations, or at least begun to view technology as a tool rather than an end in itself.

Thomas Galvez at SSIS mirrors these thoughts. “The whole focus of this job is really not technology,” he said. “Learning is always going to be at the centre of schools.”

He paused for a moment, and then continued: “A good teacher is a good teacher. And to be a good teacher, you don’t necessarily need technology. Really, it’s about relationships.”

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By: J.K. Hobson

The prioritization of education has been a core feature of Vietnamese culture for centuries, and now the Southeast Asian country is opening its doors to foreign-owned entities providing public education for its aspiring academics.

Australia’s own Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) was established at the turn of the millenium in Ho Chi Minh City and was the first foreign-owned, public university to open in Vietnam. Professor Gael McDonald told Sinh Vien Viet Nam Newspaper last December, “Some of the key achievements in this area have been the introduction of authentic learning, reduction in examinations, a move away from textbooks to more contemporary materials, professional development for staff… with the mission to focus on delivering world class internationally recognized postgraduate degrees in Vietnam…”

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With a staff of academics from 25 countries around the world, RMIT engages in community outreach and has an increasing student population hailing from provinces outside the urban centers of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

New University Strengthens Cultural Ties

This year, Fulbright University Vietnam will open in Ho Chi Minh City.

The original Fulbright program was launched over seven decades ago as a means of establishing closer diplomatic ties between the United States and countries around the world through the promotion of education and cultural exchange.

President Barack Obama praised the university during his visit to Hanoi in 2016 saying, “It is the first not-for-profit, independent university in Vietnam - which will bring academic freedom and scholarships to underprivileged students. Students, academics and researchers will focus on public policy research, governance, business, engineering and computer science, liberal education - everything from the poetry of Nguyen Du, the philosophy of Phan Chu Trinh to the mathematics of Ngo Bao Chau …”

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Fulbright University will open its doors in the fall of this year, promising a new and innovative approach to higher education in Vietnam, while engaging in community outreach and offering need-based financial aid to qualifying students.

An Integral Value

At its inception, Vietnam’s educational culture was largely influenced by Chinese systems, particularly Confucianism. Confucian ideals dictated that although man is at the center of the universe, man is a social being, and finds his (or her) highest potential realized in community with others. Within this potential is the ability to be educated, and as such, education should be accessible to all. As community is important in Vietnam, education is seen as being not only a way of the advancement of the individual, but as a way of cultivating the kind of character that will help uplift his or her community.

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Former leader Ho Chi Minh decided when Vietnam gained independence from France on September 2, 1945 that the government’s three biggest priorities would be “fighting against poverty, illiteracy, and invaders.” His philosophy on education was guided by the principle that “an illiterate nation is a powerless one.” In October of that year, he issued a “Call for anti-illiteracy.” The nation responded to the call by creating 75,000 literacy classes with 96,000 teachers in order to teach 2.5 million Vietnamese to read and write.

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Borrowed Traditions

Vietnam has long been known as a country and a culture that consistently keeps an eye on progress. Throughout history, the Southeast Asian country has borrowed and integrated ideas about ways of living from influential societies, from the neighboring Chinese, to the French who formerly colonized it.

The opening of foreign-owned public learning institutions in Vietnam marks a paradigm shift in the country’s policies towards education. With the world’s eye on Vietnam as an emerging economy, it is sure to continue to attract foreign interests.

Vietnam is emerging as a bona fide market for educational investment, and its consistent desire for quality education is sure to be instrumental in its rise towards becoming a middle-income country, as it cultivates the minds of global-minded scholars.

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By: Molly Headley

From being part of the Chinese kingdom and the French colonial state to its complicated past relationships with the U.S. and Russia, Vietnam has historically been a country crowded with languages. As a result, Vietnamese itself was only recognized as the country’s official tongue in 1945.

Today it is mandatory for all students in Vietnamese schools to follow their studies in Vietnamese but the recent influx of foreign business and tourism has increased the importance of learning other languages as well. The majority of students study English as their first foreign language with French being the reigning second.

The priority of Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) is for all students in Vietnamese schools to learn English as their first foreign language, according to Priscille Lasémillante, Attaché for the French language at l'Institut français du Vietnam (French Institute of Vietnam) . Then, when possible, they can learn a second foreign language. Today French is the foreign language the most taught after English, with approximately 40,000 students. 10,000 or fewer students study Japanese and a fraction study Korean, German, Russian and Chinese, Lasémillante said in an interview given in French.

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From Tradition to Necessity

To understand the country’s dominant languages today, we have to go back to the 1954 Geneva Conference where Vietnam was officially divided through the middle. This rupture informed not only policies but also language. In the North, Chinese and Russian took precedence in the educational system, while in the South, French and English became the preferred languages. However, after reunification, the Southern languages and Chinese plummeted out of favour and it was Russian that connected the country to the rest of the Communist bloc.

Do Huy Thinh, from the Vietnamese TESOL Association, wrote that, “Russian became the dominant language, overshadowing the demands for all others in Vietnam’s early reunification".

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Vietnam found itself with a surplus of Soviet-trained professors and a sudden lack of opportunities for Russian trained students; as a result the language is barely taught in Vietnam today. In 1987, Vietnam introduced Doi Moi , the open door trade policy that brought the country onto the international stage. The resulting explosion of business, tourism and foreign investments launched a need for new languages in Vietnam and English quickly took the lead.

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English Arises from the Ashes

The English language was granted special authority in 1994 when the prime minister signed an order requiring government officials to learn foreign languages, with English being the primary focus. Foreign investments and influences from English-speaking countries have further solidified English as the top studied second language in Vietnam. MOET recently attempted to codify language training even more with the federal education agency’s Project 2020 initiative. Launched in 2008, the project’s mission is to advance Vietnamese students’ English to the level necessary for employment, yet as of 2018 Vietnam remains 7th in Asia in English language proficiency.

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Motivation and Mobility

Today Vietnamese parents tend to push their children to study whatever language has the greatest utility.

French remains popular in large part because between 1992 and 2006, French language education in Vietnam was financed by the French government. Numerous scholarships— notably in the sectors of medicine, engineering, and law—still exist to help Vietnamese continue their studies in France, and the only Vietnamese degree recognized internationally is a French-Vietnamese diploma in engineering.

German became another contender for a second language when Goethe-Institut cultural centers were set up in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and student foreign exchanges began to develop. Japanese become a third major player through scholarship schemes intended to help Vietnamese students study at Japanese universities.

Time to Look Towards China?

English is still necessary for advancement in Vietnam and throughout the region—it is the official language of ASEAN—yet some experts warn against parents becoming too obsessed with their children becoming anglophones.

“We must not only focus on English, but also pay attention to demands of localities and grades. Besides prioritising English, we need to develop other foreign languages,” Minister of Education and Training Phung Xuan Nha said in reporting by Vietnam News. “Cities and provinces which have the necessary facilities to teach other languages should be encouraged”.

The lack of Chinese taught in Vietnamese schools may be surprising given that Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken by the most people worldwide, and it is the official language of mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore, countries in close proximity to and bearing business interests in Vietnam.

"China is the world's second largest economy,” Nguyen Thi Linh Tu, deputy head of the Chinese language faculty in the Hue University’s University of Foreign Language, said. “Learning Chinese, Vietnamese people can access a huge market in China and Chinese communities in other countries".

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Priscille Lasémillante agrees. The Vietnamese have a super power just in front of them. China is in the process of developing a cultural cooperation with the rest of the world and perhaps Vietnam should take note, she said.

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By: Keely Burkey

When Truong Nguyen (called simply ‘T.’ publically) decided to attend high school in America in 2001, his reason was simple: “I wanted to live the American dream.” He added he felt a bit of pressure from his parents, who encouraged him to complete his education abroad and gain his citizenship in the foreign country.

Funding his first year with an international scholarship, Nguyen and his parents paid for the rest of his high school career themselves. After graduating, he went on to complete a BA in computer science from the University of Louisiana. He said he liked the culture of the South.

“I found a job in San Francisco working for a startup and I got a company to sponsor my [H1B] visa application,” he said. “But it’s hard. You have to stay in the same job for three or four years before getting a green card, and if you switch jobs, you have to start the process all over again.”

As an engineer in Silicon Valley’s quickly rotating startup community, sticking to one job wasn’t feasible or realistic. “When I moved to Canada, the process was a lot easier. It’s just a lot better.”

As Vietnamese youth become sought-after students in the international education system, concerns like the difficulty of the application process and new visa laws start to matter. Is the American dream becoming the Canadian dream?

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Getting Savvy

As Christopher Runckel, America’s first diplomat to Vietnam after the war, told us, “In some markets, like the United States +and Canada, the recruiter is basically trying to recruit the kid, but here [in Vietnam] they’re trying to recruit the parents, and they’ll often choose the programs the kids will go off to.” For parents, the decision has many factors at play: safety is typically the number one concern, though price and prestige also enter into the decision-making process.

Chi Thuc Ha, the Director of University Counseling at American Education Group (AEG) says that family ties also play a strong role. If the future college student’s uncle lives in Texas, chances are parents will feel more comfortable if their child attends the University of Dallas rather than Cal State.

While these factors undoubtedly play a part, more and more often Ha says that the parents are changing, not just their kids. “[P]arents are a lot more savvy now,” she said. “I think in the past, especially with the EB5 [visa], they were just focused on where they had put financial and economic roots. [...] Now they’re trying to find what’s the best fit for their kid.”

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According to the Vietnam Department of Statistics, almost 130,000 Vietnamese students studied abroad in 2016, and almost all of their tuitions were self-funded.

It’s a student group that could bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to a country during each four-year education cycle, not counting higher education after college.

Universities have caught on to the potential windfall; hundreds of university representatives come courting to Vietnam’s major cities every year in the hopes of swaying kids and parents towards their schools. At the Global Education Fair coming to HCMC this March, for example, representatives from 13 countries will be present, all ready to woo.

In particular, Canada has made systemic efforts in their immigration and education system to appeal to a broader range of international students, and their efforts have been paying off.

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Enter Canada

Although Ha works primarily with students focused on American schools, she has seen a dramatic shift in interest. “It hasn’t been until the last few years that students have been like, ‘Hey, by the way, can we also apply to these other countries?’” And because Canada’s application process runs a few months after most colleges in the United States have sent their acceptance letters, she sees many students opting for Canadian applications.

“Almost every student I have this year submitted an application to McGill and Toronto,” she said.

The proof is in the numbers: According to statistics from a survey put out by “Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada”, students from Vietnam studying in Canada have risen dramatically: in December 2016, the survey cited a 55 percent year-on-year student increase, second only to India’s 57 percent. Compare this to the United State’s more modest 5 percent gain in the same period.

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However, this accounts for almost 5,000 Vietnamese students in Canada, still a paltry sum compared to the around 22,000 studying in the US.

Runckel says the increase doesn’t have so much to do with the schools, but with the government. “I’ve seen an increase in interest in Canada this year in particular. And a lot of that’s because they changed their immigration law.” Making the immigration process easier has made Great White North more welcoming to students and immigrants, just as the United States have been shutting their doors increasingly tighter.

Getting the Right People

How to make Canada more appealing to Vietnamese students? It starts with the application process. According to Deren Temel of University World News, in 2015 Vietnam was ranked third-slowest for Canada’s study permit processing time, a major factor as a student makes plans for his or her future. In response, two programs have been started to increase the efficiency of Canada’s application process: the Canada Express Study (CES) program, an 18-month program launched in 2016, and the Study Direct Stream (SDS), which will be officially on line in March 2018 and will focus on post-secondary college applications.

Both programs are similar on paper, and work to accomplish the same goal: to make the transition from Vietnam-based application to Canada-based student as quick and effortless as possible. The system requires less financial documentation and has a faster visa processing time than traditional methods, and all forms and documents are easily accessible online.

Eligibility for the fasttrack are relatively simple: an IELTS score of 6 or above is one of the several conditions, along with an investment of CAD$10,000, to be deposited to Scotiabank, Canada’s national banking chain, which will be used by the student during their first year abroad.

So far, the changes have made a positive difference for the northern country’s educational goals. Speaking from the Consulate General of Canada’s office in HCMC, Consulate General Kyle Nunas said that the changes have made a large difference: now that the process is easier, over 50 percent more Vietnamese applicants are choosing to apply to Canada than two years previously.

What’s more, completing education in Canada gives that student credit in the country’s point-based permanent residency application program.

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A complete education gets the aspiring Canadian resident up to 30 points, almost half of the 67 points currently required to live in the country legally.

“The point is to have more people come into the country, but to have the right people come—skilled, smart, experienced,” Runckel said. This is in direct contrast to the United States’ process, which encourages students to stay on a student visa and then return home after they gain their degree due to the U.S.’s difficult immigration process.

For Consulate General Kyle Nunas, the changes work to make Canada more welcoming to a wider group of people. “We’re a nation made by immigrants, after all,” Nunas said.

Unintended Consequences

As Canada makes efforts to accommodate new residents, immigration and international laws have been tightening since President Donald Trump has stepped into office, and even before. “I think we’ve done more to lose some of the good will that we’ve with some countries in the last year than we’ve done in any one-year period in our history,” Runckel said. He said the the policy changes have had unintended victims, like small colleges who previously depended on international students as an important source of revenue.

For Vietnamese citizens hoping to move to the United States after college, the H1B visa has made a concrete difficulty for their plans. Multiple people we talked to agreed it’s getting harder to nab one of the visas, especially with the current lottery system in place.

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Hillary Huong Vu, a video animator who attended Missouri State University from 2012 to 2016, said that during her time in the country, the increase of anti-immigration sentiment became palpable, both socially and in the government. “I personally didn’t experience anything huge,” she said, when trying to recall instances of racism directed against her. “It was just little things, like people talking slowly because I have an accent.”

Vu’s worst experience came at the tail-end of her time in the U.S., when a man approached her on the street loudly asking her if she was from China or Korea, and telling her to go back to her country. “It was scary,” she said.

Hate crime incidents in America have gone up over the past year, from 5,800 in 2016 to more than 6,100 last year, according to FBI statistics. Ha at AEG says it’s unlikely any safety concerns would affect a Vietnamese family’s decision to study or move to the country. “For most families that I work with, that’s not something that they really see, primarily because as Asians we’re not the primary target [...] when people talk about anti-immigration,” she said.

Vu agreed, saying simply, “I don’t think Trump has any affect on the students that go there to study. If they find a program, they’ll go.”

“And I would just say, ‘Be careful, choose wisely.’ It’s not bad if you’re comfortable with it.”

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By: Molly Headley

“Cost”. “Competition”. “Choice”. “Commitment”. “Care”.

These words echo throughout the statements of parents in HCMC who’ve decided to take their children out of the traditional school system.

The alternative paths range from homeschooling, following a structured curriculum in a home environment, to unschooling, no school structure at home or otherwise. Parents are also selecting to enroll their children in what adherents call “world schooling”, allowing children to be educated by the world around them through travel.

Parents in HCMC are often divided into two camps: those who choose to educate their children themselves because of the high cost of private schools and those who consider it to be a philosophical decision. The concept is still new in Vietnam but a few parents frustrated with the long hours, costs, and rigidity of classic educational systems are following suit.

Cost and Competition

Khoi Nguyen began a group in Saigon for Vietnamese homeschoolers, in order to meet other parents with similar child-rearing philosophies but he soon realised that many of the Vietnamese interested in joining the group assumed homeschooling meant supplementing their children’s schooling with private tutoring. In Vietnam, educating a child at home is such a foreign concept that many people have never heard of it. Alongside his job as a computer engineer, Khoi now works as a homeschooling counsellor and educator for other parents.

Khoi didn’t start out expecting to homeschool his kids. The decision happened organically. “My wife runs a company that does exercise classes for kids from three to 15 years old. Most of her students are from international schools because they have shorter days”, he explained. “The kids in public schools are the ones who need us the most but they don’t have a chance to attend the classes. They don’t even have weekends. That’s very bad for kids.”

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For their own children, Khoi and his wife looked at their choices – either going to public school or paying the high premium for private school. Neither option suited their family. Instead, Khoi decided on homeschooling with strict lesson plans. He chose the Calvert curriculum, which claims Barack Obama as an alumni. Calvert is one of the priciest online curriculums available but Khoi insists it’s worth it.

Families in Vietnam “have all of these options on the menu”, Khoi said, “this year they can pick a very high-end school but in five or ten years can they still support that fee? It’s unsustainable. They might have to downgrade and the system in Vietnam isn’t compatible”.

The cost argument is concrete. In HCMC, the average price of an international school is VND341 million per year and, according to a report by VietnamOnline, the average salary for a Vietnamese worker is VND38.4 million per year. For the majority of Vietnamese families public schools seem to be the only option. On the other hand, expat families in Vietnam sometimes feel that international schools are their only choice because the public structure may seem too foreign for non-Vietnamese speakers. However, many expats work in companies that will pay a stipend for schooling.

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This is the case for Kristi Cruz*, an American mom with three children. Cruz’s husband’s company offers its employees an educational allowance, yet the couple refuses the aid. Cruz, a passionate unschooler, “lives as if school doesn’t exist”. She feels her children will learn when they’re ready and that they will be more competitive in the workforce because they’ll follow their true interests.

“Technology and the world are changing so fast. Schools are already outdated”, she said. “They can’t keep up with the jobs our kids are being prepared for. Now, everyone is spending their energy learning the quadratic equation, and guess what? I have a calculator to do that for me. These days they don’t need the quadratic equation drilled into their heads.”

Kim Nguyen* was born and raised in the U.S. to overseas Vietnamese parents. After getting married she and her husband decided to move to Vietnam to start their family. As a mother, Kim finds herself in the unique position of having both Vietnamese and U.S. influences. Unlike Khoi, she doesn’t have to worry about Vietnamese education laws but she’s still susceptible to the weight of her cultural heritage, which puts strong emphasis on the importance of formal education. When Kim’s son was born she initially followed the peer-pressure of society. “We put him in school not even really thinking”, she said. “It’s just what everyone his age was doing.”

She tried out a public pre-school but Kim realized it was the wrong choice for her family. Now, Kim manages a children’s play area, which gives her the luxury of spending her day with her son and allowing him to socialise with other kids. The fact that her son has dual nationality also gives him the freedom to continue his schooling in the US later on.

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“Our boy is always curious, always asking to learn”, she said. “So far he’s able to spell a few words. To be honest, I’m unsure if he’s a genius, average, or below average for a three-and-a-half-year-old but I don’t care. I just love being part of the process. For the rest of his life he will have the stress of meeting this bar and that bar. For now I just want him to be a kid.”

Choices and Curriculums

At a kid-themed café equipped with a labyrinthine climbing structure, Kristi Cruz met up with Angee Floyd, another unschooling mom.

Like Cruz, Floyd is also American and is raising two children in an unschooling environment. Unlike Cruz, Floyd is doing it completely alone. A single mom with a degree in teaching and what she described as “insurmountable student loans”, she decided to move to HCMC to reduce her living expenses. Floyd is able to teach less and spend the rest of the time with her kids. According to both moms, having the freedom to follow the needs of their children has created a deeper family bond.

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With the shouts and laughter of her children playing in the background, Floyd clarified her choices. “[In America] I went back to work after 6 weeks. I took my little, tiny baby and I was like ‘here’”, Floyd said holding out her arms. “I paid 1,200 US dollars a month to give my child to someone so that I could go back to work and then basically work just to pay for childcare. That’s why I can’t do it.”

Therefore, the question arises: what exactly do parents do when traditional school is not part of the equation?

Letting the Child Lead

The philosophy behind unschooling is that learning should be child led. A fascination with dinosaurs might provoke an investigation into palaeontology, while the routine process of paying for something at a store can teach basic math skills. A child in a world schooling family might learn Spanish by visiting Spain. There are no rules for what or how to study. Each family figures it out as life unfolds. Just as a baby learns to speak, a child will, for example, learn to read when they’re ready.

“When you spend your childhood being told what to do you’re not given the opportunity to make choices”, Cruz explained. “Then you turn 18 and you’re like ‘now what’? You’re on your own. You don’t know.”

“I like [this method] because it teaches my kids how to think”, Angee added. “They ask me questions and I say, ‘How can we figure out that information’? Versus when they were in school and it was like ‘the answers are in your book’.”

In contrast, homeschoolers follow parent-guided curriculums. Anne Hudson*, a US national and mom of three, initially enrolled her older children in Vietnamese pre-school but Hudson felt the schools were too strict and that the days were too long. “It’s too much pressure”, she said.

Hudson follows two curriculums with her children, a program for her son that keeps learning fun with drawing, games and songs, and a separate method for her daughter, who has a learning disability and needs a more structured approach to her lessons. Their typical day starts with outside play from 7:30am until 8:30, followed by homeschooling from 9 until 12. Extra activities, such as music or art, are saved for the afternoon.

homeschoolingImage source: i1.wp.com

“I never wanted to be a teacher before. I was an exercise physiologist”, Hudson said. “There are some days that honestly I’m just pulling my hair out but mostly I’m surprised by how much I like it. There’s something special about it. You’re with your child and you really know the strengths and weaknesses of how they think.”

Commitment

The modern homeschooling movement began in the 1970s when an educational philosopher named John Holt launched a campaign to “do away with the ugly and anti-human business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves”. Initially, Holt tried to rework the codes of traditional education - rote memorisation, forward-facing classrooms, the godlike reverence towards teachers - by testifying about his theories before the US Congress, but later he decided school in any form was inutile. His resulting newsletter, “Growing Without Schooling”, increased both his followers and his sceptics.

Holt may seem like a pioneer to some and an eccentric to others, but in reality homeschooling existed for centuries before it was given an official title. The precedents for alternative schooling vary from country to country. In the founding days of America children were expected to work alongside their parents. The trend towards self-directed learning was not so much a leap forward as a look into the past.

homeschoolingImage source: ldatschool.ca

In contrast, in Vietnam skills were passed on through ‘masters’. According to a 2010 report by WorldBank, “In the Feudal and Colonial periods, teachers were seen to have more importance than parents; their position was only lower than the king.”

Edmond Yee wrote in his book, “Confucian Education: A Moral Approach”, that Confucius taught the belief that “everyone has the same potential to be educated, and therefore education should be available to everyone. Vietnam was therefore constructed to be a collectivist country, meaning that individuals are less important than the whole.” These core Vietnamese values make the alternative education concept more foreign than in a country where children were historically schooled at home because of the community’s needs.

The online resources we queried showed that out of 77 countries with published educational regulations, 41 allow for alternative education but, depending on the country, families can be subjected to strict regulations.

Homeschooling is prohibited in 30 countries and in six, including Vietnam, the law is unclear.

The Vietnamese constitution is just abstract enough for homeschoolers to fit between the cracks. According to the Vietnamese education law, “Families have the responsibility to create conditions for their members in the defined age groups to learn in order to obtain the level of universalized education”.

homeschoolingImage source: homeschoolacademy.com

Homeschooling is not specifically mentioned, nor is it forbidden. However, this loophole doesn’t mean homeschooling families are free from difficulties. Once a student is taken out of public school their placement in the system is effectively ‘frozen’. Online courses are not recognised by the government so a child who wants to re-enter school will have to return to the grade they left. In addition, there is no homeschooling equivalent to a high school diploma in Vietnam. Children without a diploma cannot pursue higher education in Vietnam. The options are therefore narrowed down to going to university in another country, trade school or starting over in Vietnam. Vietnamese families who choose alternative education have to be fully committed to seeing it through for the long term.

The Dark Side of the Debate

Homeschooling has recently become a subject of controversy because of the case that shocked the world: In California,13, supposedly homeschooled, children were found to be brutally neglected by their parents. Cases such as these are few and far between but lawmakers are now demanding more oversight of children educated at home. Many countries have already installed rigorous checks of homeschooling families.

In Vietnam, children also slip through society’s cracks. “The government tries to encourage kids to go to school but obviously not every child in Vietnam does”, Khoi said. “You go to the streets and you see children everywhere. There’s no real law.” However, even if parents aren’t breaking Vietnamese law by schooling their kids at home they are breaking tradition and they are subject to intense judgment as a result. All the parents interviewed, whether expats, overseas Vietnamese or locals, spoke of the pressure from the outside world and especially relatives.

“My mom is probably the biggest critic about what we’re doing”, Angee said. “[Her] main concern is how will they go to college? How will they get a job? If they choose to go to college there are a hundred pathways to do that. In fact, a lot of unschoolers and homeschoolers outperform kids in traditional schools all the time.”

Yet, even within the alternative schooling community there can be divided camps. One homeschooling parent mentioned knowing “some [older unschooled] kids who haven’t started reading yet. How does that happen? Once they’re reading there’s a lot of stuff that they can do. But they need those basics.”

What do the statistics say? In a survey for Psychology Today of 75 adults who’d been unschooled as children, the adults described “dealing with others’ criticisms and judgments of unschooling, some degree of social isolation and social adjustment” as being their biggest challenges. However, for 72 of the 75 respondents, “the advantages of unschooling clearly outweighed the disadvantages”. 62 % of these adults went on to pursue higher education in some form and the majority were employed at the time of the survey.

homeschoolingImage source: constant-content.com

Regardless, of the debate about whether or not alternative education programs are successful, Vietnamese families have an added difficulty – most of the available curriculums are in English. “My family is not an English speaking family”, Khoi said with a sigh. “That’s the biggest challenge. I try hard but it’s only me who can follow the curriculum. Most of the families I talk to can’t get past the English gate”.

For other parents the biggest complaint is a lack of time. One parent has to be available to guide the children. It’s difficult to pursue a career at the same time. However, most families feel the sacrifice is worth it.

“[The judgment] doesn’t bother me”, Kristi said. “I’m very comfortable being a mom. People ask what I do and I’m like “I’m a mom” and I’m good with that. People act like it’s not good enough but children have rights and choices. You have the choice to pursue your career but when you choose to be a mother you have a responsibility to be a mother too. Children have the right to have a present parent.”

Care

Nellie and Gavin, American parents of 3.5-year-old Lucy, have lived in HCMC for 7 years. When Lucy was diagnosed with severe hearing loss the couple looked into their schooling options in both America and Vietnam, and even tried a private pre-school in D2, but in the end they decided on homeschooling.

“Lucy is a completely developmentally normal kid; she just needs special attention”, Nellie said. “I went to the US and I looked at the schools there … I was impressed with the deaf schools but the mainstream options … it’s like … who cares? Who actually cares about my kid? I do. But does anyone else really care when a student might be the difficult student? You know, the one who can’t hear the instructions so isn’t following. So in the end it’s up to you to figure out what your child needs.”

For parents of children with special needs individualised care has added weight. Anne’s daughter has an auditory processing issue -- she struggles to process information as it comes in. Angee’s daughter started getting test anxiety when she was in public school to the point that she started having panic attacks and refused to read anything.

“Even though their former teacher was a good teacher she couldn’t see the issues that I could see from observing”, Anne said. “There are 14 other kids, so the teacher can’t keep her eyes on one kid that closely.”

Nellie, Anne and Angee all feel that despite the general stereotype that care is not as extensive in Vietnam as in the States they actually have a stronger community and more affordable options in Vietnam. “There’s also a great community of homeschoolers here”, Nellie said. “We always have things that we can do.”

homeschoolingImage source: blog.edumall.vn

However, the fact remains that Vietnamese families, even those with special needs children, may have a harder time making the decision to stop traditional school. “International parents have less pressure”, Khoi said. “For the Vietnamese, the pressure is enormous. It’s everywhere. People in general just don’t understand what this thing is.” Yet, he holds out hope that education in Vietnam may be in the process of changing. “Right now there are some voices in the Ministry of Education starting to talk about homeschool”, Khoi continued. “They demand that we open up the system. I think in 5 years things will change. If they don’t we’ll be left far, far behind.”

Regardless of what happens in Vietnam’s scholastic future, families choosing alternative education have one thing in common -- they believe they’re doing what’s best for their children. As Kristi put it, “It’s a lifestyle. And school will not add to that lifestyle. It will take away.”

*This name is a pseudonym

Banner Image source: daycon.com.vn


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