VN's English Language Target "Project 2020" Looks Hazy

Education - Vietnam: July 16, 2018

It’s a “flop”, Tuoi Tre called it in a headline, or a “failure” according to another headline in VNExpress. In 2016, it was described as “unrealistic” by Minister of Education and Training Phung Xuan Nha.

They’re talking about Vietnam’s National Foreign Language Project—or, as it’s more commonly known, Project 2020—the education initiative meant to bring all of Vietnam’s high school students to an intermediate level of English by graduation. Less than 20 percent of students have reached this level.

Early Warning Signs

Project 2020 dates back to 2008. It was proposed as an ambitious plan with one central goal: “by the year 2020 most Vietnamese youth whoever graduate from vocational schools, colleges and universities gain the capacity to use a foreign language independently,” according to the official language of the initiative “Teaching and Learning Foreign Languages in the National Education System, Period 2008 to 2020”.

But in 2016, Nha addressed a collection of government heads and education officials warning that the project still had a long way to go in its four remaining years.

An article in Tuoi Tre stated that some Vietnamese teachers had cut corners on the testing required by Project 2020, or opted to learn at centres that had developed a reputation for slack grading. Nha announced in the meeting that teachers would be retrained and the number of authorised centres that could provide these English teaching credentials would be narrowed down.

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That year about half of English teachers in Vietnam were reportedly substandard according to the requirements of Project 2020.

While the project’s core goals centre around English proficiency, in 2016 many students were still lacking access to regular English language curriculum. Around 20 percent of elementary school students were receiving four periods of English a week. The goal is to have 100 percent of third-grade students following a 10-year English language program by 2020.

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At that point, the project had a VND10 trillion (US$446.43 million) budget.

Student Pushback

Thai Nguyen University built a basic communication English language capacity into their graduation requirements. As a result, 2,000 students failed to graduate on time at the Thai Nguyen city university. The delayed students gave the university heat. As a result, the school lowered the language standard.

Research shows students may need up to 400 hours of training to move up one rung in the CEFR ladder. Thai Nguyen University lowered their standards in part because their undergraduate curriculum only included 100 hours of English training, Professor Dang Van Minh explained to Tuoi Tre in January.

Students have criticized Project 2020 for placing too much emphasis on grammar training and not providing enough opportunities to practice listening and speaking. “Two English lessons per week and too many students in a class do not allow us to practice,” Saigon University student Nguyen Minh Tri told Tuoi Tre.

A Persistent Fever

The project appears to come at least in part from the extreme interest Vietnamese have in the English language. In 2014, researcher and author Christopher Candlin described the country’s zest to become anglophile an “English fever” in his English language teaching review “Language and Development: Teachers in a Changing World”. Sending school children to English language centres early to get them an early head start on their language acquisition is almost de rigor for Vietnamese families.

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In spite of the pronounced shortcomings of the 2020 Project, English language advocates are building new educational initiatives around it, such as the HCMC-based plan to begin English language learning in the first grade starting in the 2018 academic year. In the current academic year, 91 percent of students in the city have begun English classes since the first grade.

Nevertheless, Saigon’s Department of Education and Training Head of Primary Education Nguyen Quang Vinh complained that the quality of the teachers was inconsistent and said his department would begin making sure foreign language centres are integrated into every school’s activity.

Vinh noted that the schools still had difficulties filling their foreign teacher vacancies because of inadequate salary offers. During the 2017 academic year, the school officials recruited 1,797 teachers, who filled 70 percent of the available foreign teacher slots.

Only 40 percent of the recruited teachers meet the Ministry of Education training standards.

Foreign Teachers to Go in HCMC

Over parents’ objections, Saigon will slowly phase out foreign teachers in city schools over the next few years.

By 2020, the city plans to train 400 Vietnamese teachers to replace their foreign counterparts, according to reporting by the Vietnam News Agency. There are currently 100 primary school teachers undergoing a four-phase training program required to pass an assessment crafted by UK’s Pearson Education, the program administrator. Over 300 teachers applied to be part of the program.

Parents angrily commented that their students would have limited or no interaction with native English speakers.

Do Minh Hoang, an official with HCMC’s Department of Education and Training, said the Vietnamese teachers would be able to deliver similar or better results compared to the current foreign teachers. Education officials responded, noting that fees would be reduced when the switch to Vietnamese English teachers is complete.

Thuong Nguyen, a researcher with National Chengchi University in Taiwan, presented an analysis suggesting the project was not a doomed to failure. In a paper titled “Vietnam’s National Foreign Language 2020 Project after 9 years: A Difficult Stage”, Nguyen argued that simple changes like updating teaching methods from basic “teacher asks, students respond” routines and introducing new curriculum could prove fruitful in changing the narrative around Project 2020. Nguyen’s research involved observations of several Ho Chi Minh City high schools, a handful of which are currently meeting the foreign language initiative’s target goals.

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