What's the Most Popular Second Language in Vietnam?
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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