During a seminar at a university in Hanoi, one student asked the lecturer: "Currently there are two standards of teaching English: British-English and American-English. Which one should we apply?” The lecturer looked embarrassed at the question, so the dean of the English Faculty stepped in and said: “We follow standards set by the Ministry of Education".
This story reflects the reality of teaching and learning English in Vietnam: from primary schools to universities, both teachers and students are learning English ad-hoc.
Most English curricula around the world adopt the British-English standard. In Hollywood films or TV channels like CNN, people use American-English. Meanwhile, the majority of Vietnamese English teachers were trained in an environment that followed neither of the two standards.
A friend of mine said that he has been teaching English for 15 years, but now he’s rushing to study English and earn his B1 and B2 certificates (middle levels in Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). He said he wants the certificates, rather than speaking skills, which he thinks “can’t be improved anymore”.
Vietnam hasn’t chosen either British-English or American-English, instead the country has picked up Ving-lish; English in a Vietnamese style. This kind of English is common among Vietnamese teachers and students, but quite strange for foreigners who can’t understand what they are saying due to differences in pronunciation, accent stress and intonation. Vietnamese people who have using used Viet-lish for a long time also find it difficult to speak and listen to foreigners.
Take myself for example. Even after gaining a high score (29/30) in the listening part of an English exam, I was really overwhelmed when I first entered the U.S to study. During the very first months, I had trouble communicating with my peers, listening to lecturers and working in a group. This made me struggle with exercises and assignments for quite some time.
Seven days after arriving in the U.S., I tried to get acquainted with Ahmed, one of my classmates. I asked him: "Ahmed, how old are you?". He replied: " I am fine, thanks, you?". I asked again, "How old are you?" Once again, he replied: "I am fine, thanks." After some explanations, he said, "Quang, you have to say 'how OLD are you?', with a clear 'old'.
These common errors I made are also being made by numerous Vietnamese people. The reason is that the Vietnamese language doesn’t have ending sounds or intonations in its sentences.
In a recent seminar on "Strategy for Foreign Language Teaching and Learning Over the 2016-2020 Period", Minister of Education and Training Phung Xuan Nha said the country should consult with other countries that have successfully introduced English nationwide, like Singapore.
At first the Lion Country spoke Sing-lish, a language used in informal talks to ensure that every single citizen knew the international language. After English gained in popularity, the government launched a campaign in 2000 encouraging Singaporeans to replace Sing-lish with standard English. The campaign caught on and now speaking English correctly is a matter of pride for all Singaporeans.
Back to Vietnam’s story. It’s time we chose a universal standard for English. Let’s stop teaching English in a Vietnamese style.
If we view English as a bridge to connect the country with others during the global integration process, we should speak English so that everyone can understand.