Vietnam’s costly foreign language program declared a failure, but to little surprise

By Dien Luong   November 16, 2016 | 11:00 am PT
Vietnam’s costly foreign language program declared a failure, but to little surprise
Representatives of Pennsylvania State University (L) talk with Vietnamese students during a US education fair in Hanoi. Photo by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
After millions of dollars spent, Project 2020 appears to have met its doomed fate.

An ambitious program aiming to churn out an English-savvy workforce is way behind its 2020 deadline and falling short of projected targets, the education minister has said.

“Let me get it straight: the project has failed to meet its target,” Minister of Education and Training Phung Xuan Nha told lawmakers at a hearing of the National Assembly, Vietnam’s legislature, on Wednesday.

At a conference in September, the education ministry for the first time admitted that the grand project was a failure since its implementation several years ago. Nha's statement on Wednesday yet again corroborated what experts and insiders have long predicted.

“Project 2020 was doomed from the beginning,” Dennis Berg, who has worked as an educational consultant in Vietnam for over 20 years, said, referring to the program by its official name.

“But people talk it up and keep it going because money is being spent,” said Berg, who also participated in the teachers’ training as part of the project.

The project, carrying a budget of VND9.4 trillion ($443 million), was approved in 2008 by the government. It envisions that, by 2020, "most Vietnamese students graduating from secondary, vocational schools, colleges and universities will be able to use a foreign language confidently in their daily communication, their study and work in an integrated, multi-cultural and multi-lingual environment, making foreign languages a comparative advantage of development for Vietnamese people."

Red tape dragged things out. It was not until 2012 when provinces and cities across the country began implementing the project, leaving the country only eight years to accomplish a task that took its better-off neighbors like Singapore or Malaysia several decades.

With two-thirds of the population of over 90 million born after 1975, the project was expected to architect an English-proficient workforce that could propel the country to rub shoulders with its neighbors by 2015, the year marking the formation of Southeast Asia’s ASEAN Economic Community.

According to a 2008 report prepared by Harvard University's Kennedy School, Intel, the world's largest computer chipmaker, said only 90 candidates out of 2,000 Vietnamese IT students passed its standardized assessment test in that year. Of this group only 40 individuals were sufficiently proficient in English to be hired.

The report's authors said this was "the worst result” Intel had encountered in any country they had invested in.

But some headway has been made since.

A number of English teachers, tour operators and company executives here in Vietnam that VnExpress International spoke to confirmed that Vietnamese students have improved their English quite a bit over the last several years.

Vietnam ranks 31st among 72 countries in the world and seventh among 19 Asian countries in English proficiency, according to the latest annual English Proficiency Index released this week by the Swiss Education First (EF), a global language training company. The level of English proficiency among Vietnamese people has increased considerably in the last five years. From 2012 to 2014, the country was classed among a group of countries with “low level” English skills, but has moved up to a “moderate level.”

Experts have attributed this to the increased access to resources such as cable TV, the Internet and movies in English with subtitles. More students are taking expensive courses at language schools where they learn in an English-speaking environment, they say.

Meanwhile, a rising number of the nouveaux riches, as well as some middle and upper-middle class families in Vietnam, where the annual average income was around $2,100 last year, are opting to send their children abroad for higher studies.

“Vietnam has been afflicted with ‘English fever’ for quite some time,” said Mark Ashwill, an American educator who has lived and worked in Vietnam for over a decade, “with parents of means sending their young children to English centers in the hopes that a knowledge of English will give them a leg up academically and, in the future, professionally.”


Vietnamese students from local high schools listen to a US college representative during a U.S. Higher Education Fair in Hanoi. Photo by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Given this, experts say perhaps the most obvious stumbling block for Project 2020 is that the quality of teachers has not kept pace with that of their students.

"There are many English teachers who are behind their students in terms of capability," said Berg, the educational consultant. He recalled teaching a graduate research class for Vietnamese majoring in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and in the back row was a group of students with their translators next to them.

"Most of the teachers in the public school system put in extremely long hours and don't have a lot of time," he said. "Without faculty development and changes in teacher training programs, the project will never meet its goals."

At the parliamentary hearing on Wednesday, Nha, the education minister, said his ministry would focus on improving the curriculum and teachers’ capacity when retooling the project. But he stopped short of announcing a new completion date for the project, saying a new proposal would be submitted to the government for approval.

The failure of Project 2020 came at a time when educators might have just recovered from the discouraging fact that English results in high school exit exams last summer were among the worst of the eight compulsory subjects.

But just recently, the education ministry has set yet another ambitious yet vague goal to make English the second official language in the country, without spelling out the specific timeframe for it.

To experts, this move is emblematic of the tendency to keep bringing forth unrealistic policies while ignoring or glossing over major problems that have plagued the country's education system for a long time. The experts say the major challenge for the Vietnam's education system is to have a clear, realistic vision and stick to it.

“Vietnam is not good at strategic planning,” Berg said. “Let’s think of a project, can we make money with it, let’s milk it until it fails, by then we will have another project.”

Chief among the long list of unrealistic projects is another initiated in 2010 to train 20,000 students at masters and doctorate levels overseas by 2020. Critics have dismissed it as impractical and a waste of resources.

Then there’s another government plan, also launched in 2010, to build four international universities with at least one entering the world's top 200 by 2020. Experts say it took Asian economic powers like China or South Korea almost two decades to achieve this target, and Vietnam is in no position to outpace them.

"There is a concept known as 'planning tension' that was popular under interpretations of Soviet-style planning,” said Jim Cobbe, a Fulbright scholar who has done extensive research on Vietnam's education system.

“The idea is that it makes sense to sometimes give targets that are not really consistent with actual capacity, because that makes it more likely that people or organizations will 'stretch' their capacity to try to attain the target," Cobbe said.

"The obvious problem is that sometimes if the target is too unrealistic and aspirational, they may become discouraged and do worse than they might have done with a realistic target."

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