More materials needed to teach Vietnamese to diasporic children

October 15, 2023 | 05:25 pm PT
Vo Nhat Vinh Researcher
At the end of summer my family and those of some of my high school friends gathered on the Mediterranean coast. It had been a while since our children met and spoke together in Vietnamese.

It is not easy to find families in the Vietnamese diaspora where children can still speak, understand, read, and write Vietnamese fluently.

For the diasporic children growing up in another country, it is the local language that becomes the children's native language rather than Vietnamese.

The children grew up using the local language everywhere, while mostly using Vietnamese within the family. It becomes harder and harder for the children to maintain their Vietnamese mother tongue, and my family is no exception.

In 2022 the Vietnamese government began promoting the use of Vietnamese in the diaspora, and chose September 8 as an official day to promote the language.

Under this project, the Vietnamese government, via diplomatic means, seeks to promote Vietnamese language courses at local education institutes overseas.

Additionally, events and awards are presented to individuals and organizations with significant contributions to the promotion and maintenance of the Vietnamese language overseas.

A Vietnamese Italian girl joins her Vietnamese mother in making Vietnamese traditional Lunar New Year cake banh chung at their home in Italy. Photo by Huyen Maasai

A Vietnamese Italian girl joins her Vietnamese mother in making Vietnamese traditional Lunar New Year cake banh chung at their home in Italy. Photo by Huyen Maasai

The project showed the government's appreciation of the Vietnamese language and Vietnamese community overseas, which dovetails with how the government has been referring to the Vietnamese diaspora as an integral and inseparable component of the Vietnamese ethnicity.

However, to me, while the project sounds good in terms of its goals, it lacks actual details on how to progress and how to actually address the needs of Vietnamese families living abroad, who are struggling to teach their children Vietnamese.

Besides daily conversation, children also acquire a language by reading books with progressive levels of difficulty. The older they get, the more complex the written language they can comprehend by reading.

Children's attraction toward a language and books is intrinsically tied to the attractiveness of the reading materials themselves.

Sadly, there are not so many options for children learning Vietnamese.

Realizing this deficiency while living abroad, I try to buy some Vietnamese books for my children every time I fly back to Vietnam, but the options are limited to a few authors such as Nguyen Nhat Anh, To Hoai and Vo Quang.

The majority of the titles available in bookstores across the country are translations from foreign languages, which is not really beneficial for children who live abroad already and wish to learn Vietnamese.

While teaching Vietnamese to foreign adults in Vietnam-related associations overseas, I have struggled to find materials for my students.

Most language learning programs published by Vietnamese public universities are too academic, stilted and unsuitable for immersing in the actual daily language.

Similarly, when my little daughter started to learn Vietnamese, I attempted to use textbooks meant for first graders in Vietnam, but they were dense and verbose, especially for overseas Vietnamese, who do not have the same language acquisition experience as children growing up in Vietnam.

I ended up mixing and matching different textbooks and novels to generate sufficiently captivating materials to teach my daughter how to read Vietnamese.

Besides from books, children also acquire languages from visual and auditory entertainment products, especially those available on the Internet.

But I searched in vain for an animation series produced in Vietnamese that also reflected Vietnamese culture and society.

Most of what I found were dubbed versions of foreign animation series with an odd version of Vietnamese translated word-by-word from the foreign script.

A decade ago, as a young adult, I was amazed to see so many Vietnamese children unable to speak comprehensibly and properly in Vietnamese.

Now, as a parent, I understand that the deficiency in children's language skills is partially due to the lack of sufficient cultural and language products of high quality for children to acquire Vietnamese.

The government incentive to maintain and promote Vietnamese at the macro level, valuable as it is, will be significantly more effective if combined with micro-level efforts and detailed plans on how to promote Vietnamese culture and literature abroad.

If not, young Vietnamese living abroad can only learn their parents' language at a very elementary level.

*Vo Nhat Vinh is a lecturer at the CESI engineering school in France.

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