On communicating with the world and our children

August 28, 2023 | 04:00 pm PT
Ngo Trong Thanh Businessman
One late afternoon in Manila, with rain and wind raging outside, I was sitting with a Filipino friend in a bar and having a few beers.

We spoke about many things, but at our age children inevitably became a topic of discussion.

I told him: "My children play a lot with Filipino kids."

He asked: "Is it to learn English?"

His question was legitimate. Vietnamese have turned to the Philippines for the last few years to learn English, both offline and online. The overall English proficiency of Filipinos is high as English became an official language there since the colonial 19th century.

My generation in Vietnam, born during the communist subsidy period but growing up amid economic openness, understands the importance of English to a greater degree than most.

This is especially true for the first generation that worked for multinational companies in the 1990s.

For most people looking from outside, we had a dream life, salaries in foreign currencies and working conditions comparable to that in advanced economies. But behind the curtains, we suffered through our lack of English proficiency.

We grew up learning Russian.

In the period between middle school and high school, the curriculum of us math students was translated directly from the Moscow olympiads and Minsk championships.

In university, we learned from Russia-specialized technical textbooks. We learned the technical Russian language, but not the social one. There was barely any chance to talk Russian casually with anyone.

English slowly crept into social life in the 1990s Vietnam. We were mesmerized by the love songs of Boney M and Modern Talking, and mumbled the songs and danced to them. But English, without formal instruction, came slowly and in an unorganized manner.

As we joined multinational corporations, the lack of proficiency in English became really troublesome.

Translating materials could be done with the use of a dictionary tucked somewhere deep in our pockets, but that did not work while speaking with people from various countries and with different accents. The only thing we could do was to pretend to understand, saying "yes, yes," and worry about it later.

Saying "yes" to everything was not just an outcome of the lack of English proficiency, but also the result of the stringent social system.

We grew up as "good kids" who listened to our parents and teachers. We did what we were asked, and that was it. There was no room for creativity or original thinking. There was only group thinking, and individualism was frowned upon.

It is funny how our "yes, yes" generation only learned how to say "no" after we become parents.

With the almighty power granted to parents, we arbitrarily imposed our thinking on our children, said "no" to whatever they proposed, and banished anything that was out of our comfort zone.

Recently I came to know about the existence of Blackpink, the famous Korean pop band, when it came to Vietnam.

There were many complaints on social media and in newspapers about the hype Vietnamese children indulged in. The most scornful complaints, I believe, came from my "yes, yes" generation.

A girl wears a Born Pink conical hat as she waits to enter My Dinh Stadium for the namesake concert by South Korean girl band Blackpink, July 29, 2023. Photo by VnExpress

A girl wears a "Born Pink" conical hat as she waits to enter My Dinh Stadium for the namesake concert by South Korean girl band Blackpink, July 29, 2023. Photo by VnExpress

Our generation spent years sitting in public places listening to traditional folk music playing on communal radios for free; no one had money back then.

We were not comfortable seeing children pay millions of dong, or hundreds of dollars, to some foreign singers, singing music we were not familiar with and indulging in dancing movements we did not find appealing.

The generation gap has been widening in Vietnam due to the early exposure the younger generations have been getting to foreign languages, especially English, in the last 20 years.

English, the global language of communication, connects children from all over the world. Children nowadays have their own world that adults somewhat struggle to understand.

Any high school student with a smartphone can now access materials unimaginable to their parents’ "yes, yes" generation.

With their early exposure comes different viewpoints. Children nowadays think differently from us, creating a different social dimension with their unique individuality.

Occasionally they can head in some very ugly direction and need course correction. There will be times when children know more things about their idols than their family members. But as adults we need to show empathy and provide guidance, selectively saying "yes" to our children and walk with them through their journey.

Our children are already different from us, and don't need us to push them further away. What they need is something to anchor them to traditions and families.

To get back to the conversation with my Filipino friend, I told him no, my children did not play games to learn English, they do not need to. They are not the "yes, yes" generation that feels bad about the lack of English proficiency.

They are the future, a new generation that is growing and thriving.

*Ngo Trong Thanh is a marketing expert and the CEO of Mancom.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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