Random conversations with foreigners won't improve your English

October 9, 2023 | 04:06 pm PT
Bui Minh Duc Media specialist
"Foreigner hunting" used to be a creative way to improve one's English proficiency and confidence, especially for Vietnamese students, but it's no longer appropriate nowadays.

When I was a university student about 10-15 years ago, "foreigner hunting" was a popular trend. The slang describes the practice of many students, mainly those in university, who wander around tourist attractions to find foreigners and practice speaking English. At that time, "foreigner hunting" was common in Hanoi, around the Old Quarter, where young people could find many tourists sitting and relaxing around the Hoan Kiem Lake.

"Foreigner hunting" was indeed a meaningful practice to help Vietnamese students improve their English. Around a decade ago, English education at school mainly focused on grammar and vocabulary, while the Internet was not so easily accessible as it is now. Hence, "foreigner hunting" was a creative way for students to hone their English skills, especially with speaking and listening.

However, there were various drawbacks to this practice, and "foreigner hunting" was far from the only way for English learners to improve their skills. It is no longer appropriate today and I believe that students should find other ways to practice their English.

First, terminologically, "foreigner hunting" sounds problematic to many people. Who are the hunters and who are the hunted in this situation? Many people frown upon such "hunting seasons" when groups of students would gather around 1-2 tourists, bombarding them with never-ending questions.

Second, not all tourists are happy to be surrounded by a group of strangers. The situation can make them feel unsafe and trigger their defense mechanisms, because it resembles tourist scams when they would be distracted and someone would steal their belongings. Tourists also tend to feel more cautious in foreign countries with lower levels of cultural similarity.

Lacking cultural sensitivity, many students often raise questions regarding one's private life, such as "What do you do?" "Where are you from?" or "Are you single/married?" Living in America, I know that these questions are not always welcomed when you are not very familiar with who you are talking to. Meanwhile, Vietnamese people consider these questions conversational bread-and-butter and use them almost every time they talk to strangers.

Third, "foreigner hunting" is not an effective way to practice English. When they converse with foreigners, these students usually repeat certain questions. Many tourists are only willing to answer a few of the questions, and then the students will move on to find other tourists and ask the same questions all over again. I believe that one can gain more confidence through this practice when it is done over a long period of time, but it will be hard to see significant improvement in English proficiency by doing so.

On top of that, "foreigner" is a nuanced term that implies people from many countries, and not all of them use English as their first language. Talking to people from different countries can help you adapt to different accents, but I reckon it is not a priority for many students at the beginning of their English-learning journey.

Students practice speaking English to a foreign man (on the bench) at a park in HCMC in 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Students practice speaking English to a foreign man (on the bench) at a park in HCMC in 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

How to improve your English without "foreigner hunting"?

Nowadays, you can find an abundance of learning resources on the Internet to help with your English. There are many programs and projects from non-profit or education organizations to connect learners around the world with people from English-speaking countries, like America, Australia and Britain.... Social media also makes it easier to find online friends for English practice. Language exchange was never this easy in the past without the development of the Internet.

Joining student clubs and organizations is also a good way to practice English. I used to be a member of Hanoikids - a student organization in Hanoi that provides free private tours to foreigners. Hanoikids members do not need to "hunt" foreigners and they still have a chance to improve their communication skills, among other social skills. I have to say that my English significantly improved during my time with Hanoikids.

Spending more time practicing English through multimedia content, such as articles, documentaries and English lessons is also another effective way. In the beginning, I did not watch movies or listen to music to improve my English because they used a lot of slang or informal English. Instead, I often watched documentaries when the narrators spoke adequate English at a suitable pace, with good grammar and diverse vocabulary. Similarly, learners can read the news in major newspapers such as The New York Times and Reuters, which use standard and easy-to-understand language.

In Vietnam, there has been an increase in the number of cultural exchange programs. Students now have more chances to join conferences and seminars with international students. Many embassies usually host language exchange programs for students in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. To me, these are better ways for students to practice their English than annoying "foreigner hunts."

*Bui Minh Duc is a media specialist at non-profit iSEE and a freelance reporter.

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