English classes: Seniors show it's never too late

By Quynh Nguyen   October 19, 2022 | 03:59 am PT
Vu Thi Dong Hai, 85, took a motorbike taxi to her English class on Kim Nguu Street in Hai Ba Trung District one afternoon in late September.

She has been attending the two-hour class on Tuesdays for more than four years.

Though she is the oldest student, her hands shake and she has many ailments, she has never missed a class, rain or shine.

At nearly 90 and hardly understanding what the teachers say, she remains unafraid and even enthusiastic about the class, and hopes her actions will inspire her grandchildren.

She says with a smile: "Neither do I seek to become fluent in English nor do I have any plans to travel abroad. The only reason I'm here is to become a better version of myself by learning new things and expanding my horizons and making new friends. Staying in bed all day will only make me sicker."

Her family is fully supportive, she adds.

Vu Thi Dong Hai (C), Nguyen Thi Loc (R) and other seniors in the free English class pay close attention to the lecture on September 28, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Vu Thi Dong Hai (C), Nguyen Thi Loc (R) and other seniors pay close attention to the teacher in the free English class on September 28, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Nguyen Thi Loc, who sits next to her, says she had never studied English before.

Four years ago, after hearing about a free English class for seniors, she took it upon herself to convert her family's 20-square-meter dining room into a classroom and furnish it with desks, seats and a blackboard.

The 80-year-old says she did this so that "other seniors get to learn English and rediscover their zest for living."

Recalling the beginning, she says she felt scared when she could not even say basic words like "hello" and "goodbye" fluently.

Not wanting to be left behind she read each word hundreds of times and stayed up late every night to review lessons.

If she had any questions she could call her teacher even late at night, she says.

As a result, her score on an English-learning app jumped from 54 to 100 points.

"It does not matter if you are old or young, you will achieve good results as long as you put in an effort."

In 2019 the Venerable Thich Chan Quang established these free English classes in many provinces and cities across the country so that elderly people no longer feel lonely and instead discover joy in life and set examples for younger people.

Students are given free notebooks and a textbook titled "English for the elderly" written by the monk himself.

The teachers are volunteers from all walks of life.

Hanoi has 10 of these classes. There are 12-15 students in a class aged from 60 onwards. People who are able to come in once a week while those who are not mobile attend the classes online.

Loc and Hai’s teacher is Phung Hai Yen, 30, an office worker. Despite her busy schedule, Yen has been teaching here since the classes began four years ago after seeing the seniors’ strong desire to learn English.

"But teaching English to elderly people is not simple; it requires patience and meticulousness," she says.

Seniors of a free English class on Hanois Kim Nguu Street practice pronunciation under the guidance of teacher Phung Hai Yen on September 28, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Seniors at a free English class on Hanoi's Kim Nguu Street practice pronunciation with guidance from Phung Hai Yen, their volunteer teacher, on September 28, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

She had to start out slowly, teaching only four or five words per session. After focusing on pronunciation, she let them practice writing 10–20 times and play games to make the class more fun and relaxing.

The students initially lacked interest, but her tenacity paid off, and after two months people began to stay up late to review their materials.

Nguyen Van Anh, Loc's husband and the only male student in the class of 15, says: "This class enables retirees like us to rediscover joy in life. Everyone here respects each other like family, and exhorts each other not to give up."

Before Yen taught him to read and write, the 82- year-old could only clap his hands when he heard his children sing "Happy Birthday" to him, but now he sings along with them with gusto.

"It makes me really glad that I can speak English," he says.

Pham Thi Nham writes down the new vocabulary in her notebook on September 28, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Pham Thi Nham writes down new words during a class on September 28, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Pham Thi Nham, 80, of Hai Ba Trung District frequently rides her motorbike more than five kilometers to school.

People tell her to stay at home because of her bad eyesight and trembling hands, but she says: "This place fills me with happiness and brings back fond memories of my youth and I get to meet new people.

"I intend to keep learning for as long as my health permits."

Inside Yen's English class for the elderly aged from 60 to 90 in Hanoi. Video by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

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