Việt Nam Does it Better: Foreign Language Education

The summer before entering 7th grade I sat down with my mom to pick my classes for the upcoming year.

For the first time I had a say in what I’d be studying.

Not knowing that drama class involved exercises like making up an imaginary animal and acting it out-awkward for anyone but especially a 13-year-old, I eagerly signed up.

Knowing full well I couldn’t draw beyond basic shapes, I skipped art class.

Next up was the language requirement – a choice between French, Spanish or some sort of public speaking class.

“Spanish,” my mom said leaving no room for discussion.

“More people speak Spanish than French.”

I laughed at that memory when I made the decision to move to Việt Nam where French likely would have been useful and I have yet to use my Spanish skills.

Truthfully, however, I owe my mom a big thank you for pushing me to learn a second language, any second language.

Bilingual kids benefit greatly in the form of higher test scores, advanced reading skills, greater levels of self-control and a better understanding of their first language.

They’re more attractive candidates to universities and then employers.

One study found that elderly people who spoke two or more languages were diagnosed with dementia years later than those who spoke one.

With all these benefits it’s surprising there isn’t more of an emphasis on foreign language education in American schools.

While the number of students studying a second language is on the rise and schools increasingly are offering dual immersion programs, learning a foreign language is by no means a national trend.

Fine arts programs are often the first to see the effects of budget cuts and only a handful of states have some sort of foreign language requirement for high school graduation.

Several years of study in a foreign language is required for admission at competitive colleges like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.

Some require additional study while working toward a degree.

However many universities, including my alma mater, will welcome you to their campuses and you can breeze through four years without ever uttering an “hola,” or a “xin chào.”’

That’s where the United States and Việt Nam differ.

According to UNESCO’s World Data on Education profile of Việt Nam, starting in year 3 all public school students are required to study a foreign language four times a week for 40 minutes at a time.

The frequency and length change throughout a student’s education but the study requirement is still there.

Most often the language being taught is English but some schools also offer Chinese, Russian, and French.

There’s also an abundance of anecdotal evidence seen in daily life from the shopkeeper who bargains in English or the person in line at the bank who strikes up a conversation with a foreigner in the foreigner’s native tongue.

My visiting friends and family have had an easy time traveling through Việt Nam due to the many excellent bi-lingual and tri-lingual tour options available.

Perhaps some of the most eager to show off or practice their foreign language skills are kids and teens.

A couple months ago I was shopping for a lamp.

As I browsed one store I noticed the owner’s daughter shadowing me and giggling.

I gave her a wave and greeted her in Vietnamese.

We quickly exhausted my limited vocabulary and she switched seamlessly to English as we exchanged names, where we were from, and of course, our ages.

“Your English is excellent,” I complimented her.

“But of course,” she replied.

It really was that simple for her.

Studying a foreign language in school was as normal as studying math or history.

Switching between languages was just as natural.

If I have children one do I want them to be able to do the same?

To be able to communicate with people around the world?

To reap the cognitive benefits of speaking a second language like this young girl in Vietnam?

But of course.



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