On the tip of the tongue

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An international school in Ho Chi Minh City ensures its local students learn the Vietnamese language

Fifth grader Ngo Duc Minh, born and raised in Vietnam, said he preferred English to Vietnamese, simply because he was better at it.

The same is true for scores of kids who like Minh have spent several years studying at international schools in Ho Chi Minh City.

The majority of students at international schools throughout Vietnam are still Vietnamese, and many of the schools advertise that they will help children "reach for the stars" or "become global citizens."

But few claim to instill in their pupils a love for the language, history and culture of Vietnam. That's where Canadian International School (CIS) comes in.

At many international schools, the curricula are written overseas and the subjects of Vietnamese language, culture and history are optional, or just taught a few hours a week. Many of the schools teach only in English. But at CIS, all local students must study and learn Vietnamese.

Luu Le Minh Trung, a teacher of Vietnamese who has taught at several international schools and is now at the Canadian school, said many Vietnamese children studying at international schools without compulsory Vietnamese lessons are now unable to communicate in what should be their mother tongue.

"At international schools that teach foreign curricula, the ability to communicate in Vietnamese is almost zero for young Vietnamese children," Trung told Thanh Nien Weekly in a recent interview.

Back to basics

Tran Giang, a teacher in HCMC with a daughter enrolled at an international school there, said, "We send our daughter to international school to learn about the modern world. But she only has two hours a week to study Vietnamese. That is not enough time to learn basic vocabulary.

"And the problem is that when she's at home with our family, she can't communicate with them. That's very difficult for my father. English first, of course, but she should know basic Vietnamese," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

According to a report published earlier this year in Saigon Tiep Thi newspaper, Phan Linh Hung, a father in HCMC, was amazed when most of the people who met his son knew that he studied at international school. The reason was that the boy often used personal pronouns "I-you" when speaking with Vietnamese people.

Tran Dieu Thuy, a primary teacher at a school in a city's District 1, told the story of a fifth grader who was transferred from an international school. She said the boy made many Vietnamese spelling and grammar mistakes while his English was good.

'The most important thing'

For every Vietnamese student enrolled at CIS, Vietnamese language, geography and history are compulsory subjects.

"We don't want our students to 'lose their origins' right here, in their own homeland," Nguyen Thi Kieu Oanh, president of CIS Directors' Board, told Thanh Nien Weekly in a recent interview.

Of the nearly 200 students at CIS, the majority are Vietnamese who study and play alongside their peers from other 15 nations. Included in the curricula is their native language while non-Vietnamese students learn French.

"We think no matter what foreign education Vietnamese students chose, the most important thing is to teach them about their nations' history and culture," said Oanh.

"If generations of Vietnamese do not have a solid knowledge base about their own country, the consequences could be tragic, not now when they are still young, but later once they have grown up," she said.

Oanh herself is a mother of three with the oldest child in ninth grade. She told Thanh Nien Weekly her children had studied at several international schools around the city until she became worried that their English was better than their Vietnamese.

"The same is true of my friends' children who study at international schools that teach in English. When the kids are at home, they talk to each other and to their parents in English because their command of Vietnamese is not good enough," Oanh said.

Trinh Quang Dong, director of Khoi Nguyen Education Investment Joint-Stock Company, CIS's main investor, said, "In recent years, tens of thousands of Vietnamese students have gone to study overseas, but only a small percentage of them have returned."

"There could be many reasons but one of them is that our education system has failed to teach the students to love the nation and Vietnamese traditions."

According to statistics released in March by the Ministry of Education and Training, four years ago, about 38,000 young Vietnamese were studying abroad. The number has since swelled to 60,000.

It is widely accepted by experts that only 30 percent of the Vietnamese who go abroad to study actually return after graduating as the richer nations give them more academic and employment opportunities.

More open to the community

In Vietnam, international schools are for children from wealthy families with tuition fees worth thousands of US dollars a year. Most international schools, both in urban and suburban areas of large cities, are isolated and separated from the outside world.

"The mindset [that international schools are for rich students only] and the fact that the rich-poor gap is growing is dangerous as students at international schools might look down upon people in less-privileged conditions," said Dong.

In the same report by Saigon Tiep Thi, Le Ngoc Diep, head of the Elementary Education Bureau under the HCMC Department of Education, had warned that students in international schools could become extremely selfish if they were not taught to integrate into and sympathize with the larger community.

Diep cited an example of a recent outdoor camp held for high school students in the city. Only one international school participated and its students only played amongst themselves, listening to I-pods while their peers from other Vietnamese schools joined in team activities.

One of the effective ways to integrate students would be to build more open school environments with public facilities that people from outside the school can use, such as a public house for cultural and recreational activities, Dong said, adding that CIS planned to open a cultural house to host social and entertainment events.

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