Communication breakdown

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For many parents, the benefits of international school outweigh the fact that their kids can't speak Vietnamese

Students walk by a poster at an international school in Ho Chi Minh City. Many Vietnamese parents have come to terms with the fact that their kids are losing their Vietnamese language skills as well as their cultural identities.

Vietnamese parents who have hopped on the international school bandwagon say their kids are losing the ability to speak fluent Vietnamese or simply are not learning it at all.

But they have accepted it.

With educators fretting over the reckless abandon with which Vietnamese students are being "westernized," international school parents argue that the foreign curricula provides their kids with the best education the country has to offer.

Several families say that it is now up to them to ensure their kid learns Vietnamese at home. But with busy schedules, some say they are content with trading English skills for Vietnamese fluency.

Some say they are not worried about it at all.

The English life

At a meeting between the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Education and Training and international kindergartens last month, department deputy director Nguyen Tien Dat told a story about a local preschooler who could ace an English test but was unable to write even one simple Vietnamese word.

That student had received a certificate for passing an English test with high marks but she could not even write her Vietnamese name properly on the exam paper, Dat said. Adults had to help her write the name in order to complete the test.

Tran Thi Hue Trang, the mother of three girls studying at an international school in HCMC, said their life at home was also all about English.

"They speak with one another in English, they watch English programs on TV, and prefer reading stories written in English.

"I am against that. I keep urging them to use Vietnamese as much as possible. But that's tough, considering that they spend five days a week speaking English at school, interacting with peers for whom English is a first language," Trang said.

International schools are required by law to offer extra Vietnamese classes for local students. But they account for a small percentage of the school curriculum. HCMC is home to at least 60 schools that provide international curriculum, ranging from preschool to university levels.

Nguyen Vu Ngoc Hien, a tenth-grader at the American International School in HCMC, said her mother insisted on her using English wherever she went.

Hien said while she could interact with her local schoolmates in Vietnamese, she might be punished for doing so at home.

However, this causes problems, as Hien's mother doesn't speak English and can't understand her daughter most of the time.

The mother, Vu Thi Kim, a 46- year-old property agent, said she was pleased with her daughter's English savvy.

"I have poured a lot of money into her schooling. She must prove that she deserves it," Kim said.

Trinh Thi Huynh Hoa, an employee at the Canadian Consulate General in HCMC, said she was not worried about her daughter's English skills, even though the three-year-old just moved out of an international kindergarten to a local Vietnamese one.

Married to an American man who is very fluent in Vietnamese, Hoa, 33, said her daughter can communicate with her parents in both English and Vietnamese, which Hoa said was due to an extra effort at home.

She was not concerned about her child losing her Vietnamese side at all.

"While my husband tries to speak Vietnamese with my daughter as much as he can, I began teaching her English since she was able to speak," Hoa said.

"Her English skills are thanks mostly to me, not my husband."

Shaun Williams, principal of the HCMC's British International School, said concerns that English would dominate a child's life affect many people he knows in mixed marriages.

"Western dads are concerned that their kids are losing touch with half of their identities."


Phan Thien Hung, director of a private company in HCMC, said he had sent two of his three sons to international schools to avoid the heavy curriculum at public schools.

Hung's other son will begin going to international kindergarten when he turns three next year.

Like Hung, many other parents also said they believed that their kids would have less pressure at international schools, and other benefits.

Gan Thi Phuong Mai, who is living in Thao Dien area in District 2, said her son had become more confident since she sent him to the international school.

"His English is good enough to correct his dad's pronunciation."

Cultural identity

Experts have said that it is understandable that parents want the best education for their kids. But what is really "best" requires a lot of thought, not just a blind decision to go to international school, they said.

Professor Tran Ngoc Them of the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities, who has researched and written extensively on Vietnamese culture, said the more the local students become absorbed in Western culture, the more they lose their sense of identity.

Williams of the British International School, which provides educations to over 1,500 students of 40 nationalities, concurred with Them. "It is a concern that they become distant from being Vietnamese," he said.

Given the mixed communities of international schools, it is tough for Vietnamese students to acquire any specific culture, Them said.

"In terms of cultural identities, they are likely to be desolate and uprooted," he said.

"Wherever they go, even in Vietnam, they'll feel like they're on foreign soil."

Vietnamese people who do not master their country's mother tongue could see their national pride fade, said psychologist Nguyen Cong Khanh.

Them said that people generally do not begin thinking about preserving cultural identities until they are economically well off and do not have to worry about the next meal.

But the inevitability was a sad one, he said, because cultural values play a decisive factor in people's happiness.

Both Them and Williams said it would take years for people to realize the importance of preserving cultural identities.

"It is something that you perhaps realize too late," Williams said.

Another female student who moved to the American International School last year wrote on an entry on Facebook about how much she missed studying Vietnamese literature.

"I miss the days when my [Vietnamese] literature teacher would read me a poem or a piece of writing. I love my mother tongue, a language that would never ever become dry or boring," said the post.

"But my parents have worked flat-out to fund my studies at this school. I want to quit. But I cannot disappoint them."

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