New decree irrational, unfair to Vietnamese children

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Fear of cultural decline behind ban on early learning of foreign languages not warranted, experts say

Chris Anderson (L), Assistant Director for International Admissions from US's Porland State University talks with a visiting Vietnamese student during a US Higher Education Fair in Hanoi. A government decree has attracted controversy over a provision that limits the number of Vietnamese students that international primary and secondary schools can admit to 10 percent. 

Duc Tri spoke English fluently and unhesitantly during the two years that he attended a kindergarten in the United States.

When he got home, he also spoke Vietnamese with native fluency to communicate with his parents.

A year ago, the family returned to Vietnam and his parents enrolled him in a bilingual school in Hanoi.

Now, he has an American tutor at home and his father speaks to him in English. However, curiously, Tri"˜s total comfort with speaking two languages fluently has disappeared. The six-year-old is now diffident and embarrassed to speak in English.

Some experts say Tri's predicament is a practical counter-argument to a government decree which has attracted controversy over a provision that bans Vietnamese children under five years of age from attending international educational programs in the country; and limiting the number of Vietnamese students that international primary and secondary schools can admit to 10 percent.

The decree's basic premise, as explained by a few officials, is that very early second-language acquisition would dilute the Vietnamese identity of children as well as their identification with Vietnamese culture; and interfere with their ability to learn their mother tongue properly.

"If Vietnamese children study at international schools, they will very likely speak foreign languages instead of their mother tongue," said Nguyen Thanh Huyen, deputy chief of the Education Ministry's International Cooperation Department.

Explaining the kindergarten ban, she said, kindergartens with foreign investment in Vietnam are established for expats only.

"The children will study foreign curricula, which wrongly changes the objectives of Vietnam's education," Huyen said.

The policy-makers, therefore, consider the decree as the discharging of their responsibility to protect the Vietnamese language, culture and other distinctive characteristics.

However, many parents dismiss the official argument, saying exposing their children to another language at an early age does not make them any less Vietnamese, but boosts their brainpower, vocabulary and self-esteem.

Maple Bear, a Canadian kindergarten in Hanoi, is one of numerous kindergartens around the country that practice foreign language immersion education for preschoolers. For four-year-old Minh Ha, this means most of  her classes are taught in English. Nguyen Xuan Hung, Ha's father, believes that the bilingual setting (the class has one or two Vietnamese teaching assistants) has helped his daughter excel in both languages.

"As soon as Ha learned English and got the basics down in kindergarten, she began reading in Vietnamese," Hung said.

Hung said his daughter is now conversationally fluent in both English and Vietnamese.

A lot of scientific studies lend their support to bilingualism, finding that it is a positive force that enhances children's cognitive and linguistic development, improving access to literacy if the two writing systems correspond.

Bui Khoi Nguyen, a professor at An Giang University who researches English as Second Language, said early and extensive contact with a second language increases the vocabulary available to a child.

"Both languages reinforce each other, giving the bilingual child an edge over their mono-linguistic contemporaries. Young children can learn much about their mother tongue by learning structures and words in English or vice versa," Nguyen explained.

Several researchers and educators also say the identity debate should not exist in international schools in Vietnam because of the lack of ethnic diversity in the Vietnamese population.

"The Vietnamese children would spend only a certain amount of time at schools, and they will enter their Vietnamese culture as soon as they leave school and go back to their homes and community," said Chung Gilliland, a researcher in early childhood education at the University of Leeds.

Policy-makers argue that the aim of the decree is to protect the cultural heritage of Vietnam rather than the efficacy of learning English, but Gilliland says "there is no research-based evidence to support this belief."

"International schools enroll children from different countries, and that is what makes them international. These children are also from different cultures and many do not speak English as a first language, just like the Vietnamese students. These international students are not confused in such environment and their identities are maintained and celebrated by the whole international community. So why then would this be a problem for Vietnamese students?

"Does this mean Vietnamese children are more vulnerable than other children around the world in this matter? Such a hypothesis is not scientific and it seems to underestimate the Vietnamese children's ability to simultaneously deal with and to make sense of multiple languages and cultures."

Pre-school's the time

There is a prevailing view that the debate should be around efficacy and not identity as the ban will limit the chances of children younger than five years to study foreign languages better.

According to Dr Harry Chugani, an American pediatric neurologist, foreign language teaching should begin when children are in pre-school, when teachers can maximize a child's willingness and ability to learn.

Many studies have found that the foundation for thinking and language aptitudes and other characteristics are laid down within the first 10 years. It is also during this period that a child will lose the ability to speak in languages that he or she does not hear. In the first 12 years the brain is a super sponge and once the development is complete, the window closes and any further learning has to be gained through long and hard traditional learning.

Nguyen Ha Giang, director of Little Star, a Hanoi-based English center for children, pointed to Swedish nurseries as a success story in foreign language learning during pre-school years.

"When I studied in Sweden, I was so amazed seeing many 3-year-olds speak three languages fluently. The languages had been learned through stimulation and play before the children were able to read," Giang recalled.

"Everybody knows that Sweden has one of the highest literacy rates in the world," she added.

Research carried out at multicultural countries such as the US and European nations show that learning a second language at an early age enhances young children's overall mental development. This results in increased language skills, higher self-esteem, thinking and reasoning skills, mathematics ability, reading and a better cultural understanding.

"My son did not speak English exactly like native speakers," Duc Tri's mother recalled, "but he had the natural confidence because he learned the language full-time from such a young age. He was not afraid to make errors. The language just flowed."

Parents and educators are worried that the ban on early childhood bilingual education might obscure the challenge of how a society must educate its children, regardless of its merits.

"A good education system should account both for the children's right to maintain their language, and their right to a quality education that will provide them opportunities.

"Has the Vietnamese education system ever managed to provide young people with adequate English skills to enter the marketplace and get jobs or does it keep them locked in lower economic positions without opportunities to advance?" asked Pham Nhat Nam, father of a first grader at the Singapore International School Kinderworld.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the director of an international kindergarten in Hanoi said Vietnamese children should be given an equal opportunity like other international children if their families can afford it financially. 

The decree "somehow violates" the parents' basic right to choose the form and place of education for their children, the director said.

Fair and square?

The decree only targets schools with 100 percent foreign investment or joint ventures with foreign partners, not Vietnamese-owned international schools, which could be unfair and challengeable under the nation's WTO commitments, said a lawyer who did not want to be named.

Other parents and researchers said authorities should find ways to improve the standard of Vietnamese schools to meet international standards, and it is up to parents to choose where they would like to send their children to study.

The director of Hanoi International Kindergarten said it is unnecessary to specify the percentage of Vietnamese children at international schools because they would restrict the number anyway to "build and maintain their own reputation."

"If 50 percent of the children in a school are Vietnamese"¦, will we still attract expat families if the ratio per nationality is overlooked by us?" she asked.

Her school has a policy of having not more than three children of nationalities other than native English speakers in each class, she said.

"Suppose it was up to us to decide how many Vietnamese children we could have, we don't think we would allow more than two children per class anyway," she said.

"It is a tough market and if we fail to make ourselves look competitive, we won't survive. It's simple as that!"

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