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U.S. Gains Foothold in Vietnam as Country Embraces English

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In another of its ongoing breaks from the past, Vietnam has chosen English over French and Russian as the favored foreign language for students to learn and has turned to its former ideological enemies in the West to help redesign the educational curriculum.

Vietnam is already phasing out English-language textbooks written by Russian advisors in the mid-1980s. They trumpet Sputnik and the World Festival of Youth in Moscow, and are full of such “misspeak” as “I am having a temperature” and “My car runs away"--explaining in part why many of the 35,000 teachers of English in Vietnam can’t really speak much English themselves.

The new books, to be used in grades six through 12 throughout the country, were developed by U.S. and Vietnamese educators in partnership with Vietnam’s Education Ministry and U.S. corporate sponsors. Some of the 24 sponsors, such as Coca-Cola Co., are the same firms whose billboards Communist officials painted over in 1996 in an attempt to diminish Vietnam’s growing fascination with everything Western.

“This is a very courageous decision on the government’s part and one, I think, that shows a lot of trust,” said Adrie Van Geldergen, Hanoi representative of Business Alliance for Vietnamese Education, or BAVE, the nonprofit U.S. organization overseeing a project that eventually may cost $50 million. “Can you imagine the reaction in the United States if a bunch of foreigners came in and said, ‘We’re going to modernize your education system for you’?”

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To be sure, the Education Ministry has not surrendered control. It has approved every comma and kept the texts nonpolitical. It ordered an early batch of books recalled so a reference to the South China Sea could be changed to the East Sea, reflecting a territorial dispute between China and Vietnam about the Spratly Islands, and it insisted--over some early U.S. objections--that a mention of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, a legendary national hero who fought the French and the Americans, not be deleted.

Even before the government’s February decision to use the BAVE books exclusively and its 1998 edict that all bureaucrats under age 50 would be expected to learn English, young Vietnamese by the tens of thousands had started studying the language, many of them on their own time and at their own expense. Russian, once widely spoken, fell from vogue when Moscow’s aid ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and France has had only moderate success trying to reestablish its tongue as the second language of Vietnam, even though it pays instructors to teach French.

Perhaps most significant, the broad reform of Vietnam’s education system--supported by the World Bank, Australia and Britain in addition to BAVE--includes retraining teachers. Under the new curriculum, Vietnam will move away from its traditional methodology, in which students have been expected, in the words of one educator, to “sit down, shut up and listen.” Instead, the new approach encourages student participation, independent thinking, the challenging of academic authority.

“The government is willing to admit the problem is with methodology, not just with English-language teaching,” said Psyche Kennett, director of Britain’s English Language Teacher Training Project. “Without retraining the teachers, the endeavor won’t go [forward] because teachers will subvert the new textbooks and return to traditional methods in which students play a passive role.”

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Educators point out that the curriculum overhaul could result in significant long-term changes, because its goals--learning to think on one’s feet, questioning authority, searching for independent, creative solutions--are anathema to Hanoi’s Communist government. It relies on decision by consensus, on like-minded thinking and on obedience to the wisdom of the Communist Party.

Indeed, officials at the Education Ministry will not discuss BAVE or the new curriculum with foreign correspondents. The ministry’s chairman for the BAVE project, Tran Van Nhung, cut off a scheduled interview after 30 seconds when asked what impact the new programs might have on the country’s education system.

“I’m a mathematician,” he said, “and it’s not for me to make personal judgments.”

Such reticence is not surprising in a bureaucracy where civil servants devote great energy to ensuring that they don’t make a mistake or say anything to offend superiors. But Western educators say that the ministry is genuinely excited about the pending changes and that no one questions Vietnam’s commitment--as a people or as a government--to education.

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Even the poorest families are obsessed with educating their children, though school is compulsory only through the fifth grade. It is common for college-age youths to finish their day jobs and head straight for night classes, then study at home until 1 or 2 in the morning. The government has raised the literacy rate from 88% in 1989 to 94% in 1999 and is aiming for zero illiteracy with the introduction of the new curriculum.

Western educators consider all this no small accomplishment in a country that can afford to spend only $41 a year per high school student and can pay teachers (most of whom are women) only $24 to $39 a month. By comparison, affluent towns in western Connecticut spend $7,300 annually per student and pay teachers as much as $60,000 a year. With a million new students a year entering Vietnam’s school system, the financial crisis is not likely to abate any time soon.

BAVE, with headquarters in New York City, was conceived and is directed by Barbara Stewart, a freelance journalist in Vietnam during the war. The books, featuring four Vietnamese children--Lan, Nga, Ba and Nam--who mature along with the students through six years of English-language instruction, were printed by RR Donnelly & Sons of Chicago. Macmillan serves as publishing consultant.


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