“[When I came to the school] I could just speak a little English,” says Jack Nguyen, a Year 12 Student at ISHCMC — American Academy. “But it was just a small amount, some common sentences. So, ‘How are you?’ and ‘What’s Your Name?’ That’s it.”
Five years later and Jack is his own success story. He achieved above U.S. grade level English in his latest MAP® standardized tests and has just been awarded a US$60,000 (VND1.34 billion) scholarship to study at the Florida Institute of Technology.
With the inauguration of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at the end of 2015, Jack and his contemporaries may well play an important role in the future of not just Vietnam but ASEAN and further afield. In 2014, AEC was collectively the third-largest economy in Asia and the seventh largest in the world. And in the ASEAN Charter of 2009 it was decreed that, “the working language of ASEAN shall be English.”
This has many implications for Vietnam — the key one is communication. While countries such as Singapore and the Philippines have English installed in their DNA, places like Vietnam do not. So how does this country rise to the challenge?
“Unless kids study English year in and year out from a young age,” says Patrick, a language teacher working in Ho Chi Minh City, “they will never quite get the grasp on the language they require. Studying twice or three times a week at a private language school is beneficial, but what they need is the environment, immersion.”
Indeed, without immersion, it’s difficult to get a fluent grasp of not just English, but any language.
The answer, naturally, is for Vietnamese families to send their kids to study at a school that not only teaches all their lessons in English, but has an English-speaking culture at the school.
One such institution is International School Saigon Pearl (ISSP). Based just off Nguyen Huu Canh in the Binh Thanh area of Ho Chi Minh City, 65 percent of the students are Vietnamese out of the 20 nationalities represented at this American elementary school for children aged 18 months to 11 years old.
Using MAP® Testing to measure academic progress, the school can show that over 60 percent of their students are achieving above grade level English. This is compared to US standards.
Add to this library specialist lessons and an English as an Additional Language (EAL) Program for non-native speakers, and ISSP students see tremendous growth in their English skills.
“[Before I was a curriculum coordinator] I was a teacher here for two years,” says James Peter Hardy, ISSP curriculum coordinator. “One girl came into the first grade [who couldn’t speak a word], and by the end of the first year she was on level with English.”
At ISHCMC — American Academy, Jack has the same experience. At school, he says, he speaks English with his Vietnamese friends.
Like the students at ISSP, Jack’s use of his second language is affected by the culture of where he studies.
“The culture of any school is critical,” says ISSP’s James, “not just in terms of speaking English, but in terms of respecting each other, responsibility and how we’re all life-long learners at the same time. We set a level of expectation that we want the students to follow, and although it’s not a mandatory rule, they want to speak English. It’s great!”
So, will Vietnam rise to the challenge of the ASEAN Economic Community? On the communication front, over time it certainly will. One great advantage Vietnam has is a Confucian love of learning allied to a fierce desire to better oneself. Already, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese speak English to a fairly high level, and the likes of Jack and his peers are following closely in their footsteps.
Yet being a fluent English speaker doesn’t just give Jack future access to the benefits of being part of ASEAN. It also gives him access to living and studying in the US.
“If I’d stayed at public school, I think it would have been very hard [to study in America in the future]. The only thing they teach you in a public school is the language, the sentences, the grammar, but they don’t actually tell you how to speak, how you pronounce words. It’s really hard to fit into American society.” — Nick Ross