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... while Vietnam aims high

Mall Salusbury reports on an ambitious plan to boost language learning

Vietnam’s National Foreign Languages 2020 project has set the nation an ambitious task – to have ‘the majority of youths able to use a foreign language proficiently by 2020’. In practice the vast majority of foreign language classes in the Socialist Republic’s schools are and will continue to be English.

Dr Vu Thi Tu Anh, director of the General Education Department at the ministry of education, gave an update on the Languages 2020 policy at a conference in Seoul attended by the Gazette in October. Like many South East Asian nations’ current initiatives aimed at drastically improving their English proficiency, Languages 2020 has the Asean economic community – the single market established in 2015 within a trading bloc of Asean trading nations – in mind.


English will now become a compulsory subject from the third year of state primary school, and an English teacher framework is to be developed. This includes the ‘renovation of the pre-service training curriculum for English language teachers’, says Dr Tu Anh.

There will be reforms in English language assessment too, she added. New English tests are in the pipeline that will examine all four skills, not just the reading and listening skills currently tested in the national Vsteps and Steps English exams taken by around one million high school students each year. A National Foreign Language Testing Centre will be developed, along with a range of diagnostic English tests designed to encourage development of the four skills.

For higher education, there will be an ‘open policy’ on evidence of English proficiency needed for university entry, with Toefl, Ielts, Pet and the Cambridge English CAE and FCE tests all allowed, along with the Vsteps and Steps.

There are several challenges on the road to improving Vietnam’s English fluency. Vietnam Net Bridge English language website reported back in 2008 that only 80 out of 2,000 newly arrived Ho Chi Minh City University students scored a B1 on a CEFR-linked test, while at Tay Bac University nine out of ten students scored A0, the lowest score possible. Vietnam Net attributed these low scores to ‘insufficient’ hours devoted to English on university degree courses.

Changes to teacher training – not just for English language – are also overdue. VNS news website in December 2015 quoted associate professor Tran Xuan Nhi, a former deputy minister of education, as saying as of 2014 there were too many graduates leaving Vietnam’s 120 teacher training institutes, which produced 35,000 ‘excess’ secondary and high school teachers across the country who had not yet found employment. (Professor Xuan Nhi advised the number of these institutes be cut to around thirty or forty, with more ‘highly qualified’ teacher trainers.)

In the same month Vietnam Bridge reported that a pilot project which began in 2011 for maths to be taught through the medium of English in schools across the country by 2015 had only reached thirty schools. At one of these, the Le Quy Don High School for the Gifted in Da Nang City, the maths teachers had self-taught themselves English, while some were university lecturers with limited availability. Tran Thi Anh Dao, a teacher at the school, said preparation time for a 45-minute maths lesson in English was ‘seven to ten days’. A teacher at Ha Tinh High School for the Gifted admitted on the same website their English skills were no better than the students’ skills and they had to take extra English lessons for half a year to keep up.

Hanoi will host the next British Council New Directions international conference on English language assessment in October. The Vietnam ministry of education had agreed to send answers to questions supplied by the EL Gazette, but as we went to press in mid-December 2015, they were still waiting for these to be translated and for the answers to be approved internally.