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Inequality and discrimination in Vietnam’s private sector

Examining the marginalisation of Nnests and Nests of colour.

Vietnam’s EFL industry has witnessed significant growth in recent years, fuelled by a booming private education sector and a growing demand for fresher teaching approaches. However, beneath the surface of this flourishing industry lies a troubling reality of inequality and discrimination.

The complex interplay of “nativeness,” whiteness, nationality, and unequal pay creates pervasive challenges for qualified Vietnamese English Teachers (Vets), non-native English-speaking teachers (Nnests), and teachers of colour. Drawing on anecdotal experiences from teaching in Vietnam’s private sector – prior to embarking on my MEd TESOL – I want to shine a light on discriminatory practices, and the impact they have on the employment landscape.

A historical perspective

To understand the roots of discrimination in Vietnam’s EFL private sector, it is crucial to examine the context. The introduction of private education in the late 1980s, through the country’s “Doi Moi” open-door policy, marked a significant turning point for the country. This “policy of restructuring” exposed schools to new market forces and parental preferences which eventually gave rise to discriminatory consumerism.

The remnants of Vietnam’s colonial past and cultural memory influenced by white supremacy may also have played a role in shaping biased attitudes towards foreign English teachers today.

“Students exhibited a stronger preference for Nests when it came to pronunciation, culture, and speaking, while Vets were favoured mainly for teaching grammar and providing feedback”

Unveiling the inequality

In today’s EFL private sector, inequality is rampant, with white native Englishspeaking teachers (Nests) often enjoying preferential treatment over their Vietnamese and Nnest counterparts. Research by Ngoc (2009) revealed that students exhibited a stronger preference for Nests when it came to pronunciation, culture, and speaking, while Vets were favoured mainly for teaching grammar and providing feedback. These preferences align with the demand for Nests to bring a communicative language teaching approach, replacing the traditional grammar translation method employed by Vets.

Additionally, Vietnam’s preference for Nests extends beyond linguistic factors, often valuing cultural capital associated with whiteness. As a white English teacher, I occasionally had parents photographing me during my lessons. On the contrary, students in a lesson observed by my manager called her “chocolate” on account of her South African ethnicity. The emphasis on cultural ownership and authenticity in the industry arguably perpetuate this kind of fetishization of white teachers and further widen the inequality gap.

In a recent online article, the Gazette reported on a petition presented by the head of the Education & Training Working Group at the Vietnam Business Forum (VBF). The petition calls for “the removal of the requirement for Nnests to have a degree in English Language.” Unfortunately, progress has been slow to materialise and despite such efforts, Vietnamese law still favours false notions of “nativeness” by holding Nests to lower pedagogical standards regarding qualifications.

Currently, Nests require only a bachelor’s degree and TEFL certificate, whereas Vietnamese English teachers need two years at a Teacher Training Institute (TTI) and imported Nnests require an English language degree and proficiency certificate. As VNExpress continues to publish articles promoting nativespeakerism, I worry that public opinion and legal changes in Vietnam will be slow to evolve.

“The government can play a pivotal role by revising labour regulations and implementing policies that promote equal treatment and fair hiring practices”

Breaking down barriers

In light of these discriminatory practices, it is essential to explore strategies for fostering a fairer community of practice in Vietnam’s EFL industry. While some proposals have been put forth, they often face challenges of practicality and implementation. For instance, the suggestion to enforce identical training requirements for Nests and Nnests may encounter

a shortage of qualified Nests to meet the high demand in Vietnam. A more pragmatic approach could involve hiring underqualified Nests as language assistants or conversational English teachers with reduced salaries, capitalising on their linguistic strengths while ensuring fairness in compensation.

Raising awareness and challenging societal perceptions of Nest superiority can also play a vital role in empowering Nnests in Vietnam. Public awareness campaigns and changes in English textbooks to better reflect the global community could help dismantle racialised stereotypes and promote inclusivity. It is important to engage younger generations and, encouragingly, research indicates that Vietnamese university students are holding less discriminatory perceptions of Nnests than expected. By fostering a more inclusive educational environment, future generations of Vietnamese learners can embrace a diverse range of English accents and cultures.

“By fostering a more inclusive educational environment, future generations of Vietnamese learners can embrace a diverse range of English accents and cultures”

Finally, addressing the issue of nationality preferences is crucial to combat discrimination. Current labour laws that favour certain nationalities perpetuate inequality, undermining the principle of equal opportunities. The government can play a pivotal role by revising labour regulations and implementing policies that promote equal treatment and fair hiring practices for all EFL teachers, regardless of nationality. This could involve introducing standardised qualifications and certifications for all EFL teachers, ensuring that the hiring process is based on merit and qualifications rather than your passport or appearance.

Image courtesy of Library
William Grice
William Grice
William Grice is an Med TESOL student at the University of Exeter with a passion for education and profound belief inits transformative power. Equipped with a CELTA and practical teaching experience in Vietnam, he has honed his pedagogy, always driven by language’s ability to connect people. Committed to fostering communicative competence through an innovative approach, William seeks to empower his students, unlock their potential, and shape a brighter future through the realm of education.
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