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English Language Learning in the Vietnamese Curriculum

Chapter One: Introduction

1.1. Background to the Study

English is a global language and an important means of international business transactions and trade exchange among people from different national, cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. English is the mother tongue and official language in the Inner Circle countries such as Australia, the UK and the US. It is not the native tongue but an official language at an institutional level in the Outer Circle countries such as Singapore, the Philippines and India. In the Expanding Circle countries such as China, Japan or Vietnam, English is spoken as a foreign language (Kachru, 1992). In addition to the immense contribution of the dominance of English to Inner Circle and Outer Circle countries (Hu & McKay, 2012; Phillipson, 1996; Schneider, 2011), the increasing number of people speaking English in the Expanding Circle increases its significance, making English truly a lingua franca (Dinh, 2014; Hu & McKay, 2012; S. McKay & Bokhorst-Heng, 2008). In an era of international integration, having a workforce fluent in English is a basis for social and economic development. English language education, without exception, receives great attention in Vietnam (Hoang, 2011; Lê Hùng, 2012).

1.1.1. English in Vietnam before 1986.

It is not officially recorded when English was first introduced into Vietnam (Hoang, 2011). The English language was taught during the period of French colonial rule, although it was not as prevalent as the French language. English foreign language (EFL) teaching at that time was not well documented. From reviewing the content of English textbooks by French authors of the colonial period, such as L’anglais Vivant: Classe de sixieme, L’anglais Vivant Classes de troisieme, it can be inferred that the grammar-translation method was  prevailingly used at the time (Hoang, 2011).

Later, from 1954 to 1975, with the partitioning of the country, the situation of EFL teaching and learning was different in each region according to their political direction. In South Vietnam, English was the official foreign language due to the dominant influence of the US alliance. In contrast, in North Vietnam, only some EFL classes were taught in big towns

and cities, with the goals confined only “to get to know the USA and to fight against the US invasion on the diplomatic front” (Hoang, 2011, p. 8).

After 1975, the two Vietnams were unified and the country was reconstructed with support from Russia and Eastern Bloc countries. This period saw the decline of EFL education at secondary and tertiary levels across the whole country (Hoang, 2011). Every year, only a small number of Vietnamese teachers and interpreters were sent to English speaking countries, such as Britain, Australia or New Zealand, for graduate studies in EFL teaching (Do, 1996).

1.1.2. English in Vietnam from 1986 to the present.

December 1986 was an important turning point for the country. Vietnam initiated an overall economic reform named Doi Moi,opening up the country to the outside world (Dang, Nguyen, & Le, 2013) (see section 1.6.1, pages 17-19). In line with this broad policy shift, English became the first and the main foreign language to be taught in Vietnam. Vietnamese educational reforms have introduced EFL teaching across primary to tertiary curricula (Hoa, 2011a). The rapid growth and expansion of English has been due to the growth of international businesses and trades in the new market economy, and the increasing number of foreign tourists coming to Vietnam. As English has become an international language, Vietnamese EFL learners have desired to use English as a medium of international communication (Ho Si Thang, 2011). English has been taught in schools, in universities and in booming evening language centres across the country. About fifteen years ago, English language centres experienced fast development and expansion when people of all ages attended English evening classes after daytime work or study.

Since the introduction of English into the national teaching curriculum, the quality of

English teaching and learning at primary, secondary and tertiary levels has been “problematic for recent governments of Vietnam” (Wright, 2002, p. 225).  The grammartranslation method in which “teacher and textbooks are seen as authoritative sources of knowledge” prevailed for a long time in English Language Teaching (ELT) (Jin & Cortazzi, 1998, p.102). The focus of English teaching on grammar and vocabulary positions language as an object of study rather than an effective means of communication (Maley, 1998). This traditional memory-based English teaching approach is “usually devoid of contextual meaning and takes precedence over meaningful communication” (Maley, 1998, p.105). In this context, the importance of teaching culture is not emphasised (Yen, 2000).

There were other reasons for the difficult EFL learning and teaching situation in Vietnam.

Vietnam belongs to the Expanding Circle of countries where English is a foreign language

(Kachru, 1992). In such an EFL environment, learners have few opportunities to use English outside the classroom. Besides that, limited English class hours, large class sizes and teachers’ poor language proficiency and inappropriate teaching methods all contribute to the learners’ difficulty with speaking and listening abilities (Gonen & Saglam, 2012; Hoang, 2013; Le Ha, 2004). After four years of learning English in lower secondary school, and three more years in upper secondary school, students’ language proficiency is “limited within some basic tasks such as introducing oneself or describing some simple objects in the house” (Lê Hùng, 2012, p. 2). Vietnamese learners “failed to use even common and simple sayings to communicate” (Khuong, 2015, p. 68). They may be very fluent in grammar and lexical items but show less confidence in communicating with foreigners (Nguyễn, 2003). They learnt to know about the language, not to use it in communication.

In spite of considerable efforts made by Vietnamese Government and the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) during the last few decades, English education in Vietnam has failed to meet policy makers’ and learners’ expectations (Ngoc & Iwashita, 2012). With rushed development, and without major changes and improvement in the curricula, methodology and teaching materials, English education in Vietnam has not fulfilled the main objectives of the national curriculum. The quality of EFL teaching and learning, in general, has been inadequate to meet that necessary for the socio-economic development of the country (Hoang, 2011; Lê Hùng, 2012).

1.1.3. The increasing importance of English in Vietnamese people’sperception.

Vietnamese people demonstrate their increasing recognition of the importance of English in everyday communication. Although the EFL teaching and learning situation in Vietnam is not fully satisfactory, Vietnamese people express a growing appreciation for the important status of English and support the Government’s foreign language policy. In the context of economic and cultural integration, the Vietnamese Government and their people understand that they need reforms to improve the quality of English teaching and learning. By so doing Vietnam can participate in international networks and profit fully from foreign investment (Wright, 2002). Unless employees acquire the English language needed for their work, investing companies may recruit staff from abroad and therefore diminish Vietnam’s employment and investment opportunities.

The Ministry of Education and Training (MoET), as the implementing agency of the government, recognises the need to review English pedagogy (Wright, 2002). The traditional teaching approach which emphasises the accuracy of written language and takes little account of the acquisition of fluency in spoken language is now no longer considered appropriate (Bianco, 1994). MoET is determined to “develop English language skills on a long-term strategic basis” (Huong, 2010, p. 106). Given the important role of English and the urgent need for communicative competence in language learning, the Vietnamese government and MoET have made efforts to develop solutions to improve the quality of English teaching and learning. For example, they have organised a series of international and national conferences and seminars about English language education (Lê Hùng, 2012). These efforts have also been acknowledged and reconfirmed through the decisions and decrees regarding foreign language policy issued by the government and MoET (Fry, 2009; George, 2010).

1.1.4. The National Foreign Language Project 2008-2020 (NFLP 2020).

The Prime Minister issued Decision 1400-QD-TTg for the improvement of foreign language teaching and learning in the national educational system for 2008-2020. In conjunction with this decree, MoET launched a project entitled, Reforming and Improving the Effectiveness of Teaching and Using English in Vietnam’s National Education System, 2008-2020 (Hoa, 2011b; Huong, 2010; Lê Hùng, 2012; Manh, 2012). This project’s goal is a critical and comprehensive change in English teaching and learning across the whole education system. Its specific goal is to implement a ten-year program, which introduces English as a compulsory subject from Grade 3 at primary level all the way up to tertiary education. Another main goal focuses on foreign language programs for vocational and undergraduate education, especially for non-English major students. The project has implications for the essential factors in language learning: teacher and professional development, curriculum and pedagogy revision, and textbook choice (Dang et al., 2013; Huong, 2010; Manh, 2012). Within this broad foreign language reform across the national education system, one of the significant changes is the mapping of English learners’ outcomes against the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) benchmark (Manh, 2012). As the entity in charge of the project’s implementation, MoET has issued the Common Framework of Levels of Foreign Language Proficiency, based on the CEFR:

Learning, Teaching and Assessment (NFLP, 2020) (Appendix 1). In MoET’s framework, there are six levels of English Proficiency similar to those of CEFR.  Using these six levels, the national language curriculum will be designed accordingly (Lê Hùng, 2012). By 2020, Vietnamese high school, college and university graduates are expected to achieve level B1, which means they are “able to use English to communicate confidently and be able to study and work in a multi-lingual and multi-cultural environment; thus, better enabling young Vietnamese people to contribute to the industrialisation and modernisation of the country”

(Huong, 2010, p. 106). The NFLP 2020 demonstrates the government’s strong determination to improve English education in Vietnam.

1.1.5. ELT textbooks in the Vietnamese context.

When the NFLP 2020 determined that textbook innovation was one of this strategic plan’s priorities as part of a comprehensive change in English language teaching across the whole educational system, it emphasised the important role of ELT textbooks in English education in Vietnam. ELT textbooks are often considered a major source of language knowledge and instructional tool in language classrooms (Dinh, 2014; Lê Hùng, 2012). As in many countries worldwide, textbooks represent the teaching syllabus for language teachers (Hoang, 2011). ELT textbooks support the process of English teaching and learning, and bridge the gap between the output requirements of the language course and the actual practice of language learners. The importance of ELT textbooks is thus justified as a significant aspect within the process of language education, which contributes to the transformation of society (Weninger & Kiss, 2013).

In Vietnam, adherence to ELT textbooks at secondary levels has a long history. Since English was introduced across the national curriculum, public primary and secondary schools across the country have been “compelled by law to use the set of textbooks prescribed by MoET” (VDFL, 2005, cited in Tuyet, 2011, p. 1). Experts in subject area work along with educational administrators to write the curriculum framework that determines the scope and content of these textbooks. This requirement assumes a ‘one-sizefits-all’ approach. Teachers of the same grade all over the country use the same textbooks with the same time schedule for each subject (Vietnam MoET, 2002-2010). Under this policy, the national ELT textbooks, and the locally designed three-year set of English textbooks for senior secondary and the seven-year set of English textbooks for both junior and senior secondary schools, are the backbone of English teaching and learning in schools in Vietnam (Lê Hùng, 2012).

There is a different requirement for ELT textbooks at a tertiary level. Universities and colleges have more freedom to choose ELT textbooks for their students. Language major universities may design their own language teaching materials, which are suitable for their students’ language levels and learning purposes. Non-language-major universities very often rely on commercial course books produced by international publishing houses (D. T.

Nguyen, 2007). Some popular ELT textbooks are:New Headway, New English File or American English File.

Textbooks are said to be “a major instructional tool of language teaching” and “a key way of transmitting cultural knowledge” (D. T. Nguyen, 2007, p. 3). In other words, global textbooks are a product of culture because textbook writers consciously or unconsciously disseminate the values of their own English-speaking countries in what they compose (Alptekin, 1993). In Vietnam, where English is spoken as a foreign language, students’ exposure to English and its cultures is derived mainly from ELT textbooks (Dinh, 2014). As ELT textbooks are the primary resource of English education, and teachers depend heavily on textbooks in class, ELT textbooks are the main source of cultural knowledge in English teaching and learning in Vietnamese classrooms.

Designed for the purpose of international use, global ELT textbooks introduce learners to target cultural perspectives embedded in their language input. Textbooks written by native speakers of English tend to assume that Vietnamese learners can understand the cultural bias of the English language, while those by Vietnamese writers tend to incorrectly interpret the cultural context of English expressions and texts (Thao, 1990). Those factors influence language learning. In Vietnamese university language classrooms, learners are bewildered by culture-related representations in textbooks (Nguyễn, 2003). Due to lack of cultural awareness, learners may misunderstand or misinterpret the meanings or the values of other cultures. This connects to my personal experience as a language teacher, one of the factors that initiated my determination to conduct this research.

1.2. Why Study Textbook Choice?

As a significant ambassador of another culture, ELT textbooks provide learners with linguistic knowledge which reflects a particular way of looking at the world and demonstrates both socio-cultural practices and an understanding of a society (Tahir Yaqoob & Zubair, 2012). However, “the culture-bound nature of ELT materials can present serious dilemmas in the language classroom” (Nault, 2006, p. 322). Learners may be motivated to understand more about the culture represented in the new language because understanding different cultural values enables them to become more globally mobile. It is also possible that these cultural values may be largely irrelevant, uninteresting or even confusing for learners (McKay, 2003a). Images and concepts that appear natural or harmless to the average Western reader (alcohol or pre-marital relationships) may be viewed as intrusive or demeaning by people from other backgrounds (Muslim people, for example) (Nault, 2006). Differences in cultures, if not explained, may prevent learners from realising the underlying meanings of cultural representations in textbooks and communicating successfully with others (Manh, 2012). For example, while walking under a ladder is considered bad luck or a horseshoe is good luck in English speaking cultures, these two concepts have no special meaning in Vietnamese culture.

As an English foreign language teacher at a technical university, I have experienced various situations relating to learners’ difficulties in coping with cultural representations in ELT textbooks. In foreign language learning, in order to use language properly, learners need to know not only linguistic resources to express what they want to say, but also the rules of using different speech acts. These rules provide information regarding when and for what purpose it is appropriate to use that speech act, and which expressions would be appropriate in a particular situation (M. T. T. Nguyen, 2011).  Textbooks, however, provide insufficient information necessary to communicate this proper use of language. The fear of not knowing how to react promptly in the target language can make learners come to a standstill. For example, in the book New Headway Pre-Intermediate Third Edition, the context going on a safari usually challenges my students (Soars, 2007, p. 71). They have no ideas what safari means and what they should prepare if going on a safari; consequently, they are unable to complete the assigned tasks relating to the concept. Such cultural representations are not rare in ELT textbooks. They have an influence on English teaching and learning in language classrooms. My concern about how to improve the effectiveness of cultural teaching and learning in English language instruction was one of the motivations for me to undertake this research.

Another motivation driving this research came from my recognition of the unfavourable conditions for EFL teaching and learning at technical universities. The first common characteristic among these universities is the students’ low level of foreign language exposure. Students entering these universities take the National Entrance Exams in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. In order to have better results in those subjects, students pay less attention to English learning. Despite years of learning English at secondary schools, students’ English proficiency is generally low, and there are also notable levels of variation (Can, 2008). Secondly, a majority of students at these universities come from rural areas where they have limited access to English learning (Manh, 2012). Another shared feature is the inferior status of English as a subject in an already overcrowded curriculum. EFL education at these universities usually receives limited contact hours. As a cost-cutting measure, classes are large, usually from 40 to 50 students. Exams mainly focus on grammar, reading and writing skills (Hoang, 2013). More importantly, the available textbooks and materials “are not appropriately selected and effectively utilised in teaching and learning” (Can, 2008, p. 48). Finally, monotonous teaching by overworked educators and rote learning methods do not serve communicative objectives but instead target linguistic assessments (Can, 2008). With these constraints, EFL learners frequently have difficulties with cultural representations in ELT textbooks, and this influences their intercultural competence in English learning. Being both a language teacher and ‘an insider’ researcher provided me with better insights into this context of EFL instruction in technical universities and strengthened my intention to conduct this research.

1.3. The Need for Research on Cultural Representation in ELT              Textbooks

Although the grammar-translation method has prevailed for a long time in ELT and the focus of EFL teaching has been on reading and grammar, new perspectives in ELT such as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) have been introduced in Vietnam (Lewis & McCook, 2002). The Vietnamese government and its people realise the importance of learning a language for communicative purposes in everyday communication, as opposed to just doing exercises in books or to pass written tests. Communicative and social competence in language teaching is now emphasised:

To learn a foreign language in order to use it for communicative purposes, as is now the declared aim of the Vietnamese education authorities, the learner needs to develop not only linguistic competence but also communicative and social competence in the language (Kam, 2002, p. 13).

The CLT approach puts a greater emphasis on cultural content. English is no longer viewed as isolated and decontextualised but interwoven with culture from sociocultural perspectives (Yen, 2000). As stated by language scholars, language and culture are inextricably tied together, or they are inseparable to some degree (Alptekin, 1993; Duff & Uchida, 1997). Vietnamese language teachers have started to introduce the sociolinguistic features of the new language to their learners. “These teachers have realised the importance of developing the learners’ social competence in using a language” (Thao, 1990, p. 190). In addition to enabling language learners to communicate successfully in different contexts, cultural competence also helps learners perceive communication patterns, as well as expectations and interpretations of others.  Together with the four widely accepted skills in language teaching, culture teaching is now considered the fifth important dimension in English education (Lewis & McCook, 2002).

With the spread of English as a lingua franca, English has become a globalised means of international communication. It is expected “to transcend all communal and cultural boundaries” (Dinh, 2014, p. 144). The awareness of other varieties and knowledge of multiple cultures are stressed, putting aside the traditional emphasis on the native speaker’s cultural content (Dinh, 2014). In that spirit, it is essential to examine current global ELT textbooks to see how they present cultures at different levels and how they influence intercultural communication and promote cultural diversity.

Due to the importance of ELT textbooks in English education and the worldwide adoption of the CLT approach, ample research has been done on cultural representations in English language textbooks (Asgari, 2011; Çakir, 2010; Dahmardeh, Timcheh Memar, & Timcheh Memar, 2014; García, 2005; Hermawan & Lia, 2012; Kirkgöz & Agçam, 2011; Kiss &

Weninger, 2013; Matsuda, 2002; Rajabi & Ketabi, 2012; Shah, Ahmed, & Mahmood,

2014; Shin, Eslami, & Chen, 2011; Song, 2013; Tahir Yaqoob & Zubair, 2012; Tajeddin & Teimournezhad, 2014; Yuen, 2011; Zarei & Khalessi, 2011). These studies shed light on how cultural elements are embedded in ELT textbooks in different ways; at the same time, they highlight the drawbacks of global ELT textbooks used in local contexts, which is discussed later in the literature review. However, these studies are restricted to mainly investigating the depth of cultural representations in ELT textbooks, and do not go deep into how these embedded cultural elements influence learners’ intercultural communicative competence in English learning.

In Vietnam, the importance of ELT textbooks has long been emphasised. They have been considered a primary source for both teachers and learners of English (Dinh, 2014). However, the review undertaken for this research identified an absence of research studies on ELT textbooks in Vietnam. Little has been published about cultural representations in these textbooks. Less is known about how teachers and students respond to these representations. As such, the present research has focused on examining cultural representations embedded in the current commercial ELT textbooks at technical universities in Hanoi, and explored the influence of these cultural representations on learners’ intercultural communicative competence. This research is a starting point to fill in the gap in the literature. The analysis of current technical universities’ textbooks describes foreign cultural values represented in language textbooks, which contain representations of life outside Vietnam. Based on this analysis, the research has explored the responses of teachers and students in transmitting and receiving typical cultural representations in these textbooks. Through this research, textbook writers and curriculum designers will have insights into intercultural perspectives to enhance the design and the choice of textbooks (Dinh, 2014). Language teachers may improve their strategies to help learners acquire both target language competence and intercultural competence. In turn, language learners may raise their cultural awareness in language learning, that is, “to maintain a positive attitude toward their own heritage, yet at the same time pay more respect to other cultures” (Yen, 2000, p. 7).

1.4. The Aim of the Research

This study began with a premise that culture is an inseparable component in the process of EFL teaching and learning. On the basis of previous literature, it assumed that ELT textbooks are the main source of cultural influences, as well as language knowledge, in Vietnamese ELT classrooms. From this basis, this research attempted to understand the interrelationship between what and how foreign cultures are represented, between the question of what learners know or do not know about these cultures, and their ability to negotiate meaning across languages and cultures during their learning process. This research has also attempted to understand what and how language teachers have done to assist their students in perceiving these cultural representations in order to develop their intercultural communicative competence.

This research aimed at examining the cultural content of current English textbooks at different layers using visuals and texts in the textbooks, as well as exploring the implications of these cultural representations in the in light of English as an international language (EIL). From this analysis, the research identified the conditions needed for teaching English cultural competence.  While textbooks are a widely recognised and powerful resource, textbooks writers consciously or unconsciously convey cultural content to learners. Learning the English language inevitably involves culturally bound and socially bound aspects of language learning (Yen, 2000). EFL teachers and learners must be aware of these cultural representations and address them properly.

Therefore, in order to succeed in English education, it is important for curriculum designers to choose appropriate textbooks. It is vital for EFL teachers to improve learners’ intercultural communicative competence. And it is significant for EFL learners to raise their own cultural awareness. While textbooks have the important function of providing language and cultural knowledge, EFL teachers as mediators should assist students in acquiring intercultural perspectives to achieve “true communicative competence” (Yen, 2000, p. 9). This may be possible by “allowing students to make use of their native cultural potential in order to develop their own intercultural strategies in response to their specific experience” (Buttjes & Byram, 1991, p. 6). By perceiving intercultural perspectives, learners develop positive attitudes toward their own cultures. At the same time, they pay more respect to other cultures, facilitating the learning of the language. In the end, learners are prepared to be “both global and local speakers of English and to feel at home in both international and national cultures” (Kramsch & Sullivan, 1996, p. 211). This may, to some extent, help to solve the problems that the Vietnamese government and MoET have identified and meet the demand of Vietnamese learners to learn English for international communication.

1.5. Research Questions

This study focused on exploring the issues of cultural perspectives in textbooks and the responses of language teachers and students to these cultural representations. From the findings, this research attempted to find out what conditions are needed to improve students’ intercultural competence in language learning. The core question of this project is:  How may representations of life outside Vietnam in 1st year technical university English textbooks in Hanoi influence students’ intercultural communicative competence in learning English?

To answer the research question, sub-questions for the study are identified as:

  1. What English Language Teaching textbooks are used by non-major 1st year Vietnamese university students?
  2. Why and how are these ELT textbooks chosen?
  3. To what extent is life outside Vietnam represented in these ELT textbooks?
  4. How is life outside Vietnam represented in ELT textbooks?
  5. According to teachers and students, how do representations of life outside Vietnam in these textbooks influence students’ intercultural communicative competence in learning English?

In order to have a thorough understanding of the research questions and better insights into the context of the research, readers need to be provided with information on the Vietnamese higher education system and the situation of English language education in Vietnam. The following sections discuss these contents.

1.6. Context of the Research

1.6.1. Brief history of Vietnamese foreign language policy in education.

The long tradition of Vietnamese higher education, together with Vietnamese foreign language instruction, has been influenced by different external factors exerted by other dominant cultures (Fry, 2009; Hoa & Tuan, 2007). Each change in Vietnamese foreign language instruction and higher education has reflected a shift in the social, economic and political policy of the country (Do, 1996; Pham & Fry, 2004). In its history, Vietnamese foreign language instruction and higher education have been strongly influenced by and shifted according to the dominance of three countries: China, France and Russia (Welch, 2010). The first and most abiding influence came from China with its Confucian ideas that are still present in modern time.

The influence of Chinese Confucianism

As a consequence of being ruled by China for a thousand years, from 111 BC to 938 AD,

“Vietnamese education was in Chinese and followed the Chinese model” (Wright, 2002, p.

226). After the country gained independence from China in the year 938, the influence of Chinese Confucianism on Vietnam remained strong (Hoa & Tuan, 2007). This influence was reflected in the importance of learning as well as respect for teachers, scholars and mentors (Fry, 2009; Hoa & Tuan, 2007; T. K. Q. Nguyen, 2011; Welch, 2010). Mandarin continued to be an important means for Vietnamese culture to flourish. The language was found in important works of art and literature, meaning that Confucianism remained deeply rooted in Vietnamese culture (Fry, 2009). Built in 1076, the Royal College (Quoc Tu Giam) – the oldest recorded institution of higher education in Southeast Asia – demonstrates the history of Confucianism within the country (Pham & Fry, 2004; Welch, 2010; Wright, 2002).  This institution originally provided “moral education and training to the sons of dignitaries” (Sloper & Lê, 1995, p. 43). Gradually, the Royal College became “the incubator for bureaucratic scholars” who would work for the state (T. K. Q. Nguyen, 2011,

p. 126). Every four years, male scholars from all walks of life across the country went through a civil service examination. This examination involved several rounds, with progressively more difficult levels that reduced the number of participants. Those male scholars who won regional exams would compete in the final exam organised at the Royal College. The ruling elites would be chosen from this final exam, and be assigned immediately to important positions within the state (London, 2011). Mandarin was used as the official language in formal education, including in these exams (Bianco, 1994; Hac, 1993). After a millennium of Chinese imperial rule, Mandarin was used in daily life as a means of communication and for economic transactions with the Chinese feudal system from the North (Wright, 2002).

In the 13th century, scholars developed Nom letters or “southern script” – a Vietnamese writing system largely based on Chinese characters (London, 2011, p. 8; Pham & Fry, 2004). These two writing systems were used simultaneously. Mandarin was used as the written language for law and government, while Nom script was used as the written form for Vietnamese culture. For spoken exchange, Vietnamese people used mutually comprehensible dialects (Nguyen Nhu Phong, 1995, cited in Wright, 2002). It was not until the 17th century that the Nom writing system was fully developed. However, Chinese characters continued to be used by elite bureaucrats. During this time, Vietnamese people, with the help of a French missionary, developed a “relatively simple Romanised

Vietnamese script” known as Quoc Ngu (Wright, 2002).Due to its accessibility to ordinary Vietnamese, the Quoc Ngu simplified writing system was soon officially adopted throughout the country (Pham & Fry, 2004, p. 202). The Chinese writing system was therefore used in Vietnam for seventeen centuries, making Chinese cultural influence the most abiding in Vietnamese history (Welch, 2010).

The influence of French colonialism

In 1858, the French colonial regime assumed rule in Vietnam. “The elitist modern educational system which privileged the French language” replaced the educational system influenced by Chinese feudal Confucianism (Pham & Fry, 2004, p. 203). The French educational system was designed to train a small number of Vietnamese to become functionaries in their colonial system. The higher education sector was small (Kelly, 2000; Pham & Fry, 2004; Wright, 2002). From 1919 to 1942, several faculties, which specialised in Natural Sciences, Medicine and Agriculture, were established, which later constituted the first Southeast Asian university in the modern sense: The University of Indochina (Pham &

Fry, 2004; Welch, 2010; Wright, 2002). The University also served students coming from Laos and Cambodia, as French colonies in the Indochina peninsula. As a tool of colonialism, this institution of higher education did not enjoy a real academic environment or institutional autonomy. The students did not have access to the world’s sources of scientific knowledge or technological innovations, but were trained in basic skills that were essential to the purposes of French colonialism (T. K. Q. Nguyen, 2011). Although French was made the official language, this period was still characterised by “a mixed education system with French schools, Franco-Vietnamese schools and Confucian feudalist schools and classes existing side by side” (Hac, 1991, p. 6). The official examinations for the whole educational system were administered in French by French authorities. French was required in order to “gain access to social mobility” (Do, 1996, p. 32). This demonstrated the strong links among foreign language, power and the cultural status of Vietnamese society during that time.

The history of Vietnam, during the period 1945-1954, witnessed a number of important turning points. In August 1945, the Revolution gave birth to the young Vietnam Democratic Republic. Higher education in this period was paltry despite the formation of several colleges in revolutionary areas in the North. These colleges offered essential fields of study such as Pharmacy, Medicine or Pedagogy (Fry, 2009). With the return of the French to the country after a short interval, Vietnamese higher education remained in disarray. There were only centres for higher-level teacher training in Thanh Hoa and Medicine and Pharmacy in Viet Bac (Sloper & Lê, 1995).

The partition period 1954-1975 with the influence of Russia and              the              US

The historical milestone of the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954 put an end to French neocolonialism in the Indochina peninsula, bringing the use of French as an official language of Vietnamese education to an end (T. K. Q. Nguyen, 2011). In accordance with the 1954 Geneva Treaty, Vietnam was separated into two countries under the patronage of the two military blocs. These two Vietnams followed different political orientations in line with their alliances. There were two different systems of higher education, each of which was “politically allied with a world superpower” (Hoang, 2011, p. 8). North Vietnam received assistance from the USSR and the Eastern Bloc. Therefore, the educational system was supported by the former USSR with strong influences of the Soviet model. The Russian language became the predominant foreign language taught in the educational system (Do, 1996; Pham & Fry, 2004). In South Vietnam, the US alliance promoted foreign language education “in relation to political and economic cooperation with other capitalist societies” (Do, 1996, p. 36). The US model was applied with rigorous support from American allies (Fry, 2009; T. K. Q. Nguyen, 2011). As a consequence, English became the predominant foreign language taught in secondary and higher education in South Vietnam (Wright, 2002). English gained its importance through “the availability and free supply of English textbooks and teaching equipment” (Do, 1996, p. 38), and the spread of English mass media to serve the needs of US soldiers, their allies and the local population (Hoang, 2011).

From 1954 to 1975, the country was at war, therefore most young people were expected to fight. Education was given a low priority, as all other social resources were reserved for the war. Higher education institutions had to be moved to safe areas far away in the mountains or forests. This period marked a difficult stage for the whole country in general, and a standstill in education in particular (Wright, 2002).

The influence of Soviet Communism after the 1975 reunification

After the country’s reunification in 1975, the Soviet Union maintained and strengthened its position as an important political, economic and educational ally of Vietnam. The flow of aid, material and advisors from the Eastern Bloc to Vietnam continued to increase (Wright, 2002). The two systems of education in North and South Vietnam were unified in alignment with the Soviet model in the North, which emphasised applied sciences and specialised knowledge.  During this time, there were around 70 higher education institutions in the whole country, and all of these were public (Fry, 2009; Welch, 2010). Influenced by the centrally planned economy of the government, the higher education system in Vietnam was also strongly centralised. On behalf of the State, 13 ministries were partially responsible for all public-sector institutions of higher education (See section 1.6.3, pages 25-26). Russian language became a requirement of the national teaching curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET). Thousands of language students and teachers were sent to The Soviet Union to study Russian (Do, 1996; Hoang, 2011). The Russian language spread widely across the country:

The Soviet presence in Vietnam is ubiquitous…. Bookstalls in the cities are filled with Russian language works that are inexpensive because they are heavily subsidised…. Soviet films are common fare at movie theatres throughout the country, and Soviet science and education films are used widely in the schools. Television has perhaps the greatest impact in introducing the Vietnamese to the USSR (Pike, 1987, pp. 214-217).

Having a political mission, the Russian language not only continued to maintain its importance in education and in the workplace in the North, but the language was also widely introduced into the South. Teachers of Russian from Language Departments in the North were sent to universities and colleges in the South. The higher education enrolments in English in the South witnessed a dramatic decrease during this period (Hoang, 2011). However, because English was deeply-rooted among different social classes in the South, the language was not dropped totally from the curriculum (Do, 1996). English continued to be taught in some classes in urban areas where there was a shortage of teachers of Russian.

The Doi Moi policy and the trend of international integration

The year 1986 witnessed a comprehensive political and economic reform Vietnam with the launch of an open-door policy named Doi Moi (Doi means renovation, Moi means renewal). This was pursuant to the Resolution of the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (George, 2010; Hayden & Thiep, 2007; Hoang, 2011; Lê Hùng, 2012; T. K. Q. Nguyen, 2011; Tuyet, 2011; Van Khanh & Hayden, 2010; Wright, 2002). This reform referred to “the country’s policy of opening up to the outside world, mostly in terms of foreign investment and the global market” (Huong, 2010, p. 100).  The adoption of the Doi Moi policy moved the country from bilateral to multilateral relationships across politics and the economy (D. Nguyen & Sloper, 1995; Tien, 2012; Wright, 2002). After this important landmark, Vietnam became a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, and then joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ten years later.

Vietnam changed significantly, moving from a centrally planned economy to a multi-sector commodity-based one operated by market mechanisms under state control. The implementation of the policy encouraged more foreign investment into the country and strengthened the trend of internalisation (D. Nguyen & Sloper, 1995). After years of isolation and economic stagnation, the country now showed the world its openness and willingness to integrate with international economic, political and cultural development. Instead of restricting its relations to socialist countries only, Vietnam decided to expand them to many countries, regardless of different political systems (Tien, 2012). “After ten years of liberalisation, Vietnam had developed trade relations with more than 100 countries and direct investment from more than 50 countries” (Wright, 2002, p. 239). A considerable number of English-speaking visitors came to Vietnam as tourists and business people. The country adopted a market-oriented economy, which was “a farewell to the subjective, obsolete conservatism of the past” (Do, 1996, p. 45).

In response to these changes in socioeconomic policy, the Vietnamese higher education system also adopted important reforms. Central to these reforms was higher education being transformed to “satisfy the increasingly diverse demands of various sectors of the new economy, and to prepare competent human resources for the nation’s industrialisation, modernisation and global integration” (T. K. Q. Nguyen, 2011, p. 129). The higher education system increased with a greater number and various types of institutions (See section 1.6.3, pages 27-29). Private-sector higher institutions were encouraged to establish through new Decrees and Regulations (Kelly, 2000). Thang Long University, the first nongovernment higher institution, was established on a trial basis in 1988. Following Thang

Long University, other private institutions were quickly opened, with Ho Chi Minh City Semi-Public Open University, the second private institution. These private higher institutions expanded rapidly to meet the demand for people to be trained and qualified for the employment market (George, 2010). In spite of these rapid changes, the Soviet legacy model of higher education continues to be fully reflected in the Vietnamese higher education system (Hayden & Thiep, 2007). The State has official control over the performance of all higher education institutions, even for the non-public sector. This governmental authority is implemented through various ministries, some of which have responsibilities across the system, and some others have line-management responsibilities for different universities and colleges (Hayden & Thiep, 2010; Kelly, 2000; Welch, 2010) (See section 1.6.3, pages 25-27).

In line with the country’s political, social and economic reform, English emerged as the major foreign language across the whole education system. English was introduced across teaching curricula and became one of the requirements for government bureaucrats (Do, 1996; Hoang, 2011). It turned out to be the most common means of communication in the workplace, with foreign partners from capitalist societies increasing the influx of capital investment into the country (Do, 1996; Hoa & Tuan, 2007). In response to social demand, English language education underwent significant growth during the early 1990s with private language centres mushrooming everywhere (Do, 1996; Hoa & Tuan, 2007; Pham & Fry, 2004). Of all junior secondary schools, 99,1% taught English, and English also became one of the five compulsory subjects in the national final exams (Hoa & Tuan, 2007). The Doi Moi policy in 1986 was probably the most important milestone that brought dramatic changes in the history of education in general and in foreign language education in particular.

A brief overview of important milestones throughout the history of Vietnamese education has confirmed the influence of external factors from dominating countries, particularly on foreign language instruction. Foreign language instruction has been “a barometer of social change in Vietnam” and has had an important role to play in the economic, political and cultural development of the country (Wright, 2002, p. 243). Being a small country with rich natural resources, Vietnam underwent nearly continuous control by different external invasions, long-lasting wars and separation. In regard to higher education and foreign language policy, the general tendency is to “conform to Vietnamese attitudes toward nations associated with those languages” (Gayle, 1994, p.1, cited in Do, 1996, p. 33).  From Chinese feudalism to French colonialism, from Soviet Union socialism to American capitalism, each period of higher education and foreign language instruction not only reflected the economic and political policies of Vietnam, but also profoundly changed the cultural landscape of the whole country.

1.6.2. The general Vietnamese education system.

The organisation of Vietnamese education system

As can be seen in figure 1.1, the Vietnamese education system comprises education establishments from crèche to postgraduate level, which are all placed under unified state management (Huong, 2010; Kelly, 2000).

Figure 1.1. The education system in Vietnam


Before 2015, the admission requirement for colleges and universities was a two-part process administered by MoET. Students needed to pass the Secondary Leaving Examination before being eligible for the National Entrance Examination (Kelly, 2000); MoET centrally administers this exam and the selection process is highly competitive.  A student’s admission into a university or a college is based on his/her exam performance, which may be taken in different subjects, depending on the field of study that students wish to pursue and the universities offering that subject. For example, students who wish to study engineering or architecture would take entrance exams in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, while those who want to study foreign affairs or foreign trades would undertake Mathematics, Literature and English (Kelly, 2000).

To get admission to a M.A course, which lasts for two years, a candidate should first have a relevant university degree. The duration for a doctoral degree is 3 to 4 years or more.

English at primary, lower and upper secondary levels

From the late 1980s, English was introduced nationally as a compulsory subject in the educational system. During this period, two locally designed sets of textbooks were used at lower and upper secondary schools: the 3-year set for upper secondary level and the 7-year set for both lower and upper secondary levels, each of which follows different orientations (Lê Hùng, 2012). The two sets of English textbooks were being used in parallel; but the final upper secondary exam was based on knowledge required in the 3-year set (Hoang, 2011). The level of proficiency required by the 3-year set was lower than that required by the 7-year set.

Although one of the most important objectives in every language curriculum is to develop practical communication skills, there appears to be a significant gap between rhetoric and practice in Vietnam. From the two grammar-based sets of textbooks being used, it can be inferred that the focus of EFL teaching and learning is about grammar and vocabulary and reading, and do not currently concentrate on the development of communicative skills (Can, 2008). In classrooms, teachers occasionally put into practice the desired communicative language teaching (Hoang, 2011). Traditional teaching methods are maintained with a view that learning grammar in a systematic set of rules can enable learners to use English proficiently. In each unit within the books, grammar and reading comprehension sections seem to dominate, while listening and oral skill practices are barely recognised (Hoa & Tuan, 2007; Hoang, 2011). This type of teaching and learning is maintained by both teachers and students in order to pass end-of-term exams or the National Entrance Exam, which focuses on checking language knowledge rather than language skills (Hoang, 2011, p. 16). As a result, many students can hardly use English in everyday communication (Can, 2008; Nunan, 2003). For 7-year program students, although they are expected to reach an upper-intermediate level at the end of the course, their English proficiency is generally somewhere between elementary and lower intermediate. Students from rural or disadvantaged areas who study the 3-year program have worse results. It becomes clear that these textbooks shape the way of teaching and prevent learners from using English as a means of communication.

Due to the influence of EIL and the increasing trend of using English as a means of international communication, EFL teaching and learning in Vietnam has recently tended towards the view that learners are the centre of teaching and teachers are the facilitators of the learning process (Ngoc & Iwashita, 2012). With this teaching philosophy, the two sets of local textbooks, which had been used at lower and upper secondary schools during the last two decades, turned out to be inadequate. In 2001, the Vietnamese government issued the Decree No 14/2001 TC-TTg with the aim of modernising the Vietnamese General Education Curriculum (Hoang, 2011). In the implementation of the Government’s Decree, MoET was deemed responsible for designing a new curriculum and writing new textbooks for all school subjects. As for English, in the school year 2003-2004, MoET introduced a new English curriculum into primary schools as a response to the perceived need for a more systematic English education at primary level. The curriculum emphasised the development of four language skills, with listening and speaking skills highlighted. By the end of the course, students were expected to have basic English communicative skills, which would enable them to communicate in English at school, at home and in familiar social situations.  It was hoped that students would also have a primary understanding of the country, the people and the culture of some English-speaking countries, and that this would build positive attitudes toward the English language and develop better understanding of their own culture (Hoa, 2011b). In order to achieve these aims, pupils in primary schools were required to have two 40-minute periods of English every week (Decision No. 50/2003 QDBGD&DT, dated October 2003) (Ministry of Education and Training (MoET), 2003).

According to some commentaries, in only a 3-year period with a limited number of English hours, these aims seemed to be too ambitious, if not impossible (Moon, 2009, cited in Hoa,

2011b). Perhaps MoET recognised the difficulties in implementing this initiative, as in 2008 it launched a wide-ranging new plan for education in Vietnam.

The NFLP 2008-2020 reinforced the need for a systematic English education at primary level. It implemented two programs from primary to secondary schools: the 7-year program and the 10-year program (Hoa, 2011b; Hoang, 2011; Lê Hùng, 2012). English was a compulsory subject at primary, lower and upper secondary schools with three periods a week. The NFLP 2008-2020 demonstrated the ongoing effort of Vietnamese government in developing students’ communicative competence in English learning. With this new teaching curriculum and textbooks, students at the end of upper secondary level are required to be able:

To use English as a means of communication at a certain level of proficiency in four macro skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing, and to be able to read materials at the same level of their textbook, using a dictionary

To have mastered Basic English phonetics and grammar, to have acquired the minimum of around 2500 vocabulary items of English

To attain a certain level of understanding of English and American cultures, to become aware of cross-cultural differences in order to be better overall communicators, to better inform the world of Vietnamese people, their history and culture, and to take pride in Vietnam, its language and culture (MoET, 2007).

At the time I conducted this study, the NFLP 2020 was half way through its projected operation. It may take some years in the future before the results of the project are valuated comprehensively.

1.6.3. Vietnamese higher education.

The Vietnamese government and MoET consider education, especially higher education, one of its strategic priorities in building and developing the nation (Manh, 2012, p. 101). Tertiary education is the “major means of meeting human resource needs” (Gill, 2004, p. 139), providing high quality human resources in line with socioeconomic development and the industrialisation and modernisation of the country. Only two decades after Doi Moi, the number of higher institutions increased significantly from only about 100 to 376 in 2009.

Recently from 2009 to 2011, this number reached over 400 (Manh, 2012).  


Figure 1. 2: Organisation of government management system  

(DOPI: Department of Planning and Investment; DARD: Department of Agriculture and

Rural Development; DOE: Department of Environment; DOF: Department of Fisheries)


Despite this rapid increase in institution numbers and remarkable changes in educational policy, the management system of these higher institutions strongly reflects the Soviet legacy. Government authority is implemented through ministries, some of which have power across the whole system, and others which have line-management over different higher institutions (Hayden & Thiep, 2010) (see figure 1.2 and figure 1.3). This management system might be an obstacle for any significant changes in their teaching curriculum within a long period of time. 

The role of Ministry of Education and Training and other              line              Ministries

The Ministry of Education and Training has the most “extensive system-wide responsibilities” for education in Vietnam (Hayden & Thiep, 2007, p. 19; Kelly, 2000; Van Khanh & Hayden, 2010). This includes the important responsibility of allocating enrolment quotas for each higher education institution. These enrolment quotas are applied to both overall student registration into institutions, and the number of students within each study program.

MoET controls the maximum level of tuition fees that a higher education institution may charge. The department plays a main role in preparing, administering and reporting for the National University Entrance Examination. MoET is also responsible for approving curriculum frameworks for all study programs across the higher education system. These frameworks specify objectives for each study program, knowledge requirements, curriculum components and time allocation for theory, practice and internship experience. Another important mission of MoET is responsibility for approving the appointment of Rectors within higher education institutions, by which managerial authority is decentralised (Hayden & Thiep, 2010; Kelly, 2000; Van Khanh & Hayden, 2010).

Although MoET plays a pre-eminent role, 13 other ministries and government agencies share control over all public sector higher education institutions (Kelly, 2000). Except for two National Universities in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which report directly to the Cabinet, and some key regional universities in different geographical areas reporting to the State through local governments, all public-sector universities report to the State through their ministries. This State administration is a strong evidence of the continued influence of the Soviet era. Universities were placed under the management of the ministry responsible for that sector. These higher institutions with narrow specialisation were expected to train the labour force which was required by that sector (George, 2010). For example, Hanoi Medical University was placed under the authority of the Ministry of Health, which determined the teaching curriculum as well the employment of graduates.

Figure 1.3. Diagram of the line-management education system in Vietnam


This centralised planning was thought “to reduce the cost and streamline the process of training and labor allocation” (George, 2010, p. 33). This lasted until the early 1990s, when there was an attempt to bring all public-sector universities and colleges under the administration of MoET. However, the attempt was strongly resisted by all parties concerned because of the benefits and privileges they receive from line-management (Van Khanh & Hayden, 2010). The revolution was successful only in some respects. Public sector higher education institutions remain under the direct administration of 13 ministries. Currently, these public-sector universities are subject to line-management, which report their performance to both MoET and their managing ministries (Hayden & Thiep, 2007, 2010) (See figure 1.3). It is possible that this management structure may potentially slow changes or innovations within teaching and learning.

An evident sign of change in Vietnam’s higher education after Doi Moi is the emergence and expansion of private universities and colleges (George, 2010; T. K. Q. Nguyen, 2011). The globalisation and the market economy has brought along with it a great demand for educated knowledge workers, and especially the demand for human resources who are well equipped with technology and other professional skills. In order to satisfy this demand, the government has established a flexible educational policy to mobilise diverse sources of investment for education. This policy gave birth to private higher education institutions, turning Vietnamese higher education into a mixed system of both public and private sectors. The country’s integration into the international economy through the joining of

ASEAN and AFTA (ASEAN Free Trade Area) in 1997 and WTO in 2007 called for wider acceptance of privatisation. Two particular examples of private higher institutions are the establishment of Thang Long university in 1988 in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh Open University in 1990 in Ho Chi Minh City (George, 2010). Diversification of institution types has now become a major element in the Vietnamese higher education reform, both in terms of funding and the types of higher education offered to people (Fry, 2009).

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