Teacher's Day 2022: Vietnamese Teacher Aims to Break the Language Barrier

Expats from across the world come to Vietnam, enticed by lucrative opportunities and the low cost of living. However, many still struggle with the tonal intricacies of the Vietnamese language. Fortunately, a young Vietnamese teacher is working with expats, aiming to make her homeland's language more accessible to foreign tongues.
November 19, 2022 | 10:00

For some foreigners, mastering the Vietnamese language is quite the challenge. Many are thrown by the varied tones, regional accents, and subtly-deceptive alphabet. However, learning the language is the fastest way for foreigners to establish close relationships with the locals, allowing them to gain a deeper insight on the Vietnamese way of thinking.

The Vietnamese language isn't just useful in Vietnam. There are currently seventy million people on the planet who speak Vietnamese. In the Czech Republic, Vietnamese is recognized as an one of a minority langugage, thanks in part to a thriving community. The Gin People of China are descendents of Vietnam and speak in a specific Vietnamese dialect. Last year, the VNExpress reported that Vietnamese was the 21st most popular language in the world, spoken on almost every continent.

As Vietnam gains more global prestige, so has its language. In 2021, schools in Singapore began teaching Vietnamese as a secondary language. As remains a powerhouse of ASEAN politics, the inclusion of a Vietnamese curriculum demonstrates that the island nation of Southeast Asian Vietnam to be a rising Southeast Asian power.
Teacher's Day 2022: Vietnamese Teacher Aims to Break the Language Barrier
Foreigners attempting to learn Vietnamese. Photo courtesy of Hanh Phung.

Despite all of the reasons to learn Vietnamese, many foreigners simply don't. Many expats can get by in Vietnam, evaluation skills on Google Translate or the English of the Vietnamese. For those that attempt to study Vietnamese by themselves, they are met with confusion and frustration.

Irish expat Joe Gore, having live in Hanoi for over four years, explains that even with constant study, he still makes a few mistakes when speaking Vietnamese.

"One of the most challenging aspects of Vietnamese for me is the pronunciation," says Joe. "Because Vietnamese is such a tonal language and uses a variety of accents and tones, I often find it difficult to remember which tone to use. Using the wrong tone with a word can change the meaning completely, which is a mistake I often make in daily life."

"The tones are definitely challenging. If you don't pay attention to them then your sentence might not make any sense," echoes South African expat Wouter Jordaan. "The second most challenging part for me is listening as many people speak quite fast and most phrases/questions can be spoken in many different ways."

Fortunately, these expats eventually found themselves in the classroom of Hanh Phung, a Vietnamese teacher for foreigners living in Vietnam. With a cheery and bubbly attitude, Hanh floats around the classroom offering words of praise and encouragement. Her students, all from different countries, respond to her in shaky Vietnamese. Within a few more lessons, their voices won't tremble as much as they attempt more complex Vietnamese vocabulary.

Teacher's Day 2022: Vietnamese Teachers Aim to Break the Language Barrier
Teacher Hanh Phung, ready to help foreigners in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Hanh Phung.

Hanh has been a godsend for foreigners strugging to learn Vietnamese. Yet surprisingly, her background is not in education. In an interview with the Vietnam Times, Hanh revealed she actually studied finance in Vietnam before studying buisness in Holland. However, upon returning to Vietnam she quickly found work some elite private schools.

Using her immense buisness knowledge combined with her teaching experience and familiarity of foreign cultures, Hanh opened her own Vietnamese school in 2015. Known as Let's Speak Vietnamese (LSV), Hanh's organization has left a positive impression on the expat community.

"I never knew I'd become a teacher but I became one and I have been happy since then," says Hanh.

When not teaching a class, Hanh works with her fellow teachers to make fun and engaging videos to teach Vietnamese through social media. While it's only a five-second lesson, these videos impart some important knowledge that foreigners will find useful.

Teacher's Day 2022: Vietnamese Teachers Aim to Break the Language Barrier
Teaching the nuances of Vietnamese tones. Screenshot by Glen MacDonald.

In addition to teaching the language, Hanh and her team also teaches foreigners about Vietnamese culture as well. By allowing them to understand the full scope of Vietnamese and its culture, foreigners will have more of an appreication for Vietnam itself.

Perhaps her best quality as a teacher is her ability to sympathize with foreign students.

"It is hard as I realized how much I don't know my own language," admits Hanh. "It's actually really hard to explain why we say something that way to a learner. The struggle is real! Teaching basic Vietnamese is not a problem but the more advanced the level gets, the harder it is to teach since Vietnam has too many accents and the grammar and vocabulary we use also various throughout the whole country. Theres is no standard Vietnamese, which confuses the learners a lot and creates headaches for teachers, too."

Since working with foreigners, Hanh has become more aware of some cultural differences and tries to respect everyone in the classroom. She recalls teaching a middle-aged European woman and asking her about her age in Vietnamese. When the woman refused to answer the question, Hanh pressed her again, not wanting to give up on the woman. Unfortunately, the woman screamed at Hanh, saying she didn't want to say her age.

While asking a woman about their age is related in Western cultures, in Vietnam it is an innocuous question, used to clarify pronouns. however, Hanh treats the altercation as a learning experience, allowing her to get closer with different cultures.

Teacher's Day 2022: Vietnamese Teachers Aim to Break the Language Barrier
A Vietnamese teacher teaching English teachers. Photo courtesy of Hanh Phung.

Even though her job is never easy, Hanh still loves teaching Vietnamese to foreigners.

"I'm happy that so many people want to learn Vietnamese. In fact my students taught me to be proud of my own culture and country. They motivated me to spread what I know about my culture and language to everyone out there who wants to know about Vietnam. It basically made me who I am today and I can't thank becoming a Vietnamese language teacher enough."

Her students share their teacher's enthusiasm.

"LSV lessons are easy-going yet effective," says Wouter, a current student of Hanh's school. "They aren't monotonous and you immediately practice the new structures and vocabulary you've learnt. It is very much focused on the student's participation and the teacher merely giving you the tools. My teacher absolutely understands the value of competition and games to keep you engage. Before you know it the lesson is over and you're left with a thirst for more. LSV isn't just a company that teaches you Vietnamese. It fosters a space for people to connect and share their experiences."

"I chose to learn more about Vietnamese, because I am engaged to a Vietnamese woman. And I see myself having a future here. So, learning the language is definitely the right move," explains Robert Judson, a South African expat and another one of Hanh's students. Every lesson has fresh inter active games that really grabs your attention and makes the entire learning experience quite fun. She also provides learning material, and a comprehensive guide to speaking the language, that goes beyond what is expected."

Vietnamese may be tricky but thanks to the hard work of Hanh and the LSV team, learning it isn't an impossibility.

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