HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, August 22, 2011

An Education

One thing I've noticed in talking to people in the U.S. is that few really understand how the English education system works in Vietnam. The assumption seems to be that I am visiting during a "break", and will be going back in time for the start of the school year. Now, there isn't really any reason for your average American to know how schooling works over there, so allow me to enlighten you.

Most ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers in Vietnam don't work at what we would consider 'normal' schools. We work at language centers, which usually operate when primary and secondary schools do not. For example: children will go to regular Vietnamese school to learn about History, Math, Science, etc., Monday through Friday, during the day. Then, on the weekend, they will go to language centers to learn how to speak, read, and write English. Many teenagers also attend English classes on the weekend, while more advanced students will go on weeknights for communication-oriented English, or maybe for test prep classes.

Most adults and university students that want to learn English attend class on weeknights. These language centers run rolling classes year-round, so there really is no 'school year' for ESL teachers. Attendence does drop off a bit around the Lunar New Year, as well as during the summer, when the Vietnamese schools are closed, but we expect to work every month.

English classes range from 10 to 20 weeks in length; depending on both the center and the class level. Thanks to the odd hours that language centers run on, we teachers have strange schedules. Most do not work during the day, but it is common to work from 5 or 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. during the week, and then start around 8 a.m. and go into the afternoon during the weekend. These hours have skewed all our views on what the best nights are to go out on the town. Back in the West, everyone cuts loose on the weekends, but we have to be up bright and early, so Sunday through Thursday nights are huge for teachers.

Now, you're probably thinking to yourself: "It sure sounds like those students are spending an awful lot of time at school." They are. I've told my classes that American kids would simply revolt if they had to go to class every day of the week. I've met university students in Saigon that take a full course load in something like engineering or economics during the week, and then go to English class on Saturday and Sunday. There really are no days off for an English student. The amazing thing is, however, that few seem to mind it! Learning English is seen as a way to get a better job, higher pay or, most excitingly, a job in the West. Many of the best students also harbor dreams of studying abroad, usually in the U.S., UK, or Australia. Whereas we see English as simply our everyday language, they see it as the gateway to a better and more prosperous life.

I should add that there are a few schools where foreigners can work that operate during the day. Many of these offer more than just basic English classes: subjects such as social studies, math, and science are also taught. I spend a term at one such school, and it was enjoyable. However, these are usually quite expensive, and they cater towards high-achieving students. The upside is that kids at such schools are highly motivated, and usually quite adept at English. However, the vast majority of ESL teachers in Saigon work at language centers.

A lot of people also wonder how we teach English to students that don't know English yet. At the language centers, a Vietnamese teaching assistant is in the classroom with you if you have students under the age of 10 or 11. The foreigner runs the class, but the TA is there to explain the finer points of grammar or vocabulary that the students can't yet understand in English. Teaching very young children (4 or 5) can be difficult. You basically have to have the TA translate every word you say, which is tedious and time-consuming.

Luckily, by the time most students reach 11 or 12, they know enough English for you to be able to get your points through on your own, as long as you explain things simply and slowly. Now, there are some words that are simply impossible to explain. Probably the hardest one I've ever had to teach was 'sarcasm', to a class of older teens.

Sarcasm plays no role in the Vietnamese sense of humor, so I was not surprised when they asked what it meant. I explained that it is all in a person's tone of voice. I gave the example: "If someone says
'I really LOVE pizza!", that means they don't actually like it. Hear the tone and emphasis?" This was met with expressions of utter confusion. Five further minutes of rambling did nothing to clear the air, and I eventually just threw in the towel. I should've known they wouldn't understand it, since I've been sarcastic to Vietnamese friends and they've thought I was being dead serious.

These failures to communicate are relatively rare, although I always feel terrible when a student with execrable pronunciation repeats something multiple times, to no avail. Hopefully I haven't hurt too many feelings...

So, I hope that was a fairly informative post. ESL and language centers can seem confusing to people that are used to the usual 8-3, Monday through Friday schedule American students follow up until they go to college, but it's pretty simple once you look at them a little more closely. Just don't remind me of the time I had to explain condoms to class of 10 year-olds...


  1. Thank you for these posts. I'm an ESL teacher in Japan right now with plans to move to Saigon later this year (around the time you're planning to move out, natch). These sorts of writings help me get an idea of what to expect down the road.

    1. No problem, glad you find them helpful!