HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The ESL Myth

I usually maintain a more-or-less positive outlook on this page, since there are too many crappy blogs out there that consist of nothing more than Westerners bitching about their adopted developing country. That's not what I'm here to do - if you can't find something positive to say, maybe you should just go home.

That being said, this is going to be a fairly negative post. I've been wanting to write it for a while, but I didn't feel like slamming my employer. Last week, however, I was let go in a very unprofessional way, and that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Since writing is now my primary source of income, time to let rip.

I worked for an English as a Second Language (ESL) center called VUS. One of the largest such companies in Saigon, VUS has a number of campuses scattered throughout the city. They are slick and well-presented, and at first glance pretty impressive. VUS's advertising portrays classrooms full of attentive students (But not too many students! Prospective teachers are told class sizes are small!), where English is learned in a fun, respectful atmosphere. The brightly-colored textbooks from international publishers sure look pretty, and we even have the use of projectors! And copy machines! The impression is given that students will finish their time at VUS with the ability to speak English at a conversational level. (It should be noted that VUS isn't the only place here guilty of all of this.)

The reality, however, couldn't be farther from all of this bullshit. Classes are enormous - I had a class of 8 year-olds with 26 students in it. Sure, that's small compared to a public school, where they squeeze an entire district into a 15ft by 15ft room, but it's still far too many kids. The classes with young students aren't really the problem though, since they are actually eager to be there. The biggest problems emerge when you teach teenagers.

Class sizes are still huge - 18, 20, even 24. And while 24 children can be controlled since they still have a sense of respect for the teacher, 24 14 year-olds couldn't care less about you. Classes at language centers are expensive, so most of the students taking them are pretty well off, and often disgustingly spoiled. They aren't used to being told "no", or "shut up", or "stop texting or I'll take your phone away". Another problem is that the school keeps classes together when they move to the next level, so we end up having to deal with classes where everyone is best friends with everyone else, and all they want to do is talk to each other. Actually, shout would be the more correct verb - I've documented the loudness of many people in this country before, and when a class of teenagers really gets going it sounds like a 747 crashing into an oil refinery. Only those of us with megaphones for voices can get control of a room with so much noise in it, and I certainly do not have such a vocal capability. Therefore, I usually end up talking to the 4.5 kids that are paying attention, while the rest carry on in obnoxiously nasal Vietnamese. My philosophy was always this: if they want to waste their parent's 4 million VND by ignoring me, go ahead. I'm still getting paid $17 an hour, and I'm not going to lose my voice screaming at them.

When I did want to discipline a student though, there was no effective way to do that. Telling them to shut up works (sometimes) until you look away. If you kick them out of the room they just run around the halls like morons. You can send them to the office and have their parents called, but all that does is get them slapped around a bit, and they're back to the same old crap within a week or two. If you blow up and go on an expletive-laced rampage in English it will feel good, but they won't understand a lick of it because you're talking so fast. And they will probably just laugh. Our managers always told us to focus on classroom management, but how do you maintain order when you have 20 pre-teens locked in a room for three hours on a Friday night? After they've already been in Vietnamese school for about 267 hours of the week? Would you expect anything but chaos?

Now let's get to what's actually being taught. Most of the content in the books we are given is almost useless, and completely out of context in regards to what students here know. I was once observed during a lesson that was titled 'Swap Shop'. The manager asked me what the focus of the lesson was: I said understanding the grammar and vocabulary that was being presented. She said no, the focus was the act of swapping. Um, actually, students are about as interested in the concept of swapping as they are in whether or not Greece's austerity measures will return the country to fiscal health.

Other lessons focus on people or events or places from Western culture that I've never even heard of, so you can imagine the trouble students that have been exposed to a very narrow slice of this culture (Justin Bieber, zombie movies, an obsession with money) would have in comprehending something about Leonardo da Vinci or caves in central Turkey. When they see something they don't recognize, they just turn off. So we muddle through useless books, picking up a few relevant language points, letting classes out for break 10 minutes early and returning 10 minutes late, watching videos from the BBC about leopards in Botswana without subtitles, creating an army of mediocre English-speakers that can't respond to a multi-part question but can tell you that you get a bronze for coming in 3rd at the Olympics. Just don't ask them what the Olympics are.

Much of this boils down to the fact that centers like VUS operate as a business first and a place of learning second. I realize many schools are guilty of this, but I've never seen this modus operandi so evident as I did when I worked there. The classes are huge because they simply can't say no to money. Sure, you can join that class! Might it cause problems for the teacher? Meh, who cares. Students also seem to be placed in the next level even if they can barely respond to "What's your name?" with a coherent sentence. I've had countless students in supposedly higher-level classes that couldn't make a well-structured sentence if their life depended on it and had pronunciation so awful I could barely understand a word out of their mouth. And I've had a lot of practice with understanding bad pronunciation. Why is someone that gets a 52 out of 100 on their final test allowed to move to the next level? Well, so their parents can fork over another pile of dong to the school, of course.

Ranting aside, this is actually a serious problem for Vietnam. There are some very good English speakers here, but by and large the command of the language is poor, and since the education isn't done in a relevant way it is very difficult to have a flowing, interesting conversation even with someone who has a large vocabulary. ESL is so standardized here that certain questions elicit the exact same response from everyone: for example, Vietnam is a country of 86 million people who are all "Fine, thank you," since that is the only response to "How are you?" that is taught. If people expect Vietnam to develop a population of understandable, coherent English speakers, something needs to be done to get language centers to focus on actually teaching English, instead of making money hand-over-fist. 


  1. Do you have any clue why you were let go from VUS?

  2. Yea, there is this new manager there that has ridiculously high expectations for the classes: students interested in everything, calm behavior, etc. She observed two of my teen classes that were awful and decided I wasn't up to snuff so they didn't renew my contract.

  3. I like the part about class management. I'm a TA and most of the time I try to keep my class (kids, actually) in discipline by shouting, running around to remind each one or trying to be 'scary'. My 'strategies' only work in case of young and rather well-behaved kids, but they are useless with disruptive and unmanageable kids or even teenagers. It's quite frustrating, but I just don't know how to make it better.
    And I also like your last part about the way most Vietnamese people respond to the question 'How are you?". I feel involved when I read your sharing because I used to be a TA with an ESL teacher who is from Canada. At the very beginnign of his class, he always reminds his students not to say "I'm fine. Thank you." when they are asked "How are you?". Instead, he requires them to say "I'm good/ok/alrigt." or whatever except "I'm fine."

  4. Mike, you're absolutely right about everything. I work for an "international" school in District 8 and it's so Mickey Mouse in all aspects and when I complained about certain similar aspects that you raised here I was told to just deal with it because this is Vietnam. I've recently started working for one of the big three franchise language centers here in the city and after a day with them I threatened to quit because of the same exact things you mentioned and I was given an instant dollar an hour raise.

    A lot of teacher friends just tell me to just go with the flow. This system like this culture and its views on education appears to be centered around "going with the motions" - studying and memorizing without a true purpose. I've asked many of my younger students why they learn English and they all tell me it's because their parents forced them to.

  5. Anonymous - I agree, it is almost impossible to deal with unruly teenagers, Also, good for that Canadian teacher!

    Kyle - Thanks, and good point about just "going with the flow". One of the head guys at VUS even admitted that it's all just a big system, and if you can't go along with it you're out.

  6. Im not gonna.comment as weve discussed much of this in. our somewhat daily google chats, which I enjoy.

    That being said,

    Did you not think of that Seinfeld episode about that phrase when you wrote this?

  7. This blog has been linked from a thread on Dave's ESL cafe. I would just observe that this is not really a VUS issue, it is the entire nation, the way their systems are, and our levels, there is not really a solution. I often think the best you can do is to work for a lower level organization that is clueless, but allows you to manage your own work, and then you can do things properly. Still, this does not solve the parts that they mess up with mixed levels and everything else. Where it really works best is when you have higher level students, they are pretty serious, so you can then do your best work in those rare scenarios.