Saturday, February 26, 2011

Vietnamese Students

I don’t know if so far, we have taken the time to properly describe what Vietnamese students are like, and what it’s like to teach them.

Usually, my adult students are actually students, they are between 16 and 30 years old, with a few older ones, but it’s quite rare, maybe one or two in each class.

Vietnamese students are lovely. They’re friendly, good natured and usually happy to be alive, and happy to be in class. They enjoy playing games more than anything, apart from the odd really-serious-guy (usually a girl, actually) who wants to do grammar exercises all the time. By games I mean anything involving some sort of competition with points or fake money, the girl love to crush the boys, and the boys love to crush the girls.

Vietnamese students have cooties. Talking about the boys and girls divide, we (all the teachers, from Dan, to Dana, to Lanette, to all my teacher friends) all understood after like… 3 days on the job, that something important here: boys and girls from 8 years old to about 18 years old hate each other and will NOT mix. Before that, they’re little kids and they don’t care. After that, they’re pretty much adults and start to have boyfriends and girlfriends, so the gender mixing is no longer an issue, but between 8 and 18 years old, there is no way to mix the students without having a profoundly upset class where everyone glares at me and wants to runaway home.

I like to play on that, I must admit. This morning I picked a kid who really makes me laugh, a cheeky boy of 11 named Nam Anh, and told the class that I would divide them in two groups: boys on one side and girls + Nam Anh on the other. Lol, he looked like he was about to have a heart attack, he screamed “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!” while the other kids and I laughed our head off. Obviously I was only joking, and he knew it. But it shows you the general boy-girl feeling.

With adult classes, it’s easier. The boys and the girls are usually friendly enough to one another, unless playing language games in different teams and then they become competitive, but not hostile.

Vietnamese students are respectful of the teacher. Again, this is more obvious in adult classes, but to be honest even in kids’ classes or teenager’s classes, I can see a world of difference when I compare with the way we regarded teachers in my time as a student. Incomparable, really.

Adults are pretty much grateful to their teacher, kids have not grasped that concept yet, but they will stop talking right away at the first sign of me being annoyed. They are cute as, the kids, looking at me with their big eyes, cheering at the activities I propose, getting so much into the games they jump up and down in excitement. When they don’t stop talking and running even if I ask them to, it’s really more because of their hyperactivity than coming from a lack of respect for me.
Adults are great also, and tend to want to become friends. Half of my adult students have found me on facebook and send me random messages of love, and that’s the same with every other teacher I know.

Of course we all have classes we like a bit less, taciturn or downright boring students, and even the odd case of know-it-all annoying dude, who questions everything you say.

But usually they’re just awesome, and they love the teacher. If I ever get angry or upset, they’re mortified. I remember being mortified when I didn’t manage to enrage my teacher, that shows you how different my two worlds are.

Vietnamese students have a lot in common with one another. Discussions and debates are not the easiest task for a teacher to have their class perform, which comes from the fact that someone’s opinion will generally be representative of the entire age group’s opinion… on just about anything. The young adults cultivate their individuality as opposed to their parent’s generation’s individuality, but not so much as one-another’s individuality.

If one of my students likes a song, you can me almost sure that it’s a stylish song, and all the rest of the class will like it. If one doesn’t like an artist, the other ones don’t like him or her either (exceptions to this rule being Kpop and lady Gaga… some love, some hate.)

Same goes with what activities they like or dislike. They like going to the cinema, using facebook, listening to music and going out to drink coffee and eat ice cream with friends. Girls like shopping, boys like playing computer games. You might want to tell me that’s international, ok, it is… but try to find a whole class in your country where EVERY SINGLE boy will answer to the question ‘what do you like to do in your free time’: ‘playing computer games’.

I’ll be specific with the going out with friends business… going out with friends means: walk around the night market or drink coffee or eat street food or ice cream or go to the cinema. No house parties, no drinking beer nonsense – not for the girls, anyway, no smoking, no walking around the lake or in the park, no going on trips together or rarely, no meeting up in each other’s houses etc… A lot of these activities are considered lacking style, God knows why, I don’t know what’s so lame about walking in the park or by the lake but hey, I’m not very stylish myself ;)

General opinions-wise, it’s a bit the same. Teachers have adapted by asking questions to the class as a whole, where we usually get “YEEEES!!!” or “NOOOO” answers. A lot of us have given up altogether on healthy debates, because Vietnamese students, if they are against something, will find it extremely difficult to pretend that they are not, even for the sake of bettering their English – which after all is the only thing we are interested in providing, as teachers.

One of the teachers here, Sarah, made me pee my pants laughing when she told me a story: she organised a class debate about hashish. Not that I advocate its use or that our role as teachers should be to advocate its use, but I don’t think, with my western brain, that asking adults to impersonate doctors recommending the use of pot to their patients is a terrible thing to do. I think it’s ok. I wouldn’t tempt it myself as a teacher, because it would be impossible to put into place here, but she did it and good on her for trying. Anyway, she divided the class in two groups, “for” and “against”. The “for” group was absolutely mortified. They had to find arguments SUPPORTING the use of pot??? Might as well have asked them to find arguments to defend puppy killers – actually, that would have been tons easier around here…

She explained over and over that the students didn’t have to BELIEVE in their argument, only to try and impersonate people who did, people who didn’t view pot as an evil, like doctors or insomniacs etc…

It was tough. Group A argumented how evil pot was for twenty minutes, listing every by-the-book reason we’ve all heard before and worse.

Then group B remained silent and prostrated, and when Sarah urged them to give it a go, one of them stood up… said nothing… sat back down again… then stood up again and in a tense voice said:
“I AGREE with group A!!”. Then sat back down again.
That was the end of that debate.
I thought that was so funny, I still laugh now writing about it. If you’re not laughing, it’s probably because you’re not a teacher in Vietnam. Otherwise, you’d know, you’d really know why this is hilarious.

Let’s just say Sarah set the bar a bit high with her attempt, we usually keep debate topics a bit less controversial, because Vietnamese students have not been raised to believe evil can be good and good can be evil… they don’t see many shades of grey.

Some teachers argument that it is for us to show them that the western world thinks in shades of grey. They argue this because we train students with their English, so that they can pass their IELTS and consequently end up studying abroad. Should we show them how different from their own the thought patterns get in those western countries they want to go to, or let them figure it out on their own? I mean they’ll get to America, where the gay marriage rights hot topic is on the table (and let me tell you I completely support gay marriage) and not know what the heck is going on… I mean, gay culture here equals zero, it’s not talked about, it doesn’t exist and it’s wrong, anyway. Seriously. And what about moving to Australia and finding out that girls do drink, that a lot of couples do live together before marriage, that half of the population has a little joint here and there? What about getting to England and seeing girls go out with their mates ‘on the pull’?
Is it for us to introduce these foreign concepts to the students?

I think not, to be honest, but that’s mainly because I don’t teach IELTS and my students are usually in lower levels, where this whole ethical set of questions is irrelevant.

I feel for these other teachers, like Lindy, who teach IELTS and find themselves having to say ‘ok, your English is perfect, but please, PLEASE, do NOT say that to the examinator!” when her student said something like “obviously when I get married, I will never need to step in the kitchen ever again, it will be my wife’s duty to cook good meat for me everyday”.

There are exceptions to everything I've just said tough of course.
Nam, our best friend here, regularly organises trips with his friends and even girls join them - some have to lie to their parents and pretend it's a work thing, some tell the truth. He goes to travelers' conventions and everything. He enjoys bowling and walking in the park (yes!). My friend Phuong spends her free afternoons in book stores, which is hardly considered stylish amongst the young here, my student Tho Linh listens to hard rock and wears Metallica t-shirts, my friend Tung dresses in flamboyant colourful outfits, Chau and Van are hip-hop fans, they dance it, teach how to dance it and look like cute mini rappers... It's all relative, after all. But I mean generally speaking, these remain exceptions to the mass.

There are topics to avoid when teaching Vietnamese students: sensitive topics exist everywhere, really, and here you don’t risk anything by trying them out, but I still wouldn’t recommend it… for the good flow of the lesson if nothing else. Sex is a no-go, although if you get anywhere near it you won’t have students leaving your classroom in shock or anything, but you’ll get an uncontrollable level of blushing, giggling and hiding behind books. Why do it, then?

Politics are a complete no-go, students can’t grasp concepts they were never taught, and everything government-related is impossible to touch on. You might find students willing to tell you they hate the police or some officials are corrupted, but it costs them a lot more than what little gratification it might bring, so why do it?
I also avoid the cheating, affairs, mistresses etc… topics, for I don’t know what the general policy is on that and wouldn’t want to hurt anyone.

On the other hand, many subjects sensitive in the western world are not sensitive here: Religion is not a hot topic, it simply doesn’t exist as a debate or a stigma in any way. Some of them mention Buddha, some mention Jesus, they believe in what they believe in but they are unaware of what the concept of religion means to the western world: over and over I have to tell them what this word is, even, for they stumble on it in texts we study together, and simply don’t know what it is. They’ve never seen it before, the word ‘religion’ I mean, even within the higher levels of English.

It’s ok to call each other ‘fat’, it’s ok to point at the fat kid and call him fat, the fat kid himself laughs his head off, it’s ok to call someone ugly, rich or poor, it’s ok to ask about people’s salaries, it’s ok to say inappropriate racist remarks, that gay people must be crazy, that Thailand is a land of debauchery because men become girls… all this is ok, in the Vietnamese classrooms. No big deal. If that wasn’t clear, I don’t mean to say that it’s ok FOR ME to say those things, although it probably would be but hey, I can’t just unscrew my western head and put on my Vietnamese one on instead. I meant the STUDENTS say those things.

Vietnamese students are a bit shy: they need to get comfortable in their environment before coming out with answers to my questions. They might know a lot of vocabulary and grammar, but it’s hard for them to take it to the world and build sentences with what they know.

When left with a task involving imagination, I get very little response. I try to make them explain words they already know, so it appeals to their ability to put sentences together all on their own, and express concepts on their own, which they are not used to doing in the language learning process I mean. They know what a ‘lake’ is, for example, but when asked to explain it to me, they keep silent. They have been used to grammar exercises and generally much more controlled methods of learning like fill the blanks or multiple choice answers. Little by little, with my adult classes, I’ve built this bridge and they get more comfortable expressing concepts or explaining things. I tell them it doesn’t matter if the English is not very good, as long as they try. I ask them how they’re going to have conversations with foreigners if they don’t want to make sentences unless they are perfect? It works and the bridges are built, but only until this class gets to another teacher and I have to start all over again with a new class.

Vietnamese students cover the whole range between ‘stick together’ and ‘each for its own’. It’s funny to see how furiously they try to help the poor guy I asked a question to and can’t answer, they all whisper the answer in a frenzy that becomes so loud it seems almost ridiculous to keep whispering: obviously I can see and hear what they are doing. It makes me feel happy, this level of togetherness. They hate to see one person in trouble and will do anything in their power to help.

On the other hand, they are more than happy to snitch, with no shame at all. Especially teenagers, within friends groups I mean, will say “teacher, teacher, HE didn’t do his homework!! Punish HIM!!”. “teacher, teacher, you marked him right here but he got it wrong, please take away a point from him!!”.
It’s hilarious, as they do that to their best mates, no worries. The best mate in question doesn’t get angry, either, he just smiles good naturally. Amazing.

As teachers, we need to know our audience to be more efficient, and I think I really do, now. I’ve been teaching here for 18 months, I have taught maybe 50 adult classes, two to six hours per week for three months each class, that’s 1000 Vietnamese adult students. I think when you’ve taught 1000 students from a country, you can say you know your audience.

So, my audience is like this: Vietnamese students are pretty awesome, from the first meeting. Sweet, attentive, they listen to the teacher and laugh at my bad jokes like… every time. They are friendly, funny, extremely respectful and grateful to be taught. On the more sensitive aspects, I would say they are like one mind, and have not been taught to question what they know, much. The result is a uniformity of thought pattern and opinions which can be dealt with ok, as long as one is aware of it, and willing to adapt.


  1. Language difficulty asides, it seem to me you're asking a lot from your students in regard to their opining about sensitive matters.
    Not accounting for the Communist indoctrinations which they've had since their kindergarten days, the students in VN are just not that accustomed to airing their views about touchy subjects in a class room setting. How could they, since most of their teachers are either full fledge Communist Party cadres, or members of the Communist Youth Union?
    Among themselves and their peers however, it's a different matter. I've seen a high school girl on fb, when pressed by a police academy cadidate if she hates the Cong An, said matter of factly that she does indeed do so because a lot of them are "uneducated ruffians".

  2. Hi Robert,
    Thanks for the comment. We don't really expect anything in particular from the students and I hear what you say in terms of who educates them and what they are educated. We only intended to write how we see the students after our year and a half with them. Their reactions to certain topics are obviously for a reason; many I would assume based on the the points you outlined above.

  3. That was a really interesting analysis of classroom dynamics and cultural differences. Teaching such students sounds really rewarding. It will be interesting to see how the interactions between Thai students and their teacher compare. Good luck in your job hunting :) Suey