It is well known that Asian learners of English have many difficulties learning English, particularly Vietnamese learners. There are many reasons why English is such a difficult language to be learned for Vietnamese but now I would like to bring up the cultural factors that act against English learning process.
Vietnamese language itself seems to be one of the main reasons for their difficulties in learning English and although it is part of Vietnamese culture I am not going to talk about it since there are plenty of articles on ESL Saigon website that analyze this matter.
The other two cultural factors that have a great impact on learning English abilities of Vietnamese are: Vietnamese do not want to make mistakes and the education system which is based on Confucian philosophy.
If I raise my hand, I answer, and I make a mistake what will others think about me? Many times students whisper the answer to other classmates but definitely nobody will raise the hand. Many times teachers face a strange situation when they ask the question and they give the answer. Many will say that Vietnamese students are shy. Alright! They might be shy, but why aren’t they shy outside the classroom? Why are they brave enough to shake hand with me and do other friendly things when we are not in the class? My conclusion is that they are not shy, they are just afraid of making mistakes because others will think bad about them. I strongly believe that making mistakes is beneficial and inevitable when learning a foreign language.
Basically, students copy teacher; this is it and nothing more. Nobody wants to have their opinions and each student is rewarded according to how well he/she is able to copy the teacher. This method might work for some subjects but it doesn’t work when learning English. There are many ways of saying the same thing and everybody tries to remember the way the teacher said it.
Teacher: Where do you live?
Student: Provide the address
Teacher: Where is your house (located)?
Student: Complete silence ...
Both questions contain well known words. They are able to answer the first question because this is what I have written on the board and they have written in their notebooks. They hear the second question for the first time so they are not able to answer.
Vietnamese society promotes agreement and harmony in any kind of group interaction, not standing out of the crowd, not being innovative or exceptional in comparison with others. Definitely, you can not be better than your teacher or have a different opinion.
At the exam (written exam, because there is no English speaking exam in Vietnamese public schools ... update: now there is one but not in all schools) the teacher expects a very accurate reproduction of teacher’s words.
I might be wrong here but I believe these cultural factors have a huge impact on Vietnamese abilities to learn English (or any other foreign language). Please do not take this short article as a criticism, it is just a fact that should be taken in consideration when teaching English for Vietnamese.