HO CHI MINH CITY — At a handful of schools across Vietnam, children from ethnic minorities are finding something rare when they enter a classroom: They understand what the teacher is saying.
The country is experimenting with bilingual education for Khmer, Hmong and Jarai students, most of whom don’t speak Vietnamese, the national language. This could offer a promising solution to some of Vietnam’s yawning socioeconomic gaps.
The pilot classes teach primary school children in their mother tongue while phasing in Vietnamese. Results already show these pupils pulling ahead of minority peers who aren’t in the program, suggesting this method could have a long-term impact on their success.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said this month that Vietnam must fix the income and other disparities that ethnic minorities face. Expanding mother-tongue-based education would go a long way toward that end.
“We see quite remarkable differences in the learning outcomes,” said Mitsue Uemura, chief of Unicef Vietnam’s education section.
In first grade, the average math score out of 100 for ethnic minorities in the experimental group was 75, compared with 61 in the control group. In second grade, the respective scores were 85 and 74.
Uemura told me that Unicef takes the strategy a step further by designing textbooks not only in the mother tongue but with cultural references that minorities identify with.
Vietnam counts 53 ethnic minorities comprising 14 percent of the population, as of the 2009 census; the remainder are Kinh. By nearly every measure, minorities lag far behind Kinh people in such areas as wealth, nutrition and infant mortality. This is true of education as well: 25 percent of Kinh make it all the way through middle school, while only 15 percent of minorities do, according to the General Statistics Office. The Hmong hold up the tail end, with nearly half of the community never attending school (compared with 3 percent of Kinh) and only 38 percent knowing how to read (compared with 96 percent of Kinh).
But the trials in bilingual learning are chipping away at barriers to equality. They’re certainly more effective than other initiatives that have been cosmetic, such as ethnic beauty pageants and festivals, or those programs that come too late for the children, like affirmative action at university.
Truong Van Mon, an anthropologist, told me that these improved communication skills would help minorities in everything from finding work and securing bank loans to signing up for health services.
“Language is important because it influences everything,” said Mon, whose business card has script in both Vietnamese and Cham, his native tongue.
Mon recalled growing up in the southern coastal town of Phan Rang, former capital of the ancient Champa empire. He struggled to learn Vietnamese, which he hadn’t encountered until going to school. Now he speaks it fluently and teaches at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, but bilingual instruction would have eased the transition.
“You’re American, right?” he asked me in Vietnamese. “I’m Vietnamese. If we take a class in English, obviously you will do better.”
Unicef hasn’t calculated the cost for Vietnam to implement its teaching method nationwide, but a Unesco report quotes an estimate from “An Introduction to Language Policy: Theory and Method,” edited by Thomas Ricento, saying such programs can add 3 percent to 4 percent to a country’s education budget. That sounds like a small investment with a big return.
Lien Hoang is a writer covering Southeast Asia.