Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bilingual education for ethnic minority children in Viet Nam

Vang Thi Thu Ha, 9, participates in the bilingual education pilot 
Vang Thi Thu Ha, a third grader at Ban Pho Primary School in Lao Cai - a poor northern mountainous province of Viet Nam, is articulating the strengths of bilingual education and a more equitable future for the nation’s ethnic minority population.

Ha’s accelerated learning in her Mong mother tongue and the more dominant Vietnamese language has become a reality thanks to a UNICEF-backed Action Research on Mother Tongue Based Bilingual Education programme.

The programme is a direct result of fruitful cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Training and is being carried out in the heavily ethnic minority populated provinces of Lai Cai in the Northern Mountainous area, Gia Lai in the Central Highlands and Tra Vinh in the Mekong Delta.

Viet Nam has an ethnically diverse society made up of many different ethnic groups who communicate in distinct languages and often live in remote and economically disadvantaged parts of the country.

However, Vietnamese is the official language of instruction at schools and this has created a “language barrier” for many ethnic minority children who cannot participate confidently in active learning and fall behind children from the majority Kinh people.  As a result, the net primary school completion rate for ethnic minority children is significantly lower than the corresponding rate for Kinh students.

In Lao Cai, where 90 per cent of the population in Ha’s commune only communicate in Mong language, the programme has entered its sixth year with the first group of children about to embark on a last year of primary school.

Ha first joined the pilot bilingual education programme when she was five years old in her last year of kindergarten. According to the pilot, Ha would mainly use Mong language from kindergarten until the third grade of primary school when the number of Vietnamese classes would increase to build up her vocabulary and allow her to fully integrate into Vietnamese language learning.

At first, Ha’s parents were skeptical. They thought learning in Vietnamese at an early age would enable her to be quickly master Viet Nam’s dominant language and excel at school. However, these concerns eased after her father visited the school and witnessed his daughter’s classmates playing, singing and learning in their native tongue. The scene was in stark contrast to the non-bilingual class next door where children were less engaged and visibly had trouble understanding the teachers.

Ha’s development continued at primary school where she has blossomed. Now in third grade, Ha is totally fluent in Vietnamese and has won first prizes in provincial learning competitions. As a “junior historian” Ha participated in a Learn exchange programme with Skycare.

“Learning in my mother tongue is great. I'm so proud to be able to speak and write the language of my parents. If my friends also have the chance to learn in their mother tongue, I think they will appreciate it. I hope that all ethnic minority children are as lucky as I am," said Ha.

Her father is now a big supporter of the programme. “I can see that students in the bilingual class study better and are more confident than those in the non-bilingual class. My daughter loves to go to school and enjoys it there very much. She also enjoys talking to us and other people in the community as she wants to develop the Mong language. I am surprised that she can now easily switch between the two languages. I hope the programme will be expanded so other children can benefit from it,” said Ha’s father.

Ha is also transforming from a learner into a “teacher”.  While her elders are fluent in Mong, few are able to write it. By showing textbooks to her family members, Ha is helping them write and have a better understanding of their native language.

The bilingual programme’s success also translated into Lao Cai authorities expanding its reach from the 2010-2011 school year with more ethnic minority children in the province now able to learn in their mother tongue and reach their full potential, while preserving their culture heritage.

While UNICEF has provided technical and financial support encompassing curriculum development, teacher training, study assessments and advocacy, the programme has also benefitted from enthusiastic support and engagement from local authorities, parents and the community. Community leaders have created favourable conditions for learning and contribute financially to improve school infrastructure and make it more child friendly. 

Besides providing bilingual textbooks and teaching materials, along with school bags the programme also helps to train teachers on bilingual education methodologies and utilization of bilingual education materials. Central level experts make regular technical field visits to the school and run regular workshops for education managers and teachers to enhance their capacity.

Meanwhile, parents closely monitor children’s learning and often join school activities. For example, parents at Ha’s school have supported teachers to develop a school museum, set up a green library and craft learning materials.

UNICEF will continue to harness this broad spectrum enthusiasm for the programme so increasing numbers of Viet Nam’s ethnic minority population can chalk up active and satisfying learning outcomes.

By Thanh Nga và Thanh Hương

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