Many Vietnamese students face the common problem that although they spent six or seven years studying English at school, they can't pronounce an English sentence correctly, and they are not confident enough to communicate in the language.
Nguyen Duy, a former student at Nguyen Trai High School in Ha Noi, says he struggles to speak in English, even though he studied the language from sixth to 12th grade.
"I also studied English at a language centre, but I still found it hard to complete the intermediate course. Now I'm a university student, but the language is like my nemesis," he says.
Duy is not alone. Many young students only learn enough English to pass examinations, when in reality, they need to be able to communicate.
Wealthy families can afford to send their children to expensive centres with foreign teachers, but most students are still afraid to learn English.
Some students understand English grammar very well, and even score high marks in examinations, but their communication skills are very poor and they are often too shy to even attempt to strike up a conversation.
Phan Ngoc Linh, an eighth grade student, says: "I like learning English and my scores are high, but when my friends and I joined an English club, I found that I was too shy to speak in front of other people."
She explained that Vietnamese students are often shy, and afraid that if they make a mistake, others will laugh at them, so they try to avoid speaking English in front of others.
Luu Danh Hien, an English teacher, says students in Viet Nam often learn English following traditional methods, so they are very passive.
"They have no environment for communication. That's why their listening and speaking skills are poor and the students become frustrated by this," he says.
Actually, in English curricula, there are lessons that use tapes and CDs to practise listening and speaking skills, but school resources and the habits of individual teachers mean they are rarely used, especially in rural areas. Students mostly copy the way their teachers speak, but many teachers mispronounce the words themselves.
According to Pham Thanh Huong, an English university lecturer, schools and universities mostly focus on grammar, and don't spend enough time focusing on the four basic skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
"Students mostly study grammar and are tested on it in examinations. This is a very passive method of teaching, and students are unable to develop rapid reactions to use when they are communicating.
"Textbooks should include practical scenarios that students can use in real life, otherwise everything they learn will be washed away and students will remember nothing," she says.
Talking about the importance of studying a foreign language, Associate Professor Nguyen Vu Luong, principal of the Specific High School of the Natural Science College (under Ha Noi National University) says recently, his school sent a group of teachers to see how they did things differently in Singapore.
"Their education system has left us far behind in terms of infrastructure, working manner, discipline and curricula. Especially, their English competence is much higher," he says.
"I noticed that students from other countries can listen, speak and read English materials very fluently," he adds.
The Ministry of Education and Training has set a target of boosting foreign language teaching in high schools. At the start of the 2011-12 academic year, students at specific schools will have to study mathematics and information technology in English.
Luong's school has been preparing for this for the past two years by organising seminars and designing lesson plans in English.
Experts advise that students should not think too much about how they will sound and should not be afraid of making a mistake. Taking part in English speaking clubs is also an effective way to practise listening and speaking, along with summer camps for high school students.
"I attended a 10-day summer camp in Singapore last year. Although it was short, I took part in many useful activities, and had the chance to speak English with friends from Pakistan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia," says Nguyen Huong Thao, a ninth grade student from the Trung Vuong Junior Secondary School.
"At home, I was afraid to speak English, but at the camp, my confidence grew, and it just seemed natural," she explains.
Nguyen Minh Yen, an adviser from the Language Link English centre says that they organise summer camps for primary school students in nearby countries that have a similar culture, like Malaysia and Singapore, so the children can adapt to an English speaking environment gradually.
"This is to prepare for the next step. When they have grown up we may help them to go further afield, to the UK, the US or Australia," she says.
According to Tran Ha My, a team leader, the children gain confidence and self reliance, and are happy at the camps.
"In a friendly environment, their English competence also increases," she says.
I believe that a suitable, friendly environment for them to speak is a must.
If they don't often mix with native speakers, they should join an English speaking club, where the organisers sometimes invite native speakers to come for talks with them.
Learning theory attached with practise, patience and knowing how to nurture a desire to study English are the necessary elements for a student to be successful.
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