English teachers need to be culturally sensitive

VietNamNet Bridge – Teaching and learning a foreign language is not easy. 
If the teachers themselves began learning the language late in their lives, and if they learnt it from non-native speakers, the task becomes even more difficult.

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That said, language has a very specific function at the basic level – to understand what other people are saying and to have others understand what you are saying.

In this sense, a native accent is useful, but not a must.

These aspects of learning and teaching came to mind as a result of strong reactions to a video posted recently by an American teacher of English in Viet Nam.

The video, posted on YouTube, pointed out common mistakes in English pronunciation of some teachers and students at several English education centres in Ha Noi.

The American invited his parents to be part of his video, asking them to listen to the Vietnamese teachers and students speaking in English to show if they could understand what was being said.

With no previous experience of interacting with native Vietnamese speakers, the parents obviously had trouble understanding some sentences.

For instance, when a young Vietnamese teacher asks his students, “How much does it cost?,” the mother heard, “How much that is cost” and the dad heard, “How much dice cups”.

The American teacher said his aim in posting the video was to help the Vietnamese learn about weaknesses in their pronunciation, and to emphasise the significance of right pronunciation.

“You will have to experience speaking English to foreigners. That will be the time you realise you have chosen the right word, the right grammar, the right pronunciation, but your foreign friend still has the reaction, “huh?”

The video has attracted two million views, and raised a storm of controversy among the community of English teachers and students.

After the post, four English teachers featured in the video posted another video explaining their mistakes and apologizing to their students. A female teacher was in tears when she apologized for her wrong pronunciation.

The video raised the hackles of many viewers, but there were commendations and angry retorts as well.

One, called Kem Su, wrote: “Those who’ve criticized this American teacher clearly have nothing to do with their lives. Americans are famous for their straightforwardness. If you are wrong, they will point it out.”

He said the video had exposed very basic mistakes made by teachers, and questioned the wisdom of opening an institution and teaching wrong pronunciation. He blasted the centres for wasting and ruining children with “wrong education.”

Nguyen Huy Le saw it very differently. “The way he criticises others in public is not a good behaviour at all. Even if you are a foreigner, this is … unacceptable.” He noted that most of the centres were for adults without basic knowledge of English. “If your children have already spoken English well, you should take them to the centre where this American teacher is teaching.”

“Those who do not pronounce English very well can still make foreigners understand them, like people in Hong Kong or Singapore,” he said.

“Each nation has its own language. We learn English to study and communicate, not to become foreigners. I personally do not like what this American teacher has done to those teachers.”

Le and many others slammed the American for sullying the image of teachers, for using images of centres and teachers without blurring them to conceal their identity.

In response, the American teacher said his only aim was to demonstrate “a simple and fair test” of people’s pronunciation. He also said that he had not made the video to make money or draw students to the place he taught.

I think we should take his statements seriously. He had already achieved some fame for making several funny videos that have attracted millions of views, like “5 things in Viet Nam I can’t understand”, or “18 words any Vietnamese pronounces wrong”.

However, there is no denying there was some cultural insensitivity involved in his latest video. But the damage is done.

I think the Vietnamese teachers should look on this as constructive criticism and use it to improve their skills, and the American should learn to offer criticism without offending people.

Can the native English speakers pronounce our language like a native?

Just as there is Singlish, Hinglish and other forms of Indian English, Vietnamese have their own way of speaking the language, just as valid as the others. We are not Americans or British, we have our own way of speaking English, and we’ll keep improving on it.  

An Vu


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