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UNICEF and Viet Nam’s Next Top Model Engage in Unique Partnership for Children


Promoting South-South cooperation in bilingual education

by Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong

Lao Cai province, Viet Nam, 4 May 2011 – Students of grade two in Lao Chai primary school are having their Natural Science class in the front yard. Sitting in a circle, the students attentively look at some plants that the teacher shows them and enthusiastically tell her what they know about each plant.  After the interesting discussion with the teacher about the plants, they are divided into small groups. The teacher then gives each group a locally made toy animal. The children then eagerly discuss about the animals assigned to their groups, be it a duck, a dog, a tiger or an elephant. Unlike most of their peers in Viet Nam, they are not learning in Vietnamese. They are learning in their own mother tongue – the H’mong language.

In Lao Chai, a poor commune in the northern mountainous area of Viet Nam, almost all the inhabitants are H’mong, one of 53 ethnic minority groups living in the country. While using their own language in daily communication, children also have to learn in Vietnamese as it is the official language for instruction in school. This has made it difficult for many H’mong children to understand the teacher and fully engage in learning. As a result, the majority of the ethnic minority children in general and H’mong children in particular are underperforming at school. While the primary completion rate for Kinh majority (Vietnamese) students is 86 per cent, the rate for ethnic minority children is only 61 per cent. 

Action Research on Mother Tongue Based Bilingual Education in Viet Nam
To help children to overcome the language barrier, with support from UNICEF the Ministry of Education and Training has been undertaking Action Research on Mother Tongue Based Bilingual Education (AR MTBBE) since 2008 in three provinces of Viet Nam - Lao Cai, Gia Lai and Tra Vinh with H’Mong, Jrai and Khmer languages. The project has developed a roadmap for children to gradually transit from their mother tongue to Vietnamese so that from grade 5 onwards, students develop bilingualism to a level where they are then confident to learn in Vietnamese.

After two years of implementation, the project shows initial positive impact on the academic performance of the students. Children who participate in AR MTBBE classes perform much better in language and mathematic tests compared with those from the non-MTBBE classes.

The Action Research MTBBE Approach in Viet Nam:

  • Pre-school to Primary Grade 2: Mother tongues used as the language of instruction with Vietnamese taught as a seperate subject.
  • Grade 3 to Grade 5: Vietnamese is introduced along with mother tongues as the language of instruction

Sharing experiences in bilingual education
In common with Viet Nam, China and Malaysia are multi-ethnic countries where bilingual education is also applied for ethnic minority groups. In an effort to strengthen bilingual education in those countries, a delegation of senior officials from Chinese and Malaysian Ministries of Education paid a visit to Viet Nam to learn from the country’s experience in AR MTBBE. After various meetings with relevant departments of MOET, the delegates visited Lao Chai to learn about bilingual education first-hand.

The delegates had opportunity to visit bilingual and non-bilingual classes in kindergarten and primary schools of Lao Chai, interact with teachers, students and their parents.
“From our observation, children in the bilingual classes participate actively in the lessons. They learn with high interest and confidence. Children are eager to share what they learn with their friends”, said Ms. Naimah Binti Ishak, a senior official from the Malaysian Ministry of Education.

Teacher training is one of the important components of the project. Many pre-school and primary teachers and education managers in Lao Chai have received training on mother tongue literacy and child-centred teaching methodologies. Teachers are also trained on the creation of teaching and learning aids using local materials.
“We can see that teachers are well prepared for the class. It shows clearly with the teaching aids they prepared to share with the students” Ms. Ishak observes. “If we want to have good students, we need qualified teachers.  We can say that teachers in Lao Chai are qualified teachers”.

“I am impressed with the participatory methodology that the teachers are using in the class. Teachers show their respect to the children. This has made the children more confident and they actively participate in the learning process”, said Mr. Tang Jingwei of the Chinese Ministry of Education. “I am happy to know that UNICEF Viet Nam will continue to provide support to teacher training and improving teaching methodology. From our experience, this is very important in promoting the transition from mother tongue to the national language”, he added.

Community participation is also highlighted as a key factor for the project. Together with education experts, people from the local community have also participated in the development of the curriculum and teaching materials. “The curriculum is relevant to the local children as local people have been consulted in the development process. We also invite the parents and local experts in the community to participate in teaching children on issues related to local culture”, says Ms. Tran Thi Thoa the principal of Lao Chai primary school.

“Through the dialogue with the parents, we can see that parents are serious about their children’s education. They want a better life for their children”, says Ms. Ishak.
Local Governments at all levels also play a crucial role in promoting bilingual education. The delegates had fruitful meetings with Ms. Bui Kim Dung, Vice Chairperson of the provincial People’s Committee and Mr. Truong Kim Minh, Director of the Education Department of the province. “I am particularly impressed with the buy-in and commitment of government counterparts, teachers and the community in Lao Cai province to replicate and expand the MTBBE approach” said Mr. Victor Prasad Karunan, Deputy Representative of UNICEF Malaysia, who also participated in the visit.

“The design of the project is practical and relevant to the needs of ethnic minority children. Through our visit and observation, I think the project is not only focusing on mother- tongue language education, it actually goes beyond that. It helps to improve the way people think, respects and reinfources the local culture and fosters a common understanding among different ethnic groups”, says Mr. Tang.

Initiating partnership in bilingual education
The visit has created a great opportunity for the three countries to learn from each other concerning bilingual education. “It was an incredible learning experience for us. Notwithstanding the many challenges ahead for this approach - it has been a bold and courageous step forward - for both government and UNICEF in Viet Nam - from which Malaysia and many other countries in the region can both learn and benefit.  My colleagues from the Malaysian Ministry of Education have also expressed similar feelings and are keen to explore ways of introducing the MTBBE approach in Malaysia - especially among the indigenous communities”, says Mr. Karunan.

In supporting this visit, UNICEF hopes that Viet Nam, China and Malaysia will establish partnerships and a mechanism to further exchange ideas and experience as well as contribute to the regional network on bilingual education. “To date, the Action Research has showed positive results and we look forward to a comprehensive evaluation at the end of the programme in 2015. I would like to thank UNICEF for supporting the Action Research and also creating a linkage between Viet Nam, China and Malaysia so the three countries can learn from each experiences”, says Vice Minister Nguyen Vinh Hien of Viet Nam Ministry of Education and Training.

“Based on research studies and international experience, we know that children learn best through their mother tongues. Improving education for ethnic minority children is an effective step in overcoming existing and growing disparities”, says Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF Viet Nam Representative. “I am pleased to learn that the Action Research has helped the ethnic minority children to achieve better learning results. UNICEF will continue to support Government of Viet Nam to improve the quality of education for ethnic minority children to ensure quality, inclusive and equitable education for all children”, she concludes.



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