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Viet Nam: bilingual education helps ethnic minority children enjoy school

By Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong

Ksor Hiep plays the T'rung at the beginning of class. Photo: UNICEF Viet Nam\2012\Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong

Gia Lai Province, January 2013 -- Third grader Ksor Hiep plays the T’rung, a traditional music instrument made of bamboo tubes, at the beginning of class. It has been a class tradition that the student on duty play a song on the T’rung every morning while the others prepare for class. “We find it exciting to start a new day with our traditional music. We can all play the T’rung and we enjoy it very much,” says eight-year-old Hiep.

For Hiep and his friends in Ly Tu Trong primary school in Gia Lai province in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam, school is a fun place where they can learn and play in their mother tongue: Jrai.

Bilingual education for ethnic minority children

H'Truc enjoys learning in her mother tongue.  Photo: UNICEF Viet Nam\2012\Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong

In La Der, a poor commune where Hiep lives, almost all the inhabitants are Jrai, one of 53 ethnic minority groups in Viet Nam. Traditional values are embraced by the people in the community and they communicate with each other in Jrai. However, the official language of instruction at school is Vietnamese, which makes it difficult for many Jrai children to understand their teacher and fully engage in learning. As a result, the majority of the ethnic minority children in general, and Jrai children in particular, underperform at school. While the primary completion rate for the Kinh majority is 86 per cent, the rate for ethnic minority children is only 61 per cent. 

Hiep and his friends are among the first children to benefit from the Action Research on Mother Tongue-based Bilingual Education approach, which has been piloting in three provinces in Viet Nam since 2008. The project aims to help children to overcome the language barrier and be able to enjoy school and hence improve their learning achievement. With support from UNICEF, the project has developed a roadmap for children to gradually transit from their mother tongue to Vietnamese so that from grade 5 onwards, students have developed bilingualism to a level where they are confident enough to learn in Vietnamese.

After three years of implementation, the project shows an initial positive impact on the academic performance of the students. Children who participate in bilingual classes perform much better on language and mathematics tests than children in non-bilingual classes.

“I love learning in Jrai as it is my own language,” says H’Truc, a third grader. According to H’Truc's father, she is doing much better than her two elder siblings, who are learning in non-bilingual classes. “Although she is in third grade, she can read better in Vietnamese than her brother, who is now in grade five,” says H’Truc’s father. “I think my son does not fully understand the lessons, so he is not doing well at school. I wish he had the chance to learn in our language like his younger sister.”

The way forward

More than 500 children are participating in these bilingual education classes in Viet Nam. The project will continue to be refined and strengthened, based on the lessons learnt from the current experience, so that other provinces and organizations can replicate the approach. The project is also expected to contribute to the advocacy for policy change and the development of a quality mother tongue-based bilingual education programme in Viet Nam.

“We aim to ensure quality, inclusive and equitable education for all children. Being born into an ethnic minority group should no longer be a disadvantage and we need to work hard to make sure that every child has the same opportunity,” says Mitsue Uemura.



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