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Vietnam: bridging the language divide in education

Over the last ten years, there’s been remarkable progress in getting more children into school. However, there’s increasing recognition that these children aren’t reaching the learning levels they should.

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In school but not learning

The latest estimate is that 200 million children in primary school are learning so little that they are struggling to read basic words.

There are lots of reasons why this is the case but one is the very language used at school: 221 million children worldwide are speakers of local languages that are not used for teaching.

Faced with the prospect of their children attending classes where they won’t understand what’s going on, many families elect not to send them to school at all. Many of those children who do make it to school quickly drop out, while those who stay fail their examinations and spend years repeating grades.

This situation robs children of the opportunity to master basic skills and wastes precious resources.

Solving the language problem in Vietnam

Before 2010, many children from ethnic minorities living in remote parts of Vietnam didn’t like going to school. Lessons were taught in Vietnamese, the country’s official language – but one these children didn’t speak.

However, a project designed specifically to improve these children’s quality of education has been very successful over the past three years. More children have been attending school, often arriving early to read the books in their own language now available in their new school library.

Two key features helping to bridge the language gap

First, teaching assistants who speak the children’s dialect are recruited locally to work alongside Vietnamese-speaking, state-qualified teachers, explaining lessons to students in their own  language.

Second, the project supports the production of reading material in the local language, much of it generated by the teachers and students themselves. The content of these books reflects the children’s lives and culture, making it more interesting to them.

And more broadly, the project has worked to incorporate more of the children’s culture into the education they receive.

Training was given to 6,500 teachers, along with meetings to exchange knowledge and advice. They also improved their teaching skills by producing customised learning materials.

And the results have been heartening: enrollment, retention and transitions have all improved, demonstrating that education can be used to bridge rather than reinforce the language divide.

All children have the right to read

Until we stop using traditional approaches to teaching and acknowledge that some children won’t understand the official language, whatever that may be, we won’t fully address the learning crisis in which millions of schoolchildren fail to acquire the basic skills they need to fulfil their potential.

Save the Children has been working for many years to strengthen mother tongue-based, multilingual education  and has produced various reports and detailed guidance to help schools in low- and middle-income  countries respond to children’s language needs.

Greater awareness of the ways in which language can exclude children from education together with practical action in support of mother tongue learning are fundamental to addressing the global learning crisis.

Click here to see a video of our project in Vietnam.

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