English Language Teaching Vol. 3, No. 2; June 2010
Use of Vietnamese in English Language Teaching in Vietnam:
Attitudes of Vietnamese University Teachers
Kieu Hang Kim Anh
College of Finance and Customs
B2/1A 385 Street, Tang Nhon Phu A Ward, District 9, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
E-mail: [email protected]
Drawing upon the literature on the history of the language teaching methods focusing on the use of L1 in L2
teaching, the debate surrounding the role of L1 in the L2 classroom in general and in the English classroom in
particular and recent studies of the issue, this article presents at its core a study that investigated the attitudes of
Vietnamese university teachers toward the use of Vietnamese in English Language Teaching (ELT) in the context
of Vietnam. A total of 12 teachers from three universities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam participated in the study.
The data was collected via questionnaire and semi-structured interview. The findings support the judicious use of
Vietnamese in some situations in ELT. The results also highlight that the use of Vietnamese is not the same in all
ELT classrooms. Instead, it should be adapted to suit the context of a specific classroom.
Keywords: Teacher attitudes, L1, L2, Vietnamese (language), English Language Teaching
At the Sixth National Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party organized in 1986, Vietnam adopted a
socialist-oriented market economy under the State management. Since then, the economic relations between
Vietnam and other countries in the region and in the world have ceaselessly expanded. Vietnam joined the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), participated in the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA),
implemented the Vietnam-US Bilateral Trade Agreement, and recently has become the 150th member of the
World Trade Organization (WTO). Accordingly, more and more investors, most of whom require English as a
means of communication, have poured capital into the country. As a result of this international integration, the
demand for a skilled labor force having good command of English has become increased and consequently,
English has been the foreign language of first choice in the country. However, the communicative competence in
English of Vietnamese workforce has not met the requirements of the employers. A large number of fresh
university graduates have not been employed by foreign enterprises because of their poor English listening and
speaking skills (Ha, 2007, p. 9).
Several studies conducted with the aim of improving the quality of teaching and learning English in Vietnam
show that “traditional pedagogy, emphasizing the acquisition of grammar and vocabulary rather than
communicative competence” (Pham, 2005, para. 2) is one of the causes of the problem. Since the early 1990s,
therefore, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has quickly become popular in Vietnam (Pham, 2005, para.
2). In accordance with the popularity of CLT in the country, it seems that the only use of English in ELT is
widely supported. However, the use of Vietnamese in the process of teaching English is common in Vietnam
(Nguyen, 2006, para. 1). These have led to controversial opinions among Vietnamese teachers on the use of
Vietnamese in ELT (Nguyen, 2006, para. 1), such as: whether Vietnamese should or should not be used in ELT
and whether the use of Vietnamese has positive or negative effects on the learning of English. This paper
especially discusses the attitudes of Vietnamese university teachers toward the use of Vietnamese in ELT in the
context of Vietnam with a view to disclose future perspectives for studies of this issue in the country.
2. History of language teaching methods focusing on L1 use in L2 teaching
A brief review of the literature related to language teaching methods shows that “the role of L1 in L2 teaching”
is “one of the most long-standing controversies in the history of language pedagogy” (Stern, 1992, p. 279). The
following glimpse in the historical sequence of the most-recognized language teaching methods will highlight
periodic changes in the role of L1 in L2 teaching.
The Grammar Translation Method derived from “the teaching of the classical languages, Latin and Greek” over
centuries (Larsen-Freeman, 1986, p. 4) is the first one to be considered here. In the early years of the nineteenth
century in Western countries, the Grammar Translation Method dominated the L2 classroom. During this period,
L2 was taught through grammar illustration, bilingual vocabulary lists and translation exercises. This method
emphasizes on the literary language since its fundamental goal is to Giúp learners be able to read literature
written in L2, not to provide them with the ability to communicate verbally in L2. According to this method, L1
is freely used as “a reference system” in the process of L2 acquisition (Stern, 1983, p. 455).
In the late of the nineteenth century, the Western world experienced a big change in the need of learning L2 as
commercial contact and travel between European nations increased more and more. People tended to learn L2
with the aim of communicating, not reading literature written in L2 as before. This led to the emergence of the
Direct Method, which pays its whole attention to the spoken language. The Direct Method is based on the belief
that L2 learning should be an imitation of L1 learning. In this light, learners should be immersed in L2 through
the use of L2 “as a means of instruction and communication in the language classroom”, and through “the
avoidance of the use of L1 and of translation as a technique” (Stern, 1983, p. 456). After its highest popularity
during the period from the late nineteenth century to the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Direct Method
began to decline because, as Brown (1994, p. 56) points out, "(it) did not take well in public education where the
constraints of budget, classroom size, time, and teacher background made such a method difficult to use."
However, the method has laid foundation upon which many of the later methods and approaches expanded and
developed. Among them are the Audiolingual Method and Communicative Approach.
The Audiolingual Method, the origin of which is found in the Army Method developed in response to the need
for Americans to learn the languages of their allies and enemies alike during World War II, aims at helping
learners “to be able to use the target language communicatively” (Larsen-Freeman, 1986, p. 43). Like the Direct
Method, the Audiolingual Method focuses on the spoken language and forbids translation at early level and the
use of the students’ native language in the classroom (Finocchiaro & Brumfit, 1983, cited in Ellis, 2003, p. 84).
Meanwhile in the Communicative Approach, which has attracted most attention from the language teaching
profession during the past five decades, the restricted use of native language is allowed where feasible and
translation may be used when learners find it essential or helpful (Finocchiaro & Brumfit, 1983, cited in Ellis,
2003, pp. 84-85).
Recently, there has been an increasing attention to the merits of the L1 use in the language classroom among the
language teaching profession. Several studies related to the role of L1 in the teaching of L2 have been carried out
around the world in order to develop post-communicative methods which consider L1 as a classroom resource.
The Functional-Translation Method by Robert Weschler, which combines “the best of traditional “grammar
translation” with the best of modern “direct, communicative” methods”, can be taken as an example (Weschler,
1997, para. 3).
3. Debate surrounding the role of L1 in the L2 classroom
3.1 Support for the monolingual approach
The support for the monolingual approach in the literature is organized around three fundamental principles.
The first principle is based on the rationale that from childhood, human beings are exposed to the surrounding
sound environment. We listen, imitate and respond to what we hear around us and then we succeed in mastering
our L1. As a result, the proponents of the monolingual approach, who believe that L2 learning follows a process
similar to L1 learning, claim that exposure is vital in the learning of L2 (Cook, 2001, p. 406). In other words,
learners of L2 should be exposed to an L2 environment as much as possible. Krashen, a pivotal advocate of the
only-L2 use in the classroom and also an expert in the field of linguistics, continues this idea, stating that
“comprehensible input is the only causative variable in second language acquisition” (1986, cited in Brown,
2000, p. 280). He means that “success in a foreign language can be attributed to input alone” (Brown, 2000, p.
Regarding the second principle, the supporters of the monolingual approach indicate that the main impediment to
L2 learning is the interference from L1 knowledge (Cook, 2001, p. 407). Krashen, (1981, p. 64) in his influential
“Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning”, suggests that L1 is a source of errors in
learners’ L2 performance. Based on research findings, he reports that “a high amount of first language influence”
is found in “situations … where translation exercises are frequent” (Krashen, 1981, p. 66).
As for the third principle, it is believed that the use of only L2 for all interactions in the L2 classroom can
proclaim the significance of L2 in satisfying learners’ communicative needs (Littlewood, 1981, cited in Cook,
2001, p. 409) and depict the usage of the target language (Pachler & Field, 2001, cited in Miles, 2004, p. 8).
In addition to the above fundamental principles, the monolingual approach believes that “the teacher who is a
native speaker is the best embodiment of the target and norm for learners” (Phillipson, 1992, p. 194). This belief
is based on the assumption that native L2 speakers possess “greater facility in demonstrating fluent,
idiomatically appropriate language, in appreciating the cultural connotations of the language, and in being the
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