Tinh Bien District, An Giang Province, Vietnam
A story for UNICEF's Schools For Asia education fundraising initiative
“I like to go to school because we learn to sing and dance and we learn Khmer letters,” says five-year-old Ly Thi Kim Ngoc. But from the moment her grandfather drops her off at the door of her kindergarten classroom, it is obvious that in this kindergarten class they do much more than that.
Ngoc’s teacher, the tireless Le Thi Tuyet Trang, leads the students in a seemingly endless parade of activities. They exercise, brush their teeth and wash their hands. Then they move on to drawing, singing and dancing; run around the classroom identifying letters, matching pictures and jumping over hoops laid out on the floor; they dress up and do role play, build with blocks and play traditional games.
But this kindergarten class, located in a small town in SW Vietnam less than a mile from the Cambodian border, is notable for more than its engaging, child-friendly approach to learning. It is one of two classrooms in this preschool, and one of 35 classrooms nationwide, implementing a UNICEF-supported Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) approach to improving school readiness by promoting bilingual education in the early years for children from ethnic minorities.
In recent years, Vietnam has made good overall progress in basic education. However, there are still disparities in access and attainment, especially among ethnic minority children who struggle with low rates of enrolment and completion and high rates of drop out and repetition.
Among the most significant factors contributing to their poor academic performance is the language barrier most face when they start school. Research has shown that learners’ proficiency in the language of instruction significantly affects their academic performance. However, most teachers do not use local languages in the classroom and the students have limited, or in some cases, no understanding of Vietnamese.
For eight of her ten years as a preschool teacher Trang, was no exception. She taught in the formal language of classrooms throughout the country: Vietnamese. That changed two years ago when she received UNICEF support to attend trainings in both the Khmer language and bilingual teaching methodology. “The trainings gave me a better understanding the local culture and made me more confident in the classroom,” she says. Trang also found that teaching children in their mother tongue helped them to understand the lessons better and enabled them to make good progress.
Evidence from countries around the world has shown that teaching children in their mother tongue before gradually introducing other dominant languages has significant advantages: Not only do children learn better, they are more confident and ultimately better-equipped to transfer their literacy and numeracy skills to additional languages. In addition, when compared to children who start formal education in a second or foreign language, they are less likely to experience the kind of frustration and failure that often leads children to drop out of school.
Trang’s classroom experience over the past couple of years mirrors the research: “As the teacher of the bilingual class, I have found that the children are more confident, more active and less shy compared to those who attend the normal class,” she says. “I think this is because they are learning in their mother tongue. Whether it’s a poem, a song or the script, the children learn very quickly, and they are more confident in responding to the teacher. They are not shy like those in the normal class.”
Research also notes the impact that bilingual education has on families and communities: “By including families and drawing on local cultural heritage, mother tongue-based education contributes to communities’ social and cultural well-being and fosters inclusiveness within the wider society.”
While Trang has no means by which to measure such broad effects, she notes that the parents of those in her kindergarten class “…are happy to see that their children can learn in their own language and their own script. Since we started bilingual education here, the number of children in attendance has increased significantly. They attend school regularly and we haven’t had anyone drop out.”
Ngoc lives with her grandparents and her cousins, as her parents have migrated to the city in search of work. Ngoc’s grandmother speaks only Khmer, and her grandfather speaks both Khmer and Vietnamese. They are happy that Ngoc has the opportunity to learn Khmer at school. Ngoc is too. She wants to be a teacher when she grows up, and in her grandparents she has two eager students. “When I come home I like to quiz them on the Khmer letters,” she says. Her cousin often joins in. “He’s jealous,” Ngoc’s grandfather says with a laugh, “He wishes he’d had the opportunity to learn Khmer at school too.”
The MTBBE programme provides bilingual education as part of the Government’s educational policy in areas highly populated by ethnic minorities. With funding, UNICEF will be able to support the initiative by training more teachers and providing more teaching and learning materials to MTBBE classrooms.
 Action Research on Mother Tongue-Based Bilingual Education: Improving the equity and quality of education for ethnic minority children in Viet Nam, UNICEF, 2012