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A country without a language is a country without a soul

One admirable characteristic of Vietnamese cultural identity is their first language. A national language represents the national identity of a nation, a distinctive characteristic which distinguishes nations from each other. The long-term effects of colonisation have ridden many communities of their native tongue, and unfortunately socioeconomic circumstances today have not made the task of resurrecting such languages any easier.
As an Irish citizen whose first language is English, it was refreshing to witness first hand the Vietnamese tongue being spoken so widespread. Travelling to Asia for two months has definitely reignited my love for the Gaelic language and the strong foothold it has in relation to Irish culture and identity. As the famous Gaelic seanfhocail goes “tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” which translated means a country without a language is a country without a soul.
Despite the growing number of Vietnamese citizens learning English as a second language in order to aid future job prospects, the country’s soul is still well and truly alive in the form of their first language. In relation to learning a new language, the Vietnamese educational system introduces its pupils to new language prospects from as early as the age of five. Languages such as English and French are taught during primary school then further developed during secondary school. Studies by Harvard University confirm that creativity, critical thinking skills, and flexibility of the mind are significantly enhanced if children learn a second language at a younger age. Exposing children to a second language during this pivotal stage of brain development means the likelihood of creating multilingual citizens are significantly increased.

Vietnamese society holds a high and honourable opinion towards education and learning. I experienced this first hand through my involvement with the VPV English summer classes voluntary work. Young children and adults dedicate a portion of their summer holidays towards attending these classes in order to enhance their English coherence and pronunciation. Classroom dynamics also differ in comparison to the standard Irish learning environment. ‘Nap time’ is a key component to many classroom routines and summer camp schedules in Vietnam. After participating in an Irish Culture summer camp I was amazed to witness that there was a 1 hour time slot allocated for sleeping. What was even more crazier and harder to comprehend was the fact that this summer camp, which was based in a local school, had triple decker bunk beds located at the back of the classrooms in order to allow the children to ‘snooze’ during this hour gap. The dream.
As an onlooker, I felt it was my duty to trial this sleeping routine for myself, and how glad I was that I did. After a brief nap, I woke up feeling revitalised and refreshed. There were also positive reactions from the children whose attentiveness levels increased, moody behaviours diminished and drive to participate in physical activity increased. Research has proven that short bouts of sleep can improve academic performance, concentration levels and also memory capacity. Perhaps the Irish education system could benefit from such an innovative and creative approach to learning.

Once again, the ‘fear to be wrong’ mantra suppresses the ‘confidence to try’ ideology.

One enjoyable aspect of my volunteering experience included engaging with a diverse mix of students whose ages ranged from 6 years old to 20 years old. From my interactions with these students over a two month period, I noticed that classroom interaction and engagement increased during childhood and teenage years but decreased during late adolescent years. A possible reason for this may be the “fear to be wrong” mantra where many students would rather remain silent than to hazard a guess or contribute to a discussion. Interestingly enough, in relation to children and adolescents, I noticed from my own teaching experience that female involvement in the class decreased with age. Once again, the ‘fear to be wrong’ mantra suppresses the ‘confidence to try’ ideology. Learning environments should seek to create an atmosphere of acceptance, where all ideas and suggestions can be used to build on a greater overall learning outcome. By doing this, we seek to create innovative, forward thinking students who are not bound by the unwritten rules of failure.
Obtaining a quality education is the foundation to creating sustainable development. In addition to improving the quality of life, access to inclusive education can help equip locals with the tools required to develop innovative solutions to local community based problems. Teaching English in Vietnam as a tool for future community and societal enhancement has been an eye opening, enjoyable, rewarding and insightful experience. I genuinely feel so lucky to have been part of such an amazing project and to have witnessed different aspects of a teaching and learning system which shares many similarities and differences with my own national system.

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Name: Annie Stafford
Award: Silver
SDG: 4