One day I brought my camera to school and spent a good chunk of educationally unproductive time just letting some of my students do whatever they wanted. Some were camera shy, some were indifferent and some took the opportunity to take center stage.
When you’re not trying to teach them about gerunds, agreement or proper usage of prepositions, the kids are generally receptive, mostly happy, a little crazy, usually curious, surprisingly smart, mostly shy and secretly yearning for things they can’t even describe — or don’t even know exist. General early education in Vietnam is in its infancy, with the idea of public schooling being so new that most students haven’t even been taught the fundamentals of how to learn. Getting them to repeat simple vocabulary words is a small victory; getting them to repeat multiple sentences (or, miraculously, come up with their own) is a major coup. The worst part? Many students are taught English by non-native “English teachers” who can’t even form correct sentences themselves (thus making them even more grossly overpaid than I). Such is today’s sadly desperate state of English education in Vietnam.
Oddly enough (having been taught the fundamentals by their Vietnamese teachers), many students’ grasp on basic grammar is eerily on point (and some of the young kids are pretty precocious), leaving pronunciation and fluency as the most difficult challenges. This is due in large part to the fact that the English and Vietnamese languages are, in my mind, almost polar opposites of each other. For example: in Vietnamese, descriptors typically come after nouns (“dog black”), whereas in English they typically come before (“black dog”); English tends to emphasize the pronunciation of word endings, Vietnamese tends to drop them; Vietnamese has no plural nouns and no articles before nouns (or most any of those other pesky little words), whereas English has a grip. These are just a few of the big differences, and for many students they are unnatural and confounding obstacles.
Still, the rewards come steadily enough — when they “get it” it’s magical — and the whole experience of teaching has made me look at English (and language in general) in a whole new light.
I’m less ambitious than I was at the beginning — having set aside all my grand plans that seven months in seem totally ridiculous — and I’ve begun to resign myself to the simple (though sometimes still vexing) pleasure of just teaching what I love. It is, as with most things in life, a work in progress.