National Foreign Language Policy: The Dream of CEFR in Vietnam From a Case Study

National Foreign Language Policy: The Dream of CEFR in Vietnam From a Case Study

Hà Thanh Thị Nguyễn (North Carolina State University, USA) and Điệp Dương (TED Conference, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4993-3.ch010
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The push for English language education has become explosive in Vietnam since the Doi Moi era. It resulted in the birth of the National Foreign Language Project 2020 in 2008 with the adoption of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) (Decision No.1400, 2008) and later the passing of the so-called “Six-level framework for foreign language proficiency in Vietnam” (Decision No.729, 2015) to standardize learning and teaching outcomes across all levels of education. This chapter examines a case study at a major state-owned university in Vietnam to take a closer look at issues related to the adoption of the CEFR in Vietnam. More specifically, the authors assess the writing skill development in first-, second-, and third-year undergraduate students and align their writing gains with the corresponding expected CEFR cut-off scores as defined by the National Project 2020. The authors will then point out the impracticality of adopting the CEFR in assessment and make recommendations on assessment-related policy-making issues for the long-term success of the National Project 2020.
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Historically, Vietnam’s national foreign language policy-making has been influenced by the nation’s economic and political relationship with other countries (Wright, 2002). Under French colonization from 1847 to 1954, French was the language of instruction at all levels of education, while Chinese was an elective subject in high school. During the Vietnam War from 1954 to 1975, Vietnam was divided into two parts: North Vietnam, which was ruled by the Communist party, taught Russian and Chinese as foreign languages, while English and French were taught as foreign languages in the American-backed South Vietnam. During the first ten years after Vietnam reunification in 1975, Russian and Chinese were the two main foreign languages, while English was not taught as a foreign language (Nguyen & Hamid, 2020).

However, the push for English language education has become explosive after Doi Moi (Renovation) – the time when Vietnam decided to adopt a market-oriented economy, and welcome foreign trade and investment from Western countries (Nguyen & Hamid, 2020). This shift made the authorities of Vietnam recognize the importance of English in cross-border communication and the need to integrate it into the regional and global economy.

Thus, lawmakers have advocated English as the main foreign language nationwide since the early 1990s. In 1994, the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) made English a mandatory subject for university students nationwide (Nguyen & Hamid, 2020). Ever since, Vietnam has continued its active engagement in the global economy that calls for more proficient users of English. English is, therefore, promoted as the main foreign language at all levels of education to improve competitive advantage for Vietnam’s workforce regionally and internationally (Foley, 2019).

Among all the national foreign language policy-making efforts, the National Foreign Language Project 2020 (and later revised as National Foreign Languages Project with a vision for the 2017-2025 period; henceforth the National Project 2020) is the most significant language policy reform of Vietnam since Doi Moi (Bui & Nguyen, 2016; Nguyen & Hamid, 2020).

Overview of the National Project 2020

National Project 2020 outlines the major strategies and goals of the foreign language sector in the national education system from 2008 to 2020. More specifically, the goal of this National Project 2020 is “By 2020, the majority of Vietnamese college and university graduates would have the ability to use foreign languages confidently at school and at work, and turn foreign languages into Vietnamese’s strength” (authors’ translation of Office of Minister, 2008). The National Project 2020 is considered Vietnam’s “most notable language reform” (Bui & Nguyen, 2016, p. 4) because it was to enable Vietnamese learners of English to be more competitive for jobs in the global and regional market (Doan & Hamid, 2019).

Along with other related policies, the National Project 2020 attempts to adopt a Western model of teaching and learning to improve English language education in Vietnam, which resulted in the adoption of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) in 2008. Vietnam was an early adopter of CEFR in national foreign language policymaking, compared to other non-English speaking countries in Asia, including Japan (2012), Thailand (2014), China (2018), and Malaysia (2013) (Foley, 2019).

The adoption aimed to build a national framework of foreign language competence to standardize learning and teaching outcomes across all levels of education (Office of Prime Minister, 2008). The fact that adoption of CEFR was introduced in a government bill signified the Vietnam government’s attempts to enhance the foreign language proficiency of its current students, and ultimately, its future workforce.

Within the scope of the National Project 2020, CEFR serves as entry and exit requirements for English language learners at all educational levels as models for curriculum design and as standards for teaching practice and assessment. It is designated as the basis for “developing foreign language curricula, textbooks, teaching plans and assessment criteria at all levels of education to ensure their continuity” (Office of Prime Minister, 2008). CEFR is an important policy mechanism that impacts the structure, function, use, and acquisition of the English language in Vietnam. With the adoption of a framework of reference that is widely in use in the European education system, the MOET believed CEFR would be successfully adopted in the Vietnam context (Nguyen, 2017).

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