English Language As A Boom In Vietnam – From Colonized To Domesticated

Tran Phan


This paper is concerned with the invasion of English language to Vietnam, from the old days when it was once a colonized language to its current status as a domesticated and the most popular foreign language in Vietnam. As a start, I will focus on describing how English language in Vietnam has been so wide-spread in three particular fields: business, education, and daily life. In each field, I will analyze people’s perspective towards English language. The last part of this paper will also discuss the status and influence of the other foreign languages (French, Japanese, and Chinese), which are spoken beside English language, to provide broader view of foreign languages in use in Vietnam.



I still remember in an interview for my undergraduate study back in Vietnam 5 years ago, I had a question that asked people at multiple ages and levels why they chose English to learn as a foreign language. Their answers, although, were barely spoken with intelligible English yet totally a jumble eager; and the phrase “international language” just came out very clearly and naturally from their mouths. I found it very interesting that their responses, whether they deeply understood it or not, somehow in certain aspects, reflect their attitudes and their awareness for choosing to learn a new language to learn beside their mother tongueietnamese. Therefore, within this paper, I will focus on describing the status and roles of English language in Vietnam in three particular fields: business, education, and daily life, and at each field I will analyze people’s perspective towards this language. The last part of this paper will discuss the status and influence of the other foreign languages (French, Japanese, and Chinese), which are spoken beside English language, to provide a broader view of foreign languages in use in Vietnam.

For so long, English language and English education has  had a direct bearing on politics, economy and social affairs (Wright, 2002), since 1986, the Doi Moi – Renovation reform policy by the Communist Party has brought a wind of change to every aspect of life in Vietnam which could be seen in initiating the overall economic reform, starting the open-door policy and thus, creates a boom in the needs of using foreign languages, especially English, in the development of the country. After 20 years, nowadays, a worker with good English skills has always been the first choice of almost every employer; English is a compulsory subject in any school or institution, for any level from undergraduate to graduate in Vietnam; English is everywhere on the street, on graffiti, on the cover of any housewife’s fish-sauce bottle, or any high school girl’s T-shirt. In other words, English language has become an irresistible spread all over the country.

Started by business

In 2003, Nunan’s study of the impact of English as a Global Language on Educational Policies in the Asia-Pacific Region showed that almost every job requires a certificate in English, and even work promotion now considers English proficiency as a criterion. In the market economy, communication skill in English becomes the passport to international businesses and trade Especially after 2006, when Vietnam was officially a member of the World Trade Organization, companies in Vietnam, even private or state owned businesses, have always put English as one of their very first qualifications to recruit employees – every worker’s English proficiency must reach an intermediate level which means B level in the national scale for English proficiency, and in the past 3 years, the level has been upgraded on to a more international standard – B1 in the CEFR (The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) scale. Not just that, most companies set English as part of a compulsory test for those who seek for opportunities in job promotion or a pay rise. In addition to that, a huge amount of money is spent every year by businesses and companies just on English training courses for their workers, because the leaders,  more than anyone else, know that investment in their own workers’ English language ability does act as a gatekeeping tool for the development of their business nowadays. As for the workers, their attitude towards attending an English course in their company has positively changed from reluctant to more willing, because they realized the benefit gained from knowing another language – a well-paid job, a standout candidate for being promoted, or an opportunity to get a training course abroad.

Maintained by education

Beside the business field, English has also played a vital role in Vietnamese education. Over the past few years, the children here have had their first English lesson at a very young age, since kindergarten, which is an optional activity at most nursery schools. Parents consider this an “early investment” to help prepare their kids an amount of foreign language skills, which is a key factor to get a place in some good or prestigious primary schools later on. This trend of letting children learn English as early as possible has become ery popular today in Vietnamese society.  When children get older and enter the General Education stage, they will have English as a compulsory subject from primary school level to college/university level. The 2006 report of Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training shows that there were 67% of students at junior high school, and 86% of students at high school in Vietnam had more than three hours of English lessons every week; and in another report by Huong & Hiep (2007), non-English major students at Vietnamese universities had to study 200 hours of English during their four years at college. Moreover, in recent years, standardized tests such as TOEIC, TOEFL, IELTS, or various tests in the CEFR are widely favored and considered as a means of evaluation for graduation in universities (TOEIC test, or CEFR tests), and a selection criterion for most jobs and scholarship opportunities (CEFR tests, TOELF, and IELTS). Based on my own experience after more than 3 years teaching English at a language academy, those standardized tests are more achievable each day by students at very young ages, this possibly can be seen as a positive effect of the “early investment” mentioned above, especially, as it shows that people’s awareness and attitudes towards learning English has developed very strongly and positively.

Spread by daily life

The popularity of English language used in the daily life of Vietnamese people is another impressive progress that I want to discuss in this paper. Interestingly, on the streets from the busiest cities to the small towns of Vietnam, exposures to many signs or paintings in shops, restaurants, clothing, entertainment spots, transport, schools, markets, etc. are in English, or at least, have an English word in them. Gorter (2009), in one of his papers, called this phenomenon the “linguistic landscape”. In Vietnam, especially, this carries a very important message that the “linguistic landscape” has become part of urban scenery, on the other hand, it also comes very naturally that Vietnamese people accept the appearance of English as their interest and part of their daily lives. It is no longer a strange thing for tourists who walk downtown a busy street in any city of Vietnam, what they can easily come across is a “xyk-lo” driver who speaks even better English than some college students, or at the very far north mountainous areas of Vietnam such as Sapa or Mai Chau, lots of children, working as postcard sellers or local tour guides to help earn a living for their families, who can speak very fluent English without attending any English classes before. The 2009 Shorenstein Prize Winner (a Prize that honors journalists for distinguished writing and reporting) – Seth Mydans, in one of his articles for the New York Times, had a very insightful and amazing experience observing Vietnamese kids talking to a foreigner in the mountain city of Dalat, Vietnam. It was when he noticed a ten-year-old girl holding her brother on her hip staring at an American at a coffee shop. “Do you want to study English in school?” the American asked her, speaking in Vietnamese. “No” the girl said, walking away, “I don’t want to study at all”. But then, surprisingly, she turned back and said in English “Thank you, see you again!”, then the little boy on her hip also waved goodbye and said “See you again”. The invasion of English language, as told in this story, again, was proved though the short conversation between an American and the two Vietnamese children; that is to say, it is possible to believe that the spread of English can be even stronger and wider in the near future as people tend to accept it as a common tongue (Modiano, 2001).

The concomitance of other languages

Along with the invasion of English language, the retention of other foreign languages such as French, Chinese, and Japanese cannot be denied. One of the findings of Do (1996) showed the percentage of the main foreign languages taught at high school level, apart from 73.3% English, there were 3.1% French, 0.5% Chinese, 0% Japanese, and 7% no foreign languages at all. In the same research, Do (1996) also found disparities in the percentage of the foreign languages actually used for study and research, in which English ranked first with 93.3%, Chinese ranked second with 2.8%, French ranked third with 2.3%. These ratios reflect a modest standing of other foreign languages in Vietnamese society. However, in 2016, based on the real status economy and politics of the country, the Ministry of Education and Training has proposed a change in the strategy of teaching and learning foreign languages in Vietnam, in which Russian and Chinese will be standing equally with English and French as a second language option for students to choose. Whether or not the proposal is approved, Vietnamese people now will have more choices to think and consider in choosing a second language to learn, not only English.


Rushdie (2012), in his book “Imaginary Homeland”, wrote that the colonial people who used to be colonized by the language have the tendency to remake and domesticate it, and use it more comfortably. Vietnam with its long history colonized by Western countries (French and American) is now using English and other languages more actively, no longer in the position of a colony but an independent nation. In this paper, I have provided a brief presentation about the growing spread of the English language itself in almost every angle of society. Besides, I have also proved that, despite the change of view and strategy in foreign language education, there is always a reasonable prospect to believe that English still continues its role as the most powerful foreign language in Vietnam, and that the adoption of English will soon be all over Vietnam.


Do, T. H. (1996). Foreign language education policy in Vietnam: the reemergence of English and its impact on higher education. UMI.

Gorter, D. (Ed.). (2006). Linguistic landscape: A new approach to multilingualismMultilingual  Matters.

Huong, T. N. N. & Hiep, P. H. 2010. Vietnamese teachers’ and students’ perceptions of Global English. Language Education in Asia, 1(1), 48–61.

McLaughlin, J. (1985). ESL for the unemployedELT Journal39(2), 88-95.

Ministry of Education and Training, Vietnam. 2006. A Scheme for Foreign Language Education in the Vietnamese Educational System for the 2006–2010 Period. Hanoi, Vietnam.

Modiano, M. (2001). Linguistic imperialism, cultural integrity, and EILELT journal,55(4), 339-   347.

Nunan, D. (2003). The impact of English as a Global Language on Educational Policies in the Asia-Pacific Region. TESOL QUARTERLY. Vol. 3, pp. 539 – 613.

Rushdie, S. (2012). Imaginary homelands: Essays and criticism 1981-1991. Random House.

Seth, M. (1995). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1995/05/07/weekinreview/the-world-vietnam-speaks-    english-with-an-eager-accent.html

Wright, S. 2002. Language education and foreign relations in Vietnam. In J.W. Tollefson (ed.), Language Policies in Education: Critical Issues. London: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 225–244.

Tran Phan has been working as an English teacher and a teacher trainer at Hue College of Education in Vietnam since 2012. Her major interest is Teacher Education with a focus on training pre-service English teachers for Young Learners. In 2014, she participated in a specialized trainer training program on Primary Innovations by British Council, the program was designed to support cadres of local trainers to improve their skills in training teachers, using child friendly approaches, classroom management, lesson planning and course design. In 2016, as a Hornby Scholar, she started her journey to Warwick University, UK to pursue her higher education with a specialism in Teacher Education.


2 thoughts on “

  1. Ky Ngo

    What are you talking about? South Vietnam was never colonized by the Americans, just as North Vietnam was never colonized by the Soviet Union. You need to get your facts straight.


  2. Hello Tran, It was good to meet you at the UniTemps presentation, I have read your article with interest. As mentioned I have only visited Hanoi once en-route from driving in China, I hope to visit Vietnam again. Your paper gives me hope I can travel without to many language difficulties.


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