Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

Can Tho

By Volunteer Adam Vaught
Project XII Participant

Having taught English as a second language over the past 18 months, I have, on many occasions, been faced with the question of why learning English is important. Failing to ever give it serious though I answered focusing mainly on the fact that English is spoken in more places than any other language and studying it could someday allow my students the freedom to travel with relative ease. This is a benefit speaking Japanese, or most every other language, does not allow. I try to use this as motivation in class and often encourage my students by talking about opportunities abroad; opportunities many Japanese have the means to take advantage of.

She earns 40 times less than what I did for doing the same task.

In my initial conversations with the students at Can Tho University I focused on similar topics, inquiring as to their interest in using their English overseas. Their answers quickly revealed my ignorance. While most expressed a strong desire to go abroad, all seemed quite resigned to the fact that it will probably never happen. Low wages combined with government restrictions make traveling, as many in the Western world have become accustomed to, nearly impossible for the average Vietnamese. For them, English is a means to a better life in Vietnam, not a luxury that will allow them opportunities to leave.

Like most English teachers in Japan I am at least vaguely aware of how fortunate I am to have been raised speaking English, as without it I would currently be jobless. On the JET Programme alone there are 6,000 foreigners comfortably employed in Japan, most of who qualify solely because they were raised speaking English (that in addition to earning a college degree, which depending on what you studied may have been just as easy). On a larger scale, English speakers enjoy the convenience of being able to travel nearly anywhere in the world and still be welcomed by people speaking English as their second language.

At Can Tho University, most of the 60 students we met have spent years learning English, not to travel the world or live abroad, but rather to teach it in Vietnam for a salary that is a small fraction of what I would make doing the same job in their country. While talking with one student in particular, I learned that like me, she tutors after class in order to earn extra money. The difference is that she earns 40 times less than what I did for doing the same task. The opportunities most native English speakers take for granted often do not even exist for those learning it as a second language.

Inequities such as these are nothing new, but it wasn't until seeing it in such a tangible form that I understood the reality of the situation. There are two types of English speakers in the world: the first native speakers, who through randomness of birth are privy to its benefits, and a second group that must work countless hours in the hopes of one day benefiting like the first. Unfortunately those in the second group are much more likely to end up helping me as I travel through their country than doing the traveling themselves.

While the lack of travel opportunities may seem quite insignificant, I see it as a symptom of a much larger problem that exists in our world; a problem that, far from being able to solve, I am only beginning to properly acknowledge. My interactions at Can Tho University left me with many questions about inequality, distribution of wealth, and individual priorities that I am still unable to answer. One of the few conclusions I could draw was the recognition that I will probably never fully appreciate the opportunities I have simply due to my first language.

I am grateful to students for what they shared as well as the lessons they taught me; most of which I am yet to fully understand. Such encounters remind me what a positive impact traveling has had on my life and why I hope all of the students we met can some day have similar experiences. They deserve these far more than me.

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