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Vietnam encourages diaspora to embrace language and culture in ‘soft power’ push

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Officials have declared September 8 as a day to celebrate the Vietnamese language, amid fears it is ‘at risk of fading’ in communities around the world, from Cambodia to France and the US. As some overseas-born Vietnamese have grown up shunning the language and culture, ‘what’s at stake is the communication between generations’, a researcher says

When Dannie Doan moved to the United States at age 13 with her family, she refrained from speaking in her native language even though Texas had a large Vietnamese community.

Newly-arrived immigrants felt intense pressure to assimilate and learn “perfect English”, she said.

“There’s also a layer of discrimination if you speak a foreign language in public,” added Doan, who is now 31 and works as a climate adaptation professional. “Those incidents of white people yelling ‘Speak English’ isn’t that uncommon.”

While her younger self was not ashamed of being Vietnamese, Doan did not wear it proudly either.

But two decades after she left Vietnam, her birth country now has a policy to encourage the diaspora to embrace the language and culture. In August, officials declared September 8 as a Vietnamese language appreciation day for overseas Vietnamese communities.

This is part of an eight-year plan until 2030, to boost the learning and use of the language globally, particularly among youth in areas with large Vietnamese populations where the language and culture are “at risk of fading”, according to the signed document seen by This Week in Asia.

Deputy Prime Minister Pham Quang Hieu said the plan aimed to encourage overseas communities to “always look to and actively contribute to homeland Vietnam”.

He also noted that the programme would help “increase the country’s soft power” and aid the communication about policies and Vietnamese culture to the world.

There are some 5.3 million Vietnamese people living in 130 countries and territories, according to data from Vietnam’s State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese (SCOV) that does not reveal citizenship status.

The other two target groups are Vietnamese-language teachers and young people who are interested in engaging with overseas Vietnamese, as well as foreigners interested in the language.

Even as language skills have been falling in the diaspora, there has been interest in Vietnamese in some education systems across Asia. In Taiwan for instance, it has been taught as one of seven Southeast Asian languages in junior schools since 2018.

It is also one of eight languages in the second-language test for South Korea’s national university entrance examination, while top institutions such as Brown University in the US and SOAS University in Britain offer Vietnamese language modules.

Vietnam National University, Hanoi has been tasked to create an online Vietnamese language education site for members of the diaspora. According to the university’s website, the programme will feature six levels and some lessons will be launched this month.

Doan was unaware of the policy until This Week in Asia approached her, which she said was a “good idea” because it could “encourage people to be more intentional about celebrating and appreciating the Vietnamese language around the world even when they don’t use it daily”.

For her, the language evokes a strong sense of familial ties, influenced by her late mother who died in 2015. She taught Doan and her young sister many Vietnamese expressions and language patterns, including their love language.

“I can just turn to my sister and tell her, Thương Tí quá à (I love you), and she just immediately gets that, because it’s exactly the way Mum used to say it,” Doan said. “‘I love you’ just doesn’t ring the same.”

Language shapes identity

Data collected by Julien Le Hoang An, a PhD student at the University Bourgogne Franche-Comté, suggests language as an important element in people’s perspectives about returning to Vietnam, culture transmission and identity.

An carried out the three-year study ending 2021, surveying some 200 overseas-born members of the Vietnamese diaspora, mostly in Western or European countries such as France, the US, Canada, and the Czech Republic.

His interviews with 60 people in the group, which had a median age of 30, focused on collective memory and family memory among people of Vietnamese origins, but he also drew conclusions about the significance of language.

“Depending on the host country’s integration policies, families will negotiate between the desire to pass on their cultural heritage, including language and the strategy of social integration,” he said.

Social dynamics around ethnic minority groups have changed and led to what he calls “cultural reappropriation”, whereby “speaking a non-hegemonic language in a Western country is more valued than it was”.

The scholar observed that many second-generation Vietnamese only speak a reduced, condensed version of Vietnamese for basic daily communication with their families.

“What is at stake is the communication between generations,” An said, adding that learning Vietnamese could be one of the motivations for Viet Kieus to visit Vietnam. Viet Kieu is a colloquial term referring to overseas Vietnamese.

An is certain that if the Vietnamese government develops learning materials and resources for the younger diaspora, “it will definitely strengthen their connection to [the] homeland”.

Many Viet Kieus have reconnected with Vietnam through family connections or work, like Doan who visited Vietnam in 2018 for a climate change project that allowed her to practise Vietnamese.

Ha Trang, another member of the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia, supports the policy’s idea in sharing “the beauty of the Vietnamese language” with the world. The 24-year-old works as a part-time translator for a website promoting Vietnamese folklore.

“Not only does it encourage language diversity and culture exchange, it also shows … a healing [of the relationship] with Vietnamese overseas when it comes to geographical or historical disruptions,” she said, referring to more than a million Vietnamese refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam war.

An economic tool

Meanwhile, just as many members of the Vietnamese diaspora in Western countries have struggled to master the language, those in Asia also share similar difficulties, many with fewer resources.

In Cambodia, teacher Nguyen Minh Luan has provided free Vietnamese and maths classes to stateless Vietnamese kids in Sihanoukville’s Chong Kneas village for 14 years.

Luan, hailing from Tay Ninh Province, said the children belonged to generations of Vietnamese living on boats on the Tonle Sap lake, part of the Mekong River system that connects six Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam and Cambodia.

Luan’s students are aged six to 14, but only have a highest education of fifth grade. Most families who sent their children to the philanthropic school, which was founded by his uncle, are “without nationality”, Luan said.

Around 90 per cent of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese population lack formal identification, according to the Phnom Penh-based Minority Rights Organisation.

Since many of them are not entitled to Vietnamese citizenship, having lived in Cambodia for generations, they become stateless. This raised “significant barriers” to accessing formal employment, education, healthcare, housing and even moving about freely, the organisation said.

This issue makes the role of volunteer teachers like Luan even more critical, as his school instils Vietnamese language skills that come in handy when the children seek employment in Vietnam.

“The kids love learning Vietnamese because they hope to work at companies or factories in Vietnam that employ Vietnamese-speaking workers.”

Many of Luan’s students have gone to work as construction and factory workers in places such as the southern manufacturing hub of Binh Duong.

“Vietnamese to them is very important,” Luan said.

By Sen Nguyen – The South China Morning Post – September 10, 2022

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