Navigating intra-Asian mobility through language teaching

The rise of Asian higher education is something many scholars researching the increasing internationalisation of higher education over the past two decades are agreed upon. Phan Le Ha’s 2016 book on transnational education crossing Asia and the West is one example.

Alongside the development of English-language education and education using English as the medium of instruction in higher education over the past decades, there have been other significant changes in the language landscape of Asia’s higher education, among which is the growing use of particular Asian languages in teaching across Asian universities.

These include, of course, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi and Indonesian, but other less common languages are also appearing more often, including Vietnamese, Malaysian and Lao.

Transformed linguistic landscapes

The transformation of the linguistic landscapes in Asian universities is linked to rich and transnational mobility patterns and a diverse teaching and student body which have grown at a scale that we are not yet fully aware of and which have yet to be properly studied.

For example, newly introduced language courses often invite native-speaking teachers to take up teaching contracts or for exchange programmes. For those teachers, these emerging exchanges also provide an opportunity to travel, experience new environments, do new jobs and become global citizens.

Their experiences of getting to know a new teaching environment, planning their teaching, maintaining learners’ engagement and adapting and enhancing their position in the learning culture of the host institution also provide authentic evidence of the globalisation of language education in the context of inter-Asian mobility.

We are interested here in Vietnamese language courses. Historically, the Vietnamese language has been taught in Asian countries which have historical relationships with Vietnam, like Laos, Cambodia, South Korea and Japan.

It has just been introduced in places like Taiwan and Brunei. Language teachers there have different pathways into teaching and face different problems and opportunities in their transnational working experience. The recent COVID-19 pandemic also presented them with particular challenges and required them to develop their own strategies to keep working.

Building on studies about scholars working in global contexts with transnational training and working experiences, such as one led by Phan Le Ha in 2020, we focus in particular on the autobiographical studies of two teachers teaching Vietnamese language courses in South Korea and Brunei, in line with the guide by Kate Douglas and Ashley Barnwell.

Teaching Vietnamese in Korea

Ho Chi Minh City in the 2000s was full of foreign visitors, the result of a decade of opening up of policies in the communist countries at the edge of globalisation. Nghia, an English teacher in Ho Chi Minh City, seized the opportunity to apply for a Vietnamese lecturing position at a private university, thanks to his linguistic training background.

This experience prompted a career shift: Nghia became a lecturer teaching Vietnamese as a foreign language (VFL) at the faculty of Vietnamese studies of the Vietnam National University.

In 2015, through a long-time partnership between Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City (VNU-HCM) and Busan University of Foreign Studies (BUFS) in South Korea, Nghia became the sixth exchange teacher to teach Vietnamese in BUFS. He served four years in this position and contributed greatly to curriculum design and development of materials for BUFS’s Vietnamese courses.

As the sixth exchange teacher, Nghia innovated around traditional teaching methods, developed textbooks and was active in maintaining students’ motivation to learn through the use of relevant topics that bring an understanding of Vietnamese together with the everyday life experiences of his Korean students.

At the same time, he organised many activities for his students, including outdoor activities (some Vietnamese students and Vietnamese teachers are invited to join the events and communicate in the Vietnamese language with students). BUFS’s Vietnamese language department supported these efforts, which enhanced classroom learning and facilitated student participation.

Nghia’s four-year journey at BUFS transformed him into an effective, engaging teacher, optimising his teaching approach and fostering a lively learning atmosphere.

Teaching Vietnamese in Brunei

Phuong Anh’s journey contrasts with Nghia’s. Because of her previous teaching experience as a VFL teacher in Hanoi, she was invited to the University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD) on a short contract to create a four-week programme to impart basic Vietnamese communication skills to a group of novices.

This was Phuong Anh’s very first experience of living and teaching in another country. Until she started teaching there, UBD had never had Vietnamese as a foreign language in its higher education programme. The course was launched as a result of a government fund for bureaucrats whose work often means they are meeting Vietnamese people.

Phuong Anh’s first impression was of the students’ dedication, curiosity and enthusiasm, driven by their professional needs. However, she also encountered unforeseen difficulties. The class size was much larger than she had previously experienced, making it impossible to focus on and correct each student individually. She adapted by grouping her students, but found it challenging.

Additionally, the dense study schedule overwhelmed both students and teacher. To mitigate it, Phuong Anh revised her teaching objectives, teaching new knowledge in the morning and enhancing skills gained via practice in the afternoon. This allowed more time for individual feedback, albeit at the cost of changes in course expectations.

Lastly, teaching materials posed a problem. Unable to use her original textbook, Phuong Anh had to develop materials herself, tailoring these by comparing Vietnamese and Bruneian.

To enhance engagement, she conducted her language teaching alongside cultural exposure, organising extra-curricular activities: a traditional spring roll cooking session at a Vietnamese professor’s residence and a Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration at the Vietnamese Embassy in Brunei.

These efforts helped make the learning process more enjoyable and culturally enriching for her students.

Unique challenges

Nghia and Phuong Anh both embarked on their transnational journey armed with in-country teaching experience in Vietnam.

The shift was challenging, requiring them to adapt to a new culture, design courses and maintain student engagement. Their narratives, which align with those of Vietnamese teachers in other countries, underscore the unique challenges of pioneering initiatives like making your own teaching materials or one teacher’s experience of starting the first Vietnamese cultural centre in Taiwan.

Their experiences also highlight the need for institutional support as a key feature of the kind of planned language education development that is instrumental in higher education internationalisation. When he taught at UBD later, Nghia developed other ways to promote his teaching of Vietnamese, for instance, through the university’s social media channels.

These endeavours presented significant challenges but overcoming them led to rewarding experiences. Nghia returned to Vietnam with lots of positive experiences and ideas to implement in his teaching back home, while Phuong Anh and her students retained vivid, fond memories of their time together. Such experiences underscore the transformative power of transnational teaching roles in shaping higher education in Asia.

Global shifts

The movement of Vietnamese language teachers to other Asian countries such as South Korea and Brunei exemplifies the increased transnational mobility prompted by globalisation. This mobility is not unidirectional but is part of a complex network of exchanges between countries.

Teachers bring with them not only their language expertise, but also their cultural understanding, which plays a critical role in the host countries.

The increased offering of Asian languages in Asian universities reflects the growth of intra-Asian connections, indicating a shift in the focus of language education. This trend could potentially stimulate a paradigm shift in language education where previously less frequently taught languages gain more importance.

This transformation is a part of a global shift whereby cultural and economic influence is no longer predominantly Western but is increasingly shared among diverse global players.

Thus, the narratives of the Vietnamese language teachers mentioned above signify broader processes of globalisation. They illustrate how individuals, institutions and nations are being shaped by and are actively participating in these global networks.

The stories of these teachers, as they navigate and negotiate their roles in these new educational contexts, shed light on the personal and professional impacts of these global processes, offering an on-the-ground perspective on larger theoretical debates.

Ngo Thi Diem Hang is teaching as a registered teacher in South Australia, and doing research as an affiliated lecturer with the school of interdisciplinary sciences at Vietnam National University (VNU) in Hanoi. Her research interests include folklore studies, religion studies, cultural anthropology and Vietnamese as an additional language and a heritage language. Tran Trong Nghia is a lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities – VNU and an education officer at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. His research interests include Vietnamese studies, language teaching and compiling Vietnamese textbooks. Dang Phuong Anh is a lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities – VNU in Hanoi. Her research interests include tourism studies, Vietnamese studies and higher education. This article is part of the “Asian Higher Education Changes: Perspectives From Within” series initiated by the International and Comparative Education Research Group at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (ICE@UBD).