Language professors from Vietnam share insights at SMC

On Saturday room 261 of the HSS building at Santa Monica College became the site of what English professor Carl Burak called "scholar diplomacy." On this occasion two communications professors from Vietnam, Cao Thi Quiynh Loan and her husband, Richard Bradley, held a private conference with various SMC instructors to discuss the labyrinths of language and pronunciation.

Loan and Bradley's visit from Ho Chi Minh City was the result of efforts by Burak and fellow SMC English professor Janette Harclerode who worked together to make the meeting possible.

Burak himself has known Loan for years after having taught at Vietnam's National University in 1997. At the time Loan was the director of the institution's English Learning Center. Before Loan and Bradley made their presentations Burak recalled meeting Loan at the VNU when he found a group of students napping in a classroom, their heads resting on their backpacks and he asked if he could join too.

Warm sunlight bathed the room's windows on Friday as instructors including Burak, SMC English professor Kathleen Motoike and linguistics professor Yuria Hashimoto among others, listened to Bradley and Loan discuss the intricacies of teaching Vietnamese students not only proper English, but correct and clear pronunciation as well.

In the Vietnam of today, in particular since the 1990s, English has become a basic necessity and skill, according to Bradley. Whereas Russian was the key foreign language taught in the country following the war and Communist transformation beginning in 1975, now English is the most basic foreign language Vietnamese students must learn if they wish to have wide job and career opportunities.

"Vietnamese is a tonal language," explained Bradley to the attendees and added that English is a stress-based language.

Loan shared how Vietnamese students, like Americans, try to find fast, easily digestible versions of required reading. "They can lazy," she said with chuckles breaking out all around. "They just go to the library and try to find the simplified version of the book and then try to read and get the gist of the book," she said. "That's a problem we don't know how to deal with," she added with a smile.

"We try to get learners to understand what the general idea of what the words mean," she continued. "We tell them to look for clues in the context."

"As teachers we should try to make informed decisions as to what techniques we should use for what group of students. Some techniques might work for this group, but not for another group," she said.

"Teaching pronunciation in Vietnam is a bit of a challenge," said Bradley. "Pronunciation is a habit," he went on to explain. Bradley detailed how we humans don't give much thought to the formation of sounds. "You form your tongue a certain way when you're a child and you continue doing that for the rest of your life as a form of habit," he said.

Bradley provided a power point presentation where he also described the various dialects inherent to Vietnam's territories. These dialects even feature influences from the various conflicts the country has endured including invasions by the Chinese, French and Americans. These interchanges of culture are called "borrowings." For example "photocopy" can be seen on a given sign in Ho Chi Minh City restructured according to Vietnamese lingo as "Pho To Copy."

After the U.S. war on Vietnam ended in 1975, the shift of the country under a Communist government also changed the local language as foreign influences were purged and the meanings of words changed. "People in neighboring countries can tell that someone from Vietnam comes from a Communist country because of the words they use," shared Loan.

Because of the differences in tone and structure, Bradley shared how younger Vietnamese students are made accustomed to English through music and singing. Singing a word makes it more accessible because of the tonal nature of Vietnamese.

When the conference was over professors walked over to Loan and Bradley with a plethora of questions. For Burak it was a wonderful success and he is planning to invite more international academics to continue his unique brand of scholarly bridge-building.