Devoted to teaching Vietnamese
They share several similarities. Both are middle-aged, Vietnamese and instructors at two of the world’s best universities. But, above all, they are devoted to teaching Vietnamese.
At Yale and Harvard universities respectively, Dr. Quang Phu Van and Dr. Binh Nhu Ngo have been known for their efforts to help Vietnamese American students maintain their mother tongue and bring Vietnamese to American and international students.
“I have been teaching Vietnamese at Yale since 1999. Most of my students are Vietnamese American. Among them, 10 or 12 are American, non-heritage students,” Van said in an interview at the Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies.
In the basement of the Temple Street building in New Haven, Conn., Van meets his students every morning, Monday through Friday.
Last Thursday, his elementary class, which includes three Vietnamese American undergraduates and one American graduate student, began with a ten-minute test.
Students looked at the questions projected on the board, each followed by a picture of a landscape or of daily life in Vietnam, and filled in the blanks in Vietnamese.
Van conducted his classes quite similarly to what instructors do in Vietnam, from his calling students friends to using suggestive instruction. Communication between Van and his students was almost entirely in Vietnamese.
“The main reason American undergraduate students take the language is because they are interested in being able to speak Vietnamese. They have Vietnamese American friends. For graduate students, they need to do research and read Vietnamese text,” said Van, who also teaches Vietnamese culture and literature in translation.
Professor Van talks about difficulties in teaching Vietnamese
Professor Ngo echoed Van’s comments. He said non-Vietnamese students are interested in learning Vietnamese because they do research studies about Vietnam, South East Asia, East Asia.
Ngo said Cornell, Georgetown, Yale and Columbia were the first universities to offer Vietnamese as an academic course in the 1950s. Vietnamese is currently offered at 25 universities and colleges in America, according to the survey conducted by the Center of Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota.
This year is the 20th year Ngo has instructed Vietnamese at Harvard. Like his Yale colleague, he is the only one in charge of the whole process of teaching Vietnamese there.
The lecturer at the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations authored several Vietnamese language textbooks currently used in many universities in the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan and Korea.
Ngo said he has taught about 500 students since 1992. Half are Vietnamese born in America and the others are Americans or from other countries.
“Many of my heritage students take my Vietnamese language classes because they want to come back to their Vietnamese roots by learning more about Vietnam. Their parents are very helpful to them as they teach them the language at home and introduce them to Vietnamese culture in order to remind them of their Vietnamese origins,” said Ngo in an interview at his office which, like Van’s, brims with Vietnamese dictionaries and books about Vietnam’s history, culture and literature.
Ngo said it has been a big effort to maintain Vietnamese courses at Harvard in recent years because more students choose learning Chinese and Korean over Vietnamese.
Van agreed. He said among about 20 Vietnamese American students who enter Yale per year, just 20-30 percent are interested in learning their mother tongue.
“Another thing is I notice also students grew up in Vietnamese American families, they grew up with Chinese and Korean soap operas. They want to study Korean language because they are fond of Korean culture. Maybe we will see more and more of that in the future,” Van said.
However, the decline has not affected their devotions to Vietnamese teaching.
Adrian Latortue, a Yale alumnus, speaks and writes Vietnamese as fluently as a native speaker. He attributed most of his proficiency to his Vietnamese professor, Van.
“Most of my Vietnamese education was at Yale and with professor Quang. I took two full years of hic classes, and then I did two semesters of independent study with him,” said Latortue, who transcribed two Vietnamese movies and wrote one story in Vietnamese under Van’s instructions.
The architecture graduate, whose Vietnamese name is Cuong, said he learned from Van not only Vietnamese but also the culture and literature of Vietnam.
“He didn’t just teach in the books. In the middle of his class, he read ca dao [Vietnamese folk verses], explained it to everyone and picked up vocabulary from there. He also taught us songs and brought newspapers to class, underlined words we didn’t know.”
Latortue had several Vietnamese friends before he studied at Yale. It was his closest friend, who is of Vietnamese descent, who encouraged him to learn Vietnamese when he considered taking Spanish class with a guarantee that “you will definitely love it [Vietnamese].”
In his first summer at Yale, Latortue went to Vietnam to teach English. Since then, he continued to go back and forth to Vietnam and “tried to advance my own Vietnamese education.”
Recently, just a few months after returning to America when his Fulbright program in Vietnam ended, the Connecticut resident decided to quit his job in Cambridge to accept an offer by a company in Ho Chi Minh City.
In the meantime, Anh Hoang, a Vietnamese American born in Jersey City, N.J., stands out in Van’s intermediate class with her fluency in spoken Vietnamese.
“At home, if I just say [an English word like] ‘no’, my dad will whip me immediately,” said Hoang, who visited Vietnam four times.
The Yale biomedicine junior said she learned Vietnamese because she wanted to better her Vietnamese writing.
Hoang plans to work in Vietnam after her graduation next year.