A Balloon Vendor Teaches English in Hà Nội

Published October 19, 2015 in Episode 26

Four to five times a week, Lương Thị Nhâm, a student at National Economics University travels one and a half hours by bus from her school to get to Stand By You, a charity providing free English classes in Hà Nội.

“I just volunteer in Stand By You,” says Nhâm, “because I really want to help students improve English speaking skill.”

Nhâm has been a volunteer with Stand By You since it was first established last September. The learning center was founded by an unlikely young man: Phạm Minh Đáp, a street vendor making only 5 U.S. dollars a day selling balloons and children’s toys in Hà Nội.

“The program to learn English for free is a project I started with the aim of bringing English to everyone,” Đáp explains in an interview to Sông Mã Ca, a state-owned TV network in Thanh Hoá province where he is from. “Aside from learning English, our organization also holds community service activities. Through this project, volunteers are able to engage in cultural exchange, learn English for free, and participate in community service.”

Đáp wears many hats. On any given day he can be found teaching English to a class, or guarding bicycles of Stand By You participants when they are lacking volunteers.

The 25-year-old taught himself English and despite his own limited finances, Đáp was determined to provide free English classes for others like him. Students attending his classes only pay a minimal fee for overhead, if they can.

People in Việt Nam are increasingly making the connection between economic opportunities with English proficiency and are willing to shell out for extra lessons. For Stand By You’s low-income students, learning English is an investment they cannot afford to miss.

Nguyễn Trang from Stand By You states, “A lot of University students care about studying English and they are willing to spend a lot of money [and] time on studying this language, because they realize the importance of English. They can earn a high salary job after graduating with good English.”

Trang is a recent graduate of Việt Nam National University and one of the 10 volunteer teachers. She says Stand By You stands out among the options for those who are serious about learning English and want to go beyond government-mandated curriculum.

She observes three ways to learn English in Việt Nam. “The first option for English learners in Việt Nam is self-study, of course on the Internet. The second option should be attending some English classes or English centers with a fee of 200 to 400 US dollars for a course that last for two months. The third option should be attending some classes organized by NGOS like Stand By You. Stand By You we have so many classes with teachers that are foreigners. Compared to English centers, the students don’t have to pay so much besides the accommodation fee for the class, so the tuition fee is actually very very low.”

But despite the abundance of English language centers throughout Việt Nam, overall English ability of Vietnamese people are still low.

Việt Nam ranks 33rd out of 63 countries in last year's EF English Proficiency Index. EF Education First, an international language training company, ranks countries based on the average level of English skills among adults. They gave Việt Nam a “low proficiency” rating.

In 2008 the Vietnamese government enacted Decision 1400 to enhance teaching and learning foreign languages by improving the curriculum and focusing on training.

In 2010, it created the National Foreign Language 2020 Project to help establish more programs to train teachers. The goal is for most students to communicate confidently in another language, especially English, by 2020.

But the number of places to study English is not necessarily the problem. Instead, how English is taught is an area of concern. In 2013, Tuổi Trẻ - or Youth -  News wrote that “teacher qualifications and assessment methodologies are blamed for students’ failure to use the language in real life.”

Phạm Tiến, another volunteer at Stand By You notices that “The Vietnamese students’ grammar is well but they don’t have the place to talk English, so when they came to Stand By You they have a chance to practice English with their friends and also with the teacher or maybe with some of the foreigner volunteer here.”

He says, Stand By You offers a different model of learning English, one that uses its lack of formal educators to its advantage. Trang further explains:

“Stand By You focuses on communication skills. We are not like really teachers but we are just friends and we try to encourage the students to talk, even though they are making a lot of mistakes, but they will learn after that. We believe the most important thing is to take the opportunity to talk to the foreigners and make mistakes and then you fix it, and then you practice practice practice, and finally your English will be very beautiful.”

The confidence in speaking and listening that Stand By You hopes to build in its students is aligned with the National Foreign Language 2020 Project. However, as a charity organization established by volunteers and is free to the public, it faces challenges.

Nhâm describes some of the organization’s difficulties.

“Sometimes at Stand By You we don’t have a lot of good condition, especially about the financial problem. We don’t have a lot of money to pay for all the things like the fees for the  electricity or the fees for renting house. And sometimes we have to move to the park near Stand By You. ”

Rent and expenses amount to more than 1,000 US dollars a month. Participants are encouraged to pay a fee of 10 US dollars to help offset costs. However, there is not always enough money every month, so the volunteers and students often step in to help sell balloons and children’s toys as Đáp has done and still does today, to raise funds for renting facilities and other expenses. Some participants who have jobs also provide small donations.

Another difficulty is the low number of foreign volunteers. Here’s Trang again:

“We don’t have enough foreign volunteers to teach our classes, and the number of students are too many, so it is sometimes very difficult for us to organize the classroom and the place for everyone to talk.”

With anywhere from 300 to 500 students wanting to learn English in a month, the need for more volunteers is high.

Despite the financial and human resource challenges, Nhâm says there is a sense of community that keeps everyone motivated:

She recounts, “Stand By You is a family and we can talk together. When I study at my University, the teacher often teach the knowledge and don’t say anything, just teach about like English, or grammar, or speaking skills. And I don’t think that we have a lot of smile. But at Stand By You we can talk together, and we can share everything, and we laugh a lot, we smile a lot.”

Stand By You provides an alternative form to learning English outside of official channels. The method of teaching is focused on discussion as opposed to lecturing, allowing students to quickly improve their conversation skills.

Organized in an environment of collaboration and inclusion, it is no wonder that the participants at Stand By You often refer to it as home or family.

Looking to learn or teach English? Find out more information about Stand By You.