I’m eating a bowl of bun cha by the lake in Tuyen Quang city and I’m amazed. Not because of the food in front of me, which is pretty tasty, but because of the student sitting across from me. One of my 10th grade History students invited me to lunch and is speaking English.
During classes at the gifted high school last year, I worked with 600 students with varying levels of English ability. Some were confident to speak up. Others were so shy trying to avoid making any mistakes that they rarely opened their mouths at all.
I had been in the city for 8 months and had never really heard this student contribute in class. But at Bun Cha, we were talking. We were laughing. There were some errors here and there, but I took a step back and thought whether it was more important that I correct every detail as we went along or allow this student to share his perspective with me for the first time?
The answer was simple.
To reverse the situation, whenever I went to the local market, I tried introducing myself to the vendors: “Em. Ten. La. Kyle. EM. TEN. (the vendor, confused, would stare at me.) Khong. Khong. TEENNN la Kyle.”A student guiding me at the market would impatiently add, “Anh ay da noi ten cua anh ay la Kyle.”
The vendor would laugh casually and offer me a kilo of dragonfruit for a “great” price.
During my year living in the north, I found something so basic, so common, as introducing myself to be a daily hurdle. I grew frustrated and sometimes refused to open my mouth at all. It’s easy to avoid being wrong in a language when you say nothing, right?? I was discouraging myself before I even began trying to improve. Yet, I was falling into the same trap as many of my students were when learning English.
For my students, I encouraged speaking. Period. Final. End of story.
Yes, pronunciation and grammar and vocabulary do play a part in the long-run of being understood, but I don’t think they do at the expense of general confidence and the willingness to say something at all.
In the same way that I need to speak up more often and possibly make mistakes when speaking Vietnamese if I’m going to improve my Vietnamese, then I hope my students continue speaking in English and possibly continue making mistakes.
If you’re ever in Ho Chi Minh and want to practice speaking without the fear of pronunciation judgment, let me know. We’ll grab a tra sua. I can make mistakes introducing myself in Vietnamese. You can make some pronunciation mistakes in English. We can learn together. It’s no problem. It’s No. Star. Where.