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Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) under the view of Vietnamese Culture

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) under the view of Vietnamese Culture


Author: Ánh Phượng Hà ( Phượng Chick EIE)


           In the world of globalization, English has become an indispensable tool for worldwide language users to remove language barriers in different countries. As a social trend has emerged in which educators and language teachers around the globe find the best teaching method to employ in their own countries, particularly non-native English speaking countries- Asian area including Vietnam. Unlike traditional methods used for a long time in Vietnam,Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), introduced in the late 1970s,  has been likely to be the most dominant and recommended method  in meeting the Vietnamese students’ needs of communication in English and is the best method in Asian area (Liao, 2004). However, there have been many controversial discussions application of CLT to second and language instruction in ELT (Spada, 2007). Moreover, some skeptics suppose that CLT is not a panacea in Vietnam ELT context. This paper is going to give defense against different anti- CLT views and support CLT as the most suitable method for English language teaching (ELT) context of Vietnam. This statement will be confirmed through Vietnamese cultural view including advantages, disadvantages and feasibility of CLT in Vietnam.

          Since its birth in the early 1980, there is a strong debate over definition of CLT, and no single model of CLT is collectively accepted as authoritative (Markee, 2001).The purpose of language learning is to acquire “communicative competence “with a focus on meaning and communication is among the most salient reasons (Nunan, 1989). Thus, the method, which can assist learners to get their goals effectively, is more welcomed. According to William Littlewood (1981), Communicative Language pays systematic attention to both functional and structural aspects of language and merging this into a communicative view. There are two aspects of CLT: what to teach and how to teach. The ‘what to teach’ aspect of this approach gives more importance on language functions rather than grammar and vocabulary. The second aspect of ‘how to teach’ states that there should be plentiful exposure to language in use and plenty of opportunities to use it for the development of a student’s knowledge and skills (Harmer, 2001). Current understandings of CLT can be traced back to Hymes( 1972), who highlights that knowing a language more than knowing a set of grammatical, lexical, and phonological rules.

 Richards and Rodgers (2001) is in line with this previous researcher by confirming that CLT commences with a theory of language as communication, and its goal is to enhance learners’ communicative competence. CLT views language as system for the expression of meaning where the main function of language is to permit interaction and communication (Richard, 2006). From these different views, scholars all share the same view that CLT focuses on reality, authenticity, communicative competence, and learner- centered.

        From cultural view, many International and Vietnamese researchers claim that CLT is not suitable for Asian teaching culture and Vietnam as well. The phrase “cultural view” I mention here can be sort out into three categories of “teaching culture” “learning culture” and “Vietnamese characteristics”.

 The first reason to deny that CLT is the best method in Vietnam is dominance of traditional methods (grammar translated, audio-lingual methods…) and Vietnamese’s former- one preference.  A popular cultural researcher of Vietnam Them Tran (2000), in his famous book used as course book for Vietnamese tertiary education, elucidates that Vietnamese people’s characteristic in general are nostalgic, afraid of new change, former- one preference. In addition, Ellis (1996) argues that CLT does not fit with Asian Culture, which is a completely new experience for ELT teachers in Vietnam. To be in line with this view, Collins (1999) claims that CLT is inappropriate in term of culture aspects in Asian context with poor CLT teaching materials. Furthermore, Savignon (2001), for learners who are accustomed to grammar translation and accuracy for a long time, the transition to CLT will not be easy.

These assumptions are not completely true, as Vietnamese culture has changed a lot in all above cultural aspects. After Doi Moi, there is a remarkable transition in teaching and learning practice on a continuum that ranges from traditional method to communicative language teaching in Vietnam (Utsumi& Doan). In addition, Phuc (2014) defends that Vietnamese students may be used to the grammar-translation method, but they can become more active and successful language learners in communicative classes, given that teachers know how to familiarise them with CLT. Furthermore, the famous researcher Them Tran (2000) also highly appreciates Vietnamese creativity and practicality that they are nostalgic but very practical in term of characteristics; they will choose the most practical solutions when identifying their targets. These points mean that they will purchase CLT when they know that the straightforward target of CLT is communicative competence. Noticeably, there is a fact that there are so many Vietnamese students who cannot communicate well with foreigners. Even if they have learnt English for more than 7 years. (Ngan, 2004).  Normally, Vietnamese students focus on grammar rather than practical skills as the compulsory learning curriculum of Ministry of Education and Training (Kieu Anh, 2013).In this case, CLT is the only alternative for them since one of the advantages of it is enhancing communicative competence of learners. Thus, for the Vietnamese context, CLT is the most useful treatment for the English training situation. Similarly, The Vietnam EPI 2013 -English Proficiency Index in over the last ten years, also confirms this view that Vietnamese’s EPI climbs to average level to compare with other non- native countries in the world- the optimistic result of combining different methods including CLT (EF EPI, 2013).

       The second reason roots from learners – as learning culture including learners’ characteristics and their levels. Many scholars show their concerns about the clash between learning culture of Vietnamese students and CLT. In Lewis and McCook’s study (2002) assumed that Vietnamese students are passive learners and it is very hard to implement CLT in English classrooms in Vietnam. Similarly, Baurain (2004, p.35) draws on a Vietnamese saying” first learn the behavior, then learn the lesson” to show the rule of Vietnamese learning culture. These students may not fit with the characteristics of CLT that requires learner as the center of class. However, this point is strongly debated by Littlewood’s study (2000, p. 34), he pointed out that Asian students would like to be active and independent and they want to explore knowledge themselves and find their own answers.

One of the factors influencing learning culture is learner autonomy. Cortazzi and Jin (1996) claims that culture of learning in Asian countries which may determine students’ behaviors in language classrooms. Likewise, in the recent TESOL journal, Humphreys and Wyatt (2014) shows that Asian students are strongly influenced by Confucian heritage culture- harmony reign supreme and good behaviors in class; they may become obedient learner and less active- these characteristics many not fit with CLT context. Nevertheless, after experiencing Vietnam, this writer agrees with Little wood (2000, p.33), through his research, proves that learners from different countries including Vietnam do not wish to be merely “obedient listener”; they do not want to sit quietly in class and receive knowledge passively. In this case, Humphreys and Wyatt (2014) suggests that students cannot make transition alone; these teachers need support who can focus individuals, and context-specific needs. Besides, Hird (1995) believes that learning autonomy is also vastly influenced by teachers who create strong motivation for learners, not only come from learners. Noticeably, Belchamber (2007) highlights that one of CLT’s advantages is boosting learning motivation. Thus, this can be supposed as the good method to encourage and improve students’ passiveness and shyness while studying.

However, there is still argument on the proficiency level of students and CLT method in asia including Vietnam. Many researchers claim that learners cannot learn effectively as their level is very low. Al-Humaidi(2005) states that the requirements of CLT are too difficult: availability of a English speaking classroom that can allow for group work activities and for teaching aids and materials. Besides, Stern (1992) argues that CLT has been successful in ESL settings, but failed in a classroom setting in EFL while in Vietnam ELT context, English is taught as foreign language.  Similarly, Tan (2005) suspects the role of culture in the applicability and success the method in ELT; she concludes that CLT is not entirely suitable for primary school in Singapore.

Conversely, Phuc (2014) states that thoughVietnamese students may be used to the grammar-translation; they can become more active and successful language learners in communicative classes, given that teachers know how to familiarize them with CLT.

For the lower level, CLT is definitely feasible and effective to learners if the teacher’s belief and practice are parallel. Likewise, Wyss (2002) proposes a “familiarising learners with communicative language teaching classroom approach” including four steps: know thyself, inform students, emphasise progress, stand your ground. First, the teacher informs teaching approach and the goals the students should achieve at the beginning of the class. Second, the teacher discusses learning strategies that students need to know to achieve the goal of language learning in communicative classes. Many researchers show that, under the right conditions, strategic instruction can be effective (Chamot, 2008, ).

           The third reason comes from ELT teachers who have built teaching culture in Vietnam. One of the important factors in teaching is conflict between teacher’s belief and practices. Most of English teachers in Vietnam have good positive attitude to CLT. However, there is a big gap in the way they teach and the way they understand CLT (Hiep, 2007). Besides, Ellis’s (1996) notes that CLT is a whole new experience for EFL teachers in Vietnam, who lack both knowledge and materials for teaching. There is a fact that many teachers are still familiar with Grammar Translated method because this is easy and make them feel more confident while teaching as Vietnamese teachers’ Professional Development are still in low level (Anh, 2013). Even though, many English teachers used to teach Russian in the past (Van, 2009).  Many researchers claim that CLT does not match with Vietnam Education as it mitigates the role on grammar while all tests are mainly grammar- based in compulsory education and tertiary institutions (Ho, 2008). This may not true as the form of testing and evaluation has significantly changed. In compulsory schools, 4 –skilled test are regularly employed. For tertiary education, the requirement of passing IELTS, TOEIC, CEFR, TOEFL exams are strongly stressed., which not only focus on grammar (Quynh, 2013).  However, Grammar should not be ignored while teaching any language. Canale &Swain (1998, cited in Anh, 2013) indicates that grammatical competence is one of component of communicative competence, so grammar instruction is a part of language teaching. CLT does not mean grammar skipping, but the way instructors teach grammar. The problem is that ESL teacher use deductive or inductive method for teaching grammar. According to a great number of researchers, grammar should be taught implicitly. This way is aimed to foster learner autonomy (Carter, Hughes&McCarthy,2000), offer teachers opportunities to understand what student can do and what they need to explore further ( Tennant, 2005), and to help learners to come across, perceive, and use the structures on forming meaning relationships (Nassaji and Fotos, 2004) . This feasible point is considered as a suggestion for ESL teacher in Vietnam when teaching grammar.

One more important factor discourages CLT in Vietnam context is the low ELT teachers’ Professional Development in Vietnam. CLT requires teachers use target language when teaching. Nevertheless, it is likely that a majority of teachers cannot use target language, even though some of them solely employ Vietnamese while teaching (Utsumi& Doan, 2008). Normally, high-qualified teachers with very good degree work for universities while lower teachers, who graduated from college or with lower degree, teach in compulsory curriculum (from class kindergarten to high school education). These teachers belong to government personnel (permanent job) with fixed salary and stable job. Thus, it is likely that these teachers do not have strong motivation to develop their PD while teaching English in early stage is much more important than tertiary education. (Hiep, 2009)

This view may only correct to some extent; nevertheless, no one can deny that the quality of teacher education and training is rapidly improved with more demands from government. Parks (2011)  witnesses a miracle of English Teaching Reform in Vietnam; all teachers in different level have to pass CEFR ( Common European Framework for References) Vietnamese standard – a tool to measure English competency of teachers. They may be out of work if they cannot pass in certain time. This is a strong motivation for them to improve themselves day by day. Furthermore, this writer does believe that the project 2020 will affect 200 million students in which 85% the $450m budget will be spent on teacher training as expected. That is feasible when more and more PD workshops are regularly held from small scale to big scales that open good opportunities for teachers. These realities will have a great impact on teachers’ ability (Ho, 2012).

Another reason to support for feasibility of CLT in Vietnam is that Vietnam education authorities and stakeholders are aware of shifting to new teaching methods, particularly CLT. According to Anh (2013), teachers are assigned to teach as a skill- based fixed form with clear instructions from the new course book. This change matches perfectly with the characteristics of CLT:

 The 2006 – 2007 academic year witnessed the introduction of new English course books (Tieng Anh 10, Tieng Anh 11, Tieng Anh 12) and the reformed language teaching methodology towards the communicative approach at high school level. In these new course books, there are five parts in each unit: Reading, Speaking, Listening, Writing, and Language Focus respectively. Vietnamese high schools are required to follow this sequence strictly, so grammar is always taught after students have done four skills work. In this way, grammar is not integrated into language skills but taught in separated lessons. Moreover, the grammar points in these textbooks are presented out of context. (p.35)


      In a nutshell, through Vietnamese culture view, CLT is the most effective method as its effectiveness, advantages, feasibility, and Vietnamese cultural fitness. CLT will foster Vietnamese learners communicate better as the name of it and to meet the requirement of globalization context. It is recommended that Vietnamese government, stakeholders, and ELT teachers take more consideration to apply CLT more effectively. As an ELT teacher, I think we all should have deep understandings about CLT before employing it. Particularly, teachers should be aware of the great and urgent role of CLT and Professional Development in the modern context of Vietnam as a saying goes “who dares to teach must never cease to learn”. At the same time, ELT teachers should be creative and flexible to involve learners like role-play, work-in- group activities to fully exploit CLT’s advantages in the model of CLT classroom. If education is means by which to prepare children for the complicated world that they inhabit to give the tools with which to understand new challenges, the educational system should offer a practical and effective method as early as possible. Educators and parents should consider carefully these advantages  of CLT to build a good bridge between present and future to make their children to have a bright future.


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