Many Vietnamese children in the UK may be fluent in English but illiterate in Vietnamese, due to the lack of language school. Misunderstanding Vietnamese and its culture, they grow up facing the “identity crisis”, not knowing where they belong to: British or Oriental.
Every Sunday afternoon, Phoi Vuong, mother of three, takes her nine-year-old daughter to Vietschool in South East London. The bus trip takes her one and a half hour from Islington. Working as a cook in a secondary school, Phoi spends 100 pounds every three months on a Vietnamese language course so her daughter can learn her mother tongue. She hopes her daughter will be able to speak to her in proper Vietnamese.
“At home, my two older children speak half English, half Vietnamese with me. I’m really sad, because I don’t want in the future they will get misunderstood. If they go back to Vietnam, I want them to be able to talk to my family, to socialise with other children, other friends in Vietnam,” Phoi says.
She regrets not encouraging her 20- and 17-year olds to continue learning Vietnamese when they were children. Now the language barrier widens the gap between her and the children in the family. Her husband in fact speaks more English than Vietnamese with her children. “I want my language to stay long in the family,” Phoi says.
Vietschool was established by Nguyen Quynh Giao as a charity in Lewisham back in 2006. It currently hires the Woodpecker Community Centre at 55 pounds per hour. Giao says in the old times there was one Vietnamese language school in nearly every borough of London, but now the number has dwindled to only two in the entire city due to financial difficulty. The other one is the Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia Community Centre for Refugees in Hackney. Learning Vietnamese has become a luxury due to limited available schools for children.
Giao’s school used to enjoy financial support from Lewisham council, but owing to council budget cuts, it has had to raise tuition fees to maintain its operation. The fee has risen from 100 pounds per year to 300 pounds per year, leading to a sharp decrease in the number of students, from 70 to 20.
In fact, there are 300 languages spoken in London, so the council does not have sufficient funds to support every language school. Besides, the Vietnamese community is no longer considered a minority and is therefore no longer a priority.
To survive, the school has organised different events to raise money, like the Lunar New Year celebration and Moon festival. Parents support the school by cleaning the venue and cooking food for children during lunch breaks. One even provides a massage service for parents waiting to pick up their children to contribute to school’s funds.
Vietnamese immigration to the United Kingdom started after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, as the government under the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher accepted refugees from its colony Hong Kong. The earliest immigrants were boat people fleeing the communists.
The Vietnamese population was estimated at more than 60,000 in England and Wales in a 2011 Census, representing roughly 0.1 per cent of the overall UK population of 65 million.
Integration to the British society was challenging to early immigrants due to the lack of language and transferrable skills. Many now flock to big cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester. In London, one third of Vietnamese population are in Lewisham, Southwark and Hackney.
Vietnamese teachers in the UK face many difficulties. “In the old times, Vietnamese parents spoke Vietnamese with their children at home. But nowadays, they tend to speak English with them. Therefore, when the children come here, most don’t even speak a Vietnamese word. They have to start learning all over again like a Western child,” principal Giao says.
Children here may speak perfect English with a London accent, but they struggle with their parents’ native language. They get confused with the tone system due to the lack of such in English.
Kevin Luu, a 13-year-old student, speaks Vietnamese more fluently than his younger classmates at Vietschool. He hopes his language skills will help increasing job opportunities yet cannot see himself doing anything relating to Vietnam in the future. He is worried about the foreseeable future of his school being shut down.
“If the school is forced to close due to the lack of financial resources, I will be very sad because some of my friends are here. I would like to learn more so I can be able to socialise with other Vietnamese”, Kevin says. At home, he does not have a chance to learn how to write in Vietnamese.
Meanwhile, Phoi hopes the British government to expand support Vietnamese school, help Vietnamese children learn and understand Vietnamese culture.