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English lessons not just for the rich

Update: March, 31/2017 - 10:55
Nguyễn Tự Sánh helps his students practise speaking English at one of his affordable pronunciation classes in Hà Nội. — VNS Photo Bảo Hoa
Viet Nam News

Bảo Hoa

HÀ NỘI — It was around 8pm and the lights inside the classrooms of the University of Architecture were still on.

The sounds of young adults pronouncing English words echoed from the first classroom on the 6th floor. Only half the room was full, with 15-20 students filling up the first three rows of tables.

A young teacher stood on a podium with a textbook in one hand, using the other to indicate intonation while he recited – with an almost perfect American accent – English phrases and words to his students. 

He wrote the letter t on the blackboard then instructed his students to pronounce it. “Let your tongue touch your hard palate then gently pull it back down,” he said, then went on to teach them how to pronounce "tea", "total" and "interaction" correctly.

The teacher, Nguyễn Tự Sánh, was barely 24 when he founded the class in 2014. Having majored in English himself at Hà Nội University, his PEC (Perfect English Class) offers affordable pronunciation, communication and conversational English courses for poor students and students with special needs.

Nguyễn Tự Sánh at one of his affordable English pronunciation class in Hà Nội. — VNS Photo Bảo Hoa

With classrooms rented at five universities in Hà Nội, the two-hour PEC classes take place on every weekday.

His two-month pronunciation course costs only VNĐ450,000 (US$20), but is free of charge for poor students and discounted 50 per cent for near-poor students who are able to present relevant documentation.

The idea came to Sánh after a one-year full-scholarship study in Italy in 2012, and he started teaching at a number of English centres in Hà Nội. “I often heard my students complain that the tuition fees are too high, so I thought maybe I could do something similar but more affordable,” he said.

His first class started in October 2014 in the form of a community class, after eight months of consideration and careful planning, he said. Though the tuition fee was planned to be affordable, some poor students always asked for extensions of payment deadlines, he said.

“I agreed when they asked, and felt quite okay,” he said. “I just thought, ‘the more people I can help, the better’”.

“At that time I started hanging out with a friend who follows Buddhist teachings and does a lot of charity,” he added. “That’s when I decided to offer free courses for poor students.”

In two years of implementation, PEC has trained some 4,000 students to communicate in English. With the experience of a former English lecturer at Hà Nội University, Sánh said he planned his curriculum carefully based on research and methods by Stephen Krasher, Tonny Robbins and A.J. Hoge.

Nguyễn Tự Sánh at one of his affordable English pronunciation class in Hà Nội. — VNS Photo Bảo Hoa

Each of his class has two teaching assistants who are responsible for helping students practise speaking English in pairs or small groups, most of them were once students of the class themselves. After taking one or two courses, those with the highest results will be invited to become PEC teaching assistants and will have the chance to become PEC teachers after completing six to eight months of pedagogical training.

“It is those teachers and teaching assistants that make PEC different,” Sáng said. “They understand the class dynamic and students’ needs because they have been there.”

Trương Khánh Linh, a pronunciation class’ teaching assistant, said she has learned so much from Sánh and not just English skills. “I observed and learned how he organises the class, as well as public speaking and presentation skills,” she said.

Trương Thu Hương, a first-time student of a basic pronunciation course, said she is "really satisfied" and looking forward to the upper-level courses. “I’ve tried learning with many English centres but felt they weren’t suitable for me,” she said.

“At PEC I get one-on-one speaking practice,” she added. “Sánh came up wih all kinds of fun learning activities for us but he is also very serious about us doing homework, so it both pressures and motivates us to improve ourselves.”

Nguyễn Tự Sánh instructs students at one of his affordable English pronunciation classes in Hà Nội. — VNS Photo Bảo Hoa

Bread and butter

The financial side of the English community class project isn’t easy for Sánh and his colleagues. Nguyễn Thị Như Nguyệt, deputy head of the class management team, said sometimes money was so tight that she and Sánh considered giving up. Besides classroom rental fees, tuition fees are used to pay allowances to the teachers, teaching assistants, promotion team and volunteers, she said.

“We don’t want them to work for free, so we pay them, even if it’s little – some VNĐ300-500,000 ($13-22) per month,” she said, adding that allowances for Sánh and herself are not much higher.

As they are planning to turn the class into an English centre by the end of this year, the legal procedures, paperwork and venue renting fees all add up to financial worries.

“We’re both working side jobs to prepare for what will come next,” Nguyệt said. “It’s hard, but we’re young – we should be doing something meaningful.”

Such thinking makes her and Sánh a great team. “I’m young, and I don’t think youth should only focus on making money,” Sánh said when asked why he chose to maintain PEC as a community class instead of commercialising it.

“’Give first, then you will receive,” he says. — VNS

 

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