A second language can open many doors

Update: June, 26/2014 - 09:18

by Thu Huong Le

Photo duhocanh

A recent draft document from the Ministry of Home Affairs has raised an interesting discussion. It revolves around whether high-ranking government officials should be required to master at least one foreign language, as the draft suggests.

For English, the requirement is level five to six, the highest level in Viet Nam's language proficiency framework. This makes the standard compatible with the Common European Framework of Reference.

Simply speaking, level five to six means achieving advanced levels of writing, listening and communication skills in both professional and personal settings.

The draft document has been criticised by some as unnecessary, a product of those who sit in air-conditioned rooms and know nothing about reality. Others applaud the move, saying that it could pave the way for a new generation of Vietnamese leaders who embrace global integration.

Many argue that the requirement is unnecessary because high-ranking officials usually have personal interpreters tagging along at international conferences, overseas trips and at meetings with foreign delegates.

So why bother? In addition, most of the officials are too busy to learn. And most are probably too old to learn.

In some cases, some leaders prefer to use Vietnamese as a matter of national pride. However, surely officials who are capable of communicating in another language can boost our national image.

I'm all for the second language option. Our beloved national leader, Uncle Ho, mastered French, English, Chinese, Russian and Italian - to name a few - during his years of living, working and travelling abroad.

Other notable linguists included Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, a negotiator at the Paris Peace Conference and a former vice president, and Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh, a well-known Vietnamese diplomat.

But I argue that it's not only officials working in foreign affairs or ambassadors who need to know at least one foreign language. From personal experience, a common scene at international conferences is that the Vietnamese delegation often stick together while members of other countries engage in lively discussion.

Ministerial officials rely on interpreters during meetings, but for small talk during coffee breaks for example, relying on interpreters can be very awkward and distracting.

Not so long ago, a photo of an English banner at a ceremony at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism was widely circulated in the social media. It spelt the word "signing" as "singing", and "speed dome" as "speedom." A ceremony to open Viet Nam's first peace-keeping centre also spelt the word "ceremony" as "ceremory".

These examples of a lack of professionalism can also be taken by our international friends as a lack of respect by Vietnamese agencies. In addition, it shows that the officials were not aware of the errors, leaving their assistants to do a second rate job on their behalf.

If they were more language competent, officials could double check for such mistakes. In any case, they should be more aware that a little sophistication goes a long way in the world of today, especially when you are trying to impress people - or getting them to part with money.

As Viet Nam becomes more engaged with the rest of the world, language competence for officials is a win-win situation. Going abroad, they represent the country, improve the national image and understand international opinion better.

They don't need to be as excellent as suggested in the draft regulation, but the ability to communicate and comprehend basic elements in a conversation should be at least a pre-requisite.

In an interview with a local newspaper, Vu Anh Tuan from the Institute of Leadership at the Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics and Public Administration, said that foreign language competency had not received enough attention in the training of public officials.

Tuan, however, said the language competency suggested in the draft would be unattainable for many officials, especially those not educated abroad. This, he warned, could lead to attempts to buy "certificates" or "diplomas".

The requirement could be lowered, but there should be a long-term planning strategy to develop a new generation of leaders who are more language competent.

Even without being given a push, people of influence must realise that in representing the country in the global arena, they do not just speak for themselves, but the whole nation. — VNS