Struggling mum goes to ends of the earth to teach daughter English

July 07, 2020 - 08:50

For a poor single mother who couldn’t afford to send her kid to an English language centre but wanted her to speak English fluently, the tourist-crowded complex in her hometown in northern Ninh Bình Province was a godsend.

Khánh Linh

HÀ NỘI — In the melting hot summer of 2017, Lê Thu Hương drove her motorbike 14km every noon to take her daughter to Bái Đính Pagoda.

For a poor single mother who couldn’t afford to send her kid to an English language centre but wanted her to speak English fluently, the tourist-crowded complex in her hometown in northern Ninh Bình Province was a godsend. Her daughter would get the chance to meet and talk to many native English speakers, Hương thought.

However, it was not an easy start. Phạm Hương Mai, her eight-year-old daughter, refused to talk to anyone for the first three days.

The girl had practised speaking to herself for two years but starting a conversation with a stranger was a real challenge.

But her mother didn’t give up.

“She held my hand and showed me the way,” Mai said.

“She told me to say hi and introduce myself and asked me what the visitors said. I translated for her, and she would think of something for me to say to continue the conversation, and tell me in Vietnamese so I could say it in English.”

“I felt secure having my mum right beside me.”

They did it every day for the next three months, carrying with them five bottles of water and several instant noodle packs for lunch, staying at the temple from 12pm until 3pm so Mai could speak English.

“I can’t remember exactly how many visitors we spoke to and how far we walked around tourism sites in our hometown,” the mother said.  

Phạm Hương Mai guides foreign visitors around Bái Đính Pagoda - the spiritual and cultural complex in her hometown in northern Ninh Bình Province. — Photos courtesy of Lê Thu Hương   

When the summer holiday ended, the girl went back to school but they still went to practise English every weekend.

“I’ve seen the progress that my child has gained every single week. From a simple basic conversation, she knew how to keep the conversation going and never ran out of things to say after a short period of time. She no longer needed me to accompany her,” Hương said.

That’s when the mother thought of a way to bring her English to a new level.

“I told my kid to try introducing Bái Đính Pagoda to foreigners. It was a serious job and needed a lot of practice,” she said.

Living in a small rural village in Nho Quan District’s Sơn Hà Commune, the mother had no one to seek advice from. All she had to do was the internet on her old laptop – one of the most valuable things she owned at that time. 

“There’s an ocean of Vietnamese information on the internet. I had to translate it into English, write it down into a notebook and help my child learn this knowledge,” Hương recalled.

The work consumed more time than she thought. Working as a farmer in the rice fields all day and not speaking a word of English, Hương stayed up till 1-2am preparing lessons for her kid to be a tour guide. And Mai spent up to three hours every day learning about the pagoda.

Their hard work paid off and the story of the little tour guide quickly spread thanks to her thorough knowledge about the structure, history and data involved in the complex of the spiritual site on Bái Đính Mountain and fluent English ability.

In mid-December 2017, Mai appeared in the áo dài (traditional long dress) in the VTV television series Little Big Shots Vietnam. The little girl impressed the audience with her confidence and fluency when presenting an eight-minute-long bilingual introduction about Bái Đính Pagoda in her hometown.

Mai was 10 years old at the time.


Hương Mai improves her English speaking skill by giving a tour to foreign visitors around Bái Đính Pagoda.

“I’ve strived to nurture a passion for my kid by helping her learn English. I want her to dream big and fly high. There’s nothing you can do in a small corner of the house,” Hương said.

Big things start with small steps 

In fact, to prepare for the future, the mother and daughter have made a lot of things in the small corner of her house.

The eight-square-metre area, located between the bed and the kitchen and divided by aluminium sheets, was Mai’s study space. A small bookshelf occupied most of the space. A tiny table was on the bed, where Mai sat to study next to the pillows and blanket. The aluminium sheets were used as the board. It was full of English new words, phrases and grammar structures. On the old wall were certificates Mai earned thanks to her excellent academic performance.


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Hương said she made a monthly income of roughly VNĐ2 million (US$86.6), so sending her kid to an English language centre was out of the question. 

“There’s one thing I know for sure is that I must be with her, accompany her, encourage and push her forwards on her study journey,” the mother said.

It was a long journey when Hương chose to conquer the new language by herself. 

Hương decided to cut half of her workload and used every minute of her day when her child went to school to study speaking skills and pronunciation on the laptop. At noon, she would practise speaking with her child. 

Hương set a rule for both two of them – spending at least 30 minutes reading English books and listening to native English speakers two hours per day. To have enough time to do it, Hương copied English songs and short conversations and played them when Mai was bathing or eating.

That's been their routine every single day for three years.

Mai slowly made progress from saying a single word to speaking a long conversation with a broad vocabulary.

“When my child reached an intermediate level, I had nothing to teach her,” Hương said. “I shot video clips of her speaking and posted them on the internet to get comments for her to correct and improve herself”.

Mai has also learned how to create a mind map, give a presentation and made her own YouTube channel to share experience in learning English.

New milestone

Last winter, the mother and daughter took a bus to Hà Nội to take the entrance exam for Đoàn Thị Điểm Secondary School, a top private school in the city. Mai earned a full scholarship.

“It was a milestone in our life. It was such a good chance for my daughter that I couldn’t say no,” Hương said.

Hương had never left her hometown before and had no experience in moving to another place. She found a 10sq.m house at the cost of VNĐ2 million ($86.6) near the new school and sold fresh fruits to earn a living.

The mother and daughter have adapted to their new life and new school well. Hương also helps two of her nieces back in her hometown to apply for a full scholarship at Đoàn Thị Điểm Secondary School with the same method that she used with her daughter.

After learning about her story, many parents have contacted her via Facebook to seek advice for their kids. Hương has created three groups to help parents exchange experience in the journey to help their kids learn English, maths, and Vietnamese.

“She’s a brave person in my eyes and has done everything for me. I have a full life because of her,” Mai said.

Currently, the mother and daughter are studying English at EV Academy, an online school base in England following the UK national education curriculum, as a way of preparing for Mai’s big dream – studying abroad.

Hương is now working on a book about the journey to knowledge. The book is expected to be published by the end of this year. — VNS