2012: Cassie Brenn

Language and Culture in Hanoi

SOSA 2012 Winner for her project in Hanoi, Vietnam (EAP)

Cassie Brenn - 2012 SOSA Winner for EAP
Cassie Brenn – 2012 SOSA Winner for EAP

Pop Quiz! Please answer the following questions. Each answer will contain the word “head.”

What are the correct terms for the following:

  1. A plastic toy model of a spud, with add-ons to make faces.
  2. To be sick with congestion and sneezing.
  3. A popular dandruff shampoo.

These are a few sample questions from the popular board game “Buzzwords.” Soon after my arrival in Hanoi, I played this game with a group of Vietnamese students at the American Center.

Vietnamese college students flock to the center to practice speaking English. They are desperate to improve their language skills. For these students, English means better educational and work opportunities in a developing country that is just opening its doors to new international relationships. As a native English speaker, I was a rare resource in a country with few American visitors. An informal hour of games and conversation seemed like a good plan, but as I read the questions above and others like it to the students, I was met with dead silence.

How many answers did you know? Did you guess Mr. Potato Head, a head cold, and Head and Shoulders shampoo? If you answered these questions easily, then you are probably an American.

It hit me that the problem wasn’t that they didn’t understand the words on the cards. Many of the students had a good grasp of the English language. They could define each word individually. But they still didn’t know the answers to the questions. It was like an inside joke that “you had to be there” to appreciate.

To understand American English better, the Vietnamese students needed to understand American culture better. From this idea, the “Culture Connection” was born. The wonderful staff at American Center Hanoi helped me organize a structured conversation hour. Each week, I chose a topic about some aspect of life in the United States and presented it to the students. Afterward, we would have a group discussion or activity.

The Culture Connection was a success. Soon our small drop-in group of 15- 20 students grew to 40, 60, 80 or more at a time. Instead of a single discussion group, we broke up into six or more smaller groups, with me bouncing from one to another.

I didn’t know it at the time but I had stumbled upon what is called the “communicative method” of language learning. Research shows that studying a topic or content area in English rather than studying structure and grammar is a more natural; closely resembling the way we learn our first language.

Learning about American culture was engaging and fun for these Vietnamese students. The benefits went beyond language acquisition, however. The Vietnamese students improved their knowledge of the US as well. They could now challenge the stereotypes about Americans that they had learned growing up in a communist country.

But, as they learned about America, the students were also teaching me about Vietnamese culture. I learned about typical Vietnamese foods, the students’ views on dating and marriage, and their hopes and fears for their country in the coming years. I shared some of my newly acquired knowledge by writing articles about Vietnamese culture for the post newsletter.

If you would like to start a similar program at your post, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Discussion topics do not have to be complicated. Some of the best topics from the Culture Connection series were also the most mundane. Grocery shopping in the US was a very popular subject, for example, because it is a very different experience than in Vietnam. This topic also sparked an important discussion on the influence of Western convenience foods on the Vietnamese diet.
  • Videos are a great resource for showing real Americans speaking English. But not all of the videos from sites like YouTube and Vimeo may be appropriate. When choosing a video, keep in mind the age and the cultural sensitivities of your conversations group. Also, try not to pick anything too long or complicated: you may lose some of your lower-level students.
  • Plan some topical activities. These are not only fun, but they help students relax under the pressure of learning. Decorate sugar cookies when talking about Christmas, print and read online advertisements from US stores, play games.
  • “What do you think?” might be the only question you need to start a lively debate on any topic, but be prepared with follow up questions to keep the conversation going.

Cassie Brenn, a 2012 winner of the Secretary of State’s Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad (SOSA), loves all things travel and gets to indulge her passion as a Following Spouse. She currently lives in Hanoi, Vietnam with her husband, but they soon will be departing for their next big adventure in Islamabad, Pakistan.