The Mutilation of Our Mother Tongue

(Part 2): Re-shaping a language

Tyler Nguyen is a Freshman at Columbia College, majoring in Financial Economics. He was born in Michigan, USA, but was brought up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for the first 11 years of his life before moving back to the US for high school and college.

In Part 1 of his submission, Tyler shared an original poem written in response to a new educational curriculum in Vietnam that risks seriously altering the Vietnamese language for future generations. This is the accompanying article written by Tyler, detailing the way this new system works to change the way Vietnamese children read, write and visualize their mother tongue.

Edited by Jade Yeen Onn

Last week, I stumbled upon a strange, disturbing, video of a young Vietnamese child learning how to speak his own language with the help of his father. In the video, the child was reading out of the National Textbook for Vietnamese — the standard textbook published by the Vietnamese Department of Education — and all that was on the page were a bunch of squares. Squares, as you know, are shapes, not words. However, the child was somehow reading the shapes on the page as if they were different words. To the father’s disbelief, his son was pronouncing the 14 identical blue squares as perfect lines of Vietnamese Lục Bát* poetry about Hồ Chí Minh! I soon learned that the youth in Vietnam are now learning a very different language than I did.

When I first learned the Vietnamese Language at a state charter school in Ho Chi Minh City, the situation was very different. The first book we opened in first grade was the National Textbook for Vietnamese as it was paramount for all student to learn our Mother Tongue before all else. Its first page introduced the way to pronounce the “b” consonant sound. The class then heartily practiced in unison with our teacher, Ms. Nhung, the different words that one can make with the “b” consonant:

“B and E makes Be”

“Be and the ‘sắc’ accent make Bé”

This continued as we made our way through the 29-character Latinized alphabet and its many accents. Before long, we were able to speak and write in the most coherent manner.

However, most Vietnamese students in 2018 are not going through the same curriculum. In 2013, the Vietnamese Department of Education sanctioned a change in the Language curriculum and an extra book was integrated into the syllabus. That book, named The Educational Technologies Supplement, was written by one Professor Hồ Ngọc Đại in hopes of “revolutionizing” the way we Vietnamese pronounce and form words. Professor Hồ, a psychologist and linguist, studied in the USSR for many years before returning to Vietnam to pursue his teaching and writing career. In this supplement, students are taught to correlate pictures of shaded or unshaded shapes to different sounds. For example, to pronounce the word “Bé”, which means “child” in English, the students under the new supplement must break down the word into two shapes: The Consonant Square and the Vowel Square (see Figure 1). Then, the students must put the two smaller squares together and form the word with the accent. The result is a terribly complicated way of pronouncing a simple word, which often causes great confusion for teachers and their students. Many other complicated rules exist in the supplement but, for the sake of simplicity, this article will not address them.

Figure 1: Instructions in the supplement on how to replace words with “blocks” and “shapes” for first-graders.
Source: VietBao

Moreover, this supplement forces first-graders to memorize the words and transcribe them into corresponding shapes in place of learning how to say them. Soft consonants, such as “s” or “x”, are represented as circles while harsher ones are drawn as squares or triangles. This then promotes a sense of parrot-learning where the students fail to pronounce the words individually but instead, pronounce the shapes that the words go with. In some writing exercises, the student must even write in shapes and not words (see Figure 2). When learning Vietnamese, is it not the purpose to know how to write and read in Vietnamese characters? Professor Hồ begs to differ. He opines that one must be able to distinguish the differences between the consonant, auxiliary, and vowel sounds. He promptly disregards the necessity of reading without aids such as shapes or diagrams.

Figure 2: Instructions in the supplement for how to draw shapes to form poetry or sentences. 
Source: VietBao

We can see the results of this drastic alteration of our language when first-graders can read lines of shapes in Vietnamese but fail to discern what word each shape represents. Even though the supplement is still in its testing phases and is only deployed in certain areas of Vietnam, we can already see the damage being done. However, since Vietnam is not the most democratic country (an understatement), its citizens, notably the parents, have no say in the state-mandated curriculum their children are currently being taught. Nonetheless, I feel most sorry for the young generation as they have no idea of the ever-degrading quality of their very own Mother Tongue, even as they learn it. Unfortunately, most of them will not be able to read a Vietnamese newspaper in the future if this outrage persists. Even worse, I would presume that the Vietnamese Department of Education would give the solution of printing newspapers in the shapes that will henceforth be our (mutilated) Vietnamese language.

In response to this disgraceful act, I present to you, Professor Hồ, a Lục Bát* poem titled for and written in the language that you so truly despise: Our Mother Tongue.

*Lục Bát is a traditional form of Vietnamese poetry consisting of couplets with six and eight syllable lines

unSEAled is Columbia University’s Southeast Asian Zine, a new mini-magazine focusing on sharing Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian-American voices. 
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