Why are you learning Japanese? Vietnamese university students’ perspectives on work and life between Vietnam and Japan

Why are you learning Japanese? Vietnamese university students’ perspectives on work and life between Vietnam and Japan

This post is based on an article published in the Asian Studies Review. The full article can be read here; current ASAA financial members will be able to access the article for free if logged into the website.

Why do Vietnamese university students learn the Japanese language? Until now, issues of language teaching in higher education have been studied mainly in relation to English and/or English as a medium of instruction. In Asia, foreign language teaching predominantly means English language teaching. In 2009, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) officially adopted English as its sole working language to facilitate integration and cooperation within the community. This decision appears to be at odds with ASEAN’s principle of respecting the different cultures, languages and religions within the community, and it has had a significant impact on multilingualism in the member nations: English has replaced local and indigenous languages other than the national. In other words, the choice of English as the working language has contributed to further strengthening the national and dominant languages in the region, but its impact on other foreign languages remains largely unknown.

In the case of Vietnam, Wright observed almost two decades ago that foreign language study was a barometer of Vietnam’s relations with other countries and its foreign language curriculum had been directly affected by those relations. Wright argued that ‘unless Vietnamese workers acquire the languages demanded by investors, Doi Moi [economic reform] is unlikely to succeed in bringing employment for the Vietnamese.’ How did her prediction apply to Japanese language?

In 2008, the Vietnamese government issued Decision 1400 on ‘The Teaching and Learning of Foreign Languages in the National Education System Project, 2008–2020’ (Project 2020) with the expectation that enhanced foreign language capacity would increase the nation’s competitiveness within the ASEAN community. Project 2020 has promoted not only the country’s first foreign language, English, but also second foreign languages such as Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Russian, reflecting Vietnam’s political history and local industry connections. Project 2020 specifies that foreign aid should be used for the development of education and training, and encourages educational institutions to form collaborative relationships with organisations in foreign countries whose languages are in demand and considered appropriate by the government. It has been reported, however, that the heavy reliance on support from Japan has caused various problems in Japanese language education.

Vietnam’s higher education system has been criticised for failing to meet the growing demand for skilled labour and for not producing graduates who possess ‘the knowledge and skills that employers consider necessary in the changing labour market geared towards the global economy’. The notion of ‘job-ready graduates’ has been increasingly dominant in higher education in the era of globalisation and the global economy, and the Australian government defines job-ready graduates as those who meet the needs of employers and the future workforce. Languages are treated as an economic asset, but as Rojo argues, this capital improves individuals’ competitiveness and productivity in the workplace but does not ultimately provide advantages to those who possess it, because the benefits are primarily reaped by their employers. Certainly, the choice of language to study is an individual act, but as Holborow reminds us, ‘real language choice hardly exists anywhere in the unequal world of today’.

The motivations of language learners have been studied extensively in the field of Second Language Acquisition in relation to learner identity and intercultural understanding. Japanese language learner motivation has also attracted some interest. Gao and Lv investigate Chinese learners of Japanese as a foreign language in China and explore the relationship between their motivation for learning Japanese and their engagement with China’s shifting political and historical discourses on Japan. Some studies of Japanese language learners in Australia look specifically into Japanese popular culture as a source of motivation, although Armour and Iida find that interest in popular culture does not necessarily motivate young people to study Japanese formally or to an advanced level. These studies demonstrate that motivation is multifaceted—cognitive, emotional and sociocultural—and that historical and contemporary dynamics between the communities of the target language and the language learners interact in shaping language learner motivation.

For this study, online surveys and follow-up face-to-face interviews were conducted with university Japanese language students and teachers in Hanoi in 2019, to understand their view of Japanese language programmes and their learning and teaching experiences at university. During follow-up interviews, many students elaborated on their study and work experiences and career plans using Japanese. Based on this research, our article argues that although these students’ Japanese language learning experiences have been shaped by the university curriculum, including internships and study abroad programmes in Japan, they have developed their own views of their future employment opportunities using Japanese. Their perspectives do not necessarily coincide with those envisaged by universities, governments and industry. Japanese language skills are essential for employment in Japan or Japan-related companies outside Japan, but since language is inseparable from individual learners’ personal growth, the benefits of learning the language are realised not only by the employers but also by the Vietnamese students. Therefore, we argue, the notion of university Japanese language programmes that solely meet the needs of employers must be revisited.

Dr Kayoko Hashimoto is Senior Lecturer in the School of Languages and Cultures, University of Queensland, Australia. Her main research areas are language policies and Japan's educational policies. She has been Asian Studies Review Language and Education Thematic & Review Editor since 2013.

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