Francophonie in Vietnam

Francophonie in Vietnam

by Tyler L.

Today, we will examine the status of French in Vietnam, particularly recent policies that have attempted to strengthen French-language education in Vietnam, as well as the discrepancy between government endorsement of French and its actual usage and presence.

French has been a presence in Vietnam since the 19th century. Under French colonial rule (1887-1940), French was established as the official language, and was required to pass education exams and gain social mobility. Upon Vietnam’s independence in 1945, Vietnamese was recognized as the national and official language. However, language conflict continued as French continued to be used in French-controlled urban areas and in education. The 1954 Geneva Accord split the country into North and South Vietnam, dividing this language struggle. In the North, Vietnamese became the exclusive language of instruction with the strict establishment of national language policy. In the South, French remained much more powerful, due to French cooperation and aid, French-educated people in government, and the continuation of a strong French education system for the elite. Gradually, though, English began to surpass French. English language training began as early as 1957 and continued to increase especially after 1986, when the ‘open door’ policy of doi moi was established and many English-speaking foreigners arrived in the country, prompting the emergence of English as the main foreign language. From 1996 to 2006, English grew at unprecedented speed, with approximately 90% of foreign language learners studying the language.[1]

Currently, Vietnamese is the only official language of Vietnam, and French speakers constitute a very small minority. A 1997 New York Times article covering the Francophonie summit estimated that less than 1 percent of the 75 million Vietnamese spoke French, and that the percentage that spoke fluently was “not very great.”A French newspaper article in 2001 estimated approximately 375,000 speakers, stating that 0.5% of the population speaks “de façon courante ou occasionelle” (in a regular or occasional manner). Thus, among the already small percentage, it is not clear how many of those speakers are fluent or how many use the language on a regular basis. According to the French embassy in Vietnam, French speakers represent 0.5% of the population.

Despite the small percentage of French speakers, Vietnam has been active in the global Francophone community. Vietnam has been a member of the OIF (International Organization of Francophonie) since 1970 and they hosted a 1997 summit on Francophonie. There is a relatively high presence of French media considering the percentage of speakers, including a French television broadcast on VTV, the main channel in Vietnam, and a French-language newspaper, Le Courriel du Vietnam.

In recent years, however, fewer and fewer students have been learning French. Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, a main hub of foreign language training, has seen a decline in number of applicants for its French department, from 230 in 2007 to 152 in 2011. Other universities have closed their French departments or reduced them to a bare minimum. The dean of the department, Nguyen Hoang Trung, cited rising demand for English competence among businesses, both local and foreign, including French ones. A 2011 conference reported that only 20 percent of Vietnamese university graduates majoring in French had the chance to use the language at work. A French department graduate stated that it was hard for her and her classmates to find a proper job, unlike those who had studied languages like English. In a YouTube video, a Vietnamese man who had studied French and looked for French-speaking work only to have the project cancelled speaks to this experience, noting that “le français est consideré la deuxième langue étrangère” (French is considered the second foreign language) and not popular.

One problem might be a lack of instructors and investment; universities only have a few lecturers and many graduates of French departments don’t want to work as lecturers despite support from France. This is despite the first phase of the Enhancement of French in Southeast Asia project (VALOFRASE), which from 2006-2011 was implemented to enhance universities and educational organizations’ capacity to teach French language. According to Trung, the survival of French teaching and learning in Vietnam mainly depends on the government’s policies.

Indeed, recent top-down efforts to revitalize French have continued. The second phase of the VALOFRASE enhancement project hopes to popularize the French language in the region. In March 2013, the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam began French language courses for civil servants as part of a cooperative agreement between Vietnam and OIF. Last week, Vice State President Nguyen Thi Doan emphasized Vietnam’s relationship to French-speaking countries and Francophone organizations at a reception for Adbellatif Miraoui, President of the Francophone University Agency (AUF). The two expressed a desire to promote the role of the Francophone community and expand French language training. Miraoui asserted that French lessons are important to Vietnamese students.

Based on the percentage of speakers, it seems that French has a much smaller role in Vietnam than in other OIF member countries such as Senegal or Canada, where French is an official language and has a greater population of speakers. This may be true from a linguistic standpoint, but from a cultural and political standpoint, French remains strong. Historically, French was a marker of the urban elite, and though French may be losing popularity with young educated people, it remains an important factor in Vietnam’s politics. France, recognizing its influence in Vietnam, has an interest in promoting the language and maintaining political ties. Vietnam has shown a high level of cooperation and strong relationship with French government and Francophone organizations, despite the fact that policies targeted at increasing French language education have had little effect. Speakers in Asian countries represent only 1.17% of the Francophone world (2.5 million people), but despite this, the French diplomats’ website statesL’Asie est le continent où la langue française connaît le plus fort potentiel de hausse” (<span”>Asia is the continent where the French language has the greatest potential for growth). According to Nguyen Hoang Trung, “the survival of French teaching and learning in Vietnam mainly depends on the government’s policies.”

Indeed, it seems that French has survived in Vietnam largely due to aggressive promotion of the language and Francophone media in Vietnam, disproportionate to the percentage of speakers. Yet how long will these French-language policies and media survive if speakers are dwindling and interest in studying the language wanes, even if government continues to support these initiatives? This speaks to the broader question of to what extent the government should enforce a language, especially one that has such a complex history as French in Vietnam, a language that has been heavily influential in the culture while at the same time representing colonial domination. While French may not be widely spoken, it retains a strong influence in the Vietnamese language and culture. Many Vietnamese words are direct loanwords from French, such as “ăng lê: anglais,” “cà phê: café,” and “ga tô: gateau.” Colonial architecture can be seen in buildings such as the Hanoi Opera House, and famous dishes such as ph and banh mi combine French and Vietnamese influences. Perhaps ultimately, Francophonie and its promotion is not just about language, but about a shared cultural and historical heritage.


[1] Thinh, Do Huy. The Role of English in Vietnam’s Foreign Language Policy: A Brief History. EA Education Conference 2006.
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