I was going to write a post about the ways in which South Korea and Vietnam are similar and different, but the lists got too long (and perhaps bordered on the stereotypical). Instead, I am going to post my thoughts about learning – more specifically, learning English. My inspiration came from this article from the NYT Magazine which addresses how to support new college students who come from lower socio-economic statuses and thus often have less support to succeed in post-secondary education.
In Saigon it’s common for a group of university students to approach you and ask if they can just talk to you — to help with their English skills. If any American walks through a park, I can almost guarantee they will be approached and asked to take some time out to have a conversation with a group of 3-7 young people. These conversations often last for 15 minutes or so; it’s up to the person’s schedule, but students will come and go as the conversation progresses (most stay), and new people join in. Look around the park and you see as many as 20 groups going on at once, while other Vietnamese scan the pedestrians looking for a willing conversationalist.
Yesterday Dave and I ended up each talking to a small group for almost two hours. Usually, the conversation runs through pretty basic stuff “How long have you been here?” “Where are you from?” – the goals of these sessions, as I understand them, are for the students to practice speaking and listening – both for content as well as for pronunciation. For example, Dave and I were asked how to pronounce “winner” vs. “winter.” We found that he and I say the latter differently, probably based on where we grew up; I was also a bit surprised that these two words are said almost identically by some (I tend to enunciate the “t” more in winter, making for a slightly better distinction between the two words; I blame Canada for this).
When I told my group I taught at an American University, they became even more engaged in the conversation. The questions got deeper: “how do I get a job?” and, strikingly, “how do you succeed? I am afraid of failure.” — they continued to express fears of failing: courses, not getting a job, not finding a partner, etc.
I think many young people feel this way, but for some reason here it is OK to talk about it. I did not witness this vulnerability among young people (or anyone) in South Korea. I am finding in Saigon, there is a culture of trying and it being OK to make mistakes. In South Korea, where they are also mandated to learn English, I found very few people trying to practice their skills. Even the Korean-native English teachers at Dave’s school were hesitant to talk to me. The few that braved to do so would apologize and say that their English wasn’t very good and they knew they were making mistakes. After a few sentences, they would stop talking. These people, too, were afraid of failure, but instead of admitting it, they just didn’t really want to try. In Vietnam (at least Saigon), there is an acceptance around being more open about struggling with something, saying it up front, and continuing on. I have encountered this with older adults who approach me and just want to have a conversation – they say their English isn’t great (note: it’s usually pretty dang good) but they still want to sit down with me, talk to me, and also teach me some basic words and customs of their own.
I could go into a litany of theories as to why this cultural difference seems to exist in terms of making mistakes. But really what this observation highlights to me is the importance of allowing young people, no matter where they are from, to be able to make mistakes: to admit “this is hard, what do I do?” — as long as there are people there to support them when they ask. This is true whether someone is trying to speak a foreign language, get a job, or find a partner. I think it’s important to hear messages like, “It’s OK to mess up. Sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t,” and, “When things don’t turn out so well, try again. It will probably go better next time. You learn from mistakes and from that learning you have a greater chance of doing better.” It’s a message that anyone can convey to another, and based on the article that inspired this post, just hearing this message can go a long way in encouraging the success of a young person – and it’s even better when a young person can reframe the message and apply it.
On a personal note, I got a D on my first midterm at college and ended up majoring in that field — but I believed enough in my ability (thanks to my own educational and family background) to go to the professor and ask for help. I wasn’t used to doing so poorly, so I went in and asked what I was doing wrong and he was really encouraging, nice and helpful (and tolerant of my tears). I have no idea what would have happened – what my educational goals would have been – if he didn’t take time for me at such a crucial juncture.