Vietnam/ 4.2 Specific policy issues and recent debates  

4.2.5 Language issues and policies

Vietnamese (tiếng Việt) is the national and official language of Vietnam. It is the mother tongue of Vietnamese people (Kinh), and of about three million Vietnamese overseas. It is also spoken as a second language or a first language by many ethnic minorities of Vietnam.

Vietnamese was linguistically influenced primarily by Chinese, which politically prevailed in the second century B.C. With the rise of Chinese political dominance came radical importation of Chinese vocabulary and grammatical influence.

As contact with the West grew, the Quốc Ngữ system of Romanised writing was developed in the seventeenth century by the Portuguese and other Europeans involved in proselytising and trade in Vietnam. However, the Romanised script did not predominate until the beginning of the twentieth century, when education became widespread and a simpler writing system was found more expedient for teaching and communicating with the general population.

In terms of language groups, there are three big linguistic families in Southeast Asia, the linguistic family of the Southern islands and the Chinese-Tibeto linguistic family. The languages of Vietnamese ethnic groups belong to eight different groups:

Việt-Mường Group: Chứt, Kinh, Mường, Thổ.

Tày-Thái Group: Bố Y, Giáy, Lào, Lự, Nùng, Sán Chay, Tày, Thái.

Mon-Khmer Group: Ba na, Brâu, Bru-Vân kiều, Chơ-ro, Co, Cơ-ho, Cơ-tu, Cơ-tu, Gié-triêng, Hrê, Kháng, Khmer, Khơ mú, Mạ, Mảng, M’Nông, Ơ-đu, Rơ-măm, Tà-ôi, Xinh-mun, Xơ-đăng, Xtiêng.

Mông-Dao Group: Dao, Mông, Pà Thẻn.

Kađai Group: Cờ Lao, La Chí, La ha, Pu Péo.

Austro-Polynesian Group: Chăm, Chu-ru, Ê đê, Gia-rai, Ra-glai.

Chinese Group: Hoa, Ngái, Sán Dìu.

Tibeto Group: Cống, Hà Nhì, La Hủ, Lô Lô, Phù Lá, Si La.

The Vietnamese Constitution guarantees equality between nationalities, each ethnic nationality has the right to use their own language and script, and the national culture and identity are preserved and developed.

Well aware of the importance of the language policy in its activity in the ethnic nationality domain, the Government of Vietnam has early formulated sound guidelines and direction for the ethnic language policy, whose main contents are as follows:

  • popularising and developing the mother tongues of the ethnic minorities, and
  • popularising the Vietnamese language among the ethnic groups and turning it into the lingua franca of the whole nation.

To put into effect the guidelines mentioned above, the following main activities have been launched:

  • Conducting studies to create scripts for those ethnic groups that never had one, and improving those already in existence.
  • Teaching Vietnamese in all primary schools in the mountainous areas after the ethnic school children have learned their mother tongues for a couple of years and bilingual education is to be carried out during primary education.
  • Practising literacy of adults in both the mother tongue and in Vietnamese under the stipulations of the Law on the popularisation of Primary Education. This is a very difficult task since the ethnic groups account for seventy-five percent of the total illiteracy in the 15–35 age group (about five million people). Along with textbooks in Vietnamese, there are quite a few textbooks in H'Mong, Jarai, Khmer, Thai and Tay.

Adult literacy in ethnic languages has helped develop the ethnic cultures and languages. The ethnic learners are very proud of their national scripts. The contents of the syllabuses for adult education are varied, including traditional culture, national history, customs and traditions, local geography, protection of the environment (forests, flora and fauna), household economy and science and technology. The forms of adult education in ethnic languages are also diversified. The ethnic learners may attend regular, informal, or in-service schools and classes.

  • Providing a favourable environment for the use of ethnic languages. The ethnic languages exist in written and spoken forms that are utilised without restrictions in culture and art, administration and postal services, radio and TV broadcasting.
  • Publishing bilingual books in Vietnamese-ethnic languages on science technology, business management, etc., and bringing out a few papers in the ethnic language in multinational mountain provinces. Quite a large number of literacy works in ethnic languages have been published. This is a good source of complementary materials for adult education in the ethnic areas.
  • Every year, national and ethnic festivals are held in Hanoi, the capital, and other provinces as well. This is also a good opportunity to promote the development of cultural and linguistic exchanges between the ethnic groups.

Chapter published: 30-11-2013