Though Iâ€™ve only been in Vietnam â€“ and Hanoi â€“ for a few days, I am struck by the English language ability of its residents â€“ especially as compared to that found in Chinaâ€™s biggest cities. Whereas in Shanghai or Beijing, an English-speaking taxi driver â€“ even one who can barely discuss the fare – is a rarity worth celebrating in the expatriate community, in Hanoi it seems to be commonplace (again, Iâ€™ve only been here a few days!). Similarly, among shopkeepers. Let me be clear: Iâ€™m not suggesting fluency. Instead, I notice a few English words, here and there, and much more than in Shanghai.
But how and why?
Vietnam opened its economy and borders to foreigners only in the last twenty years. I know nothing of the education system here, but I canâ€™t imagine that English-language instruction is any better â€“ or more comprehensive â€“ than Chinaâ€™s (where English is compulsory through high school). Neither can one point to an English colonial influence on the locals (I havenâ€™t encountered much in the way of French in Hanoi).
Perhaps one possible reason for the phenomenon is the romanization of the Vietnamese language. In fact, the only place Iâ€™ve spotted Vietnamese characters is on temples and graves. In contrast, in China, romanization (the pinyin system, currently) tends to happen parallel to the use of characters and, in the countryside, not at all. Iâ€™m sure somebody, somewhere, has looked into whether romanization has a postive influence upon the adoption of Romance languages in Asia â€“ and if anybody could point me to the relevant papers or studies, Iâ€™d be deeply appreciative.