In 2000, a new school offering instruction in Ho Chi Minh City Sign Language opened in Dong Nai Province, Vietnam, with the support of the Nippon Foundation. The school has had a profound impact not only on the students and their families but society at large. The students, finally able to follow what is going on in class, have achieved new academic milestones and gained confidence in themselves. One of the graduates became the first deaf person to gain admission to university.
Classes for people who “listen” with their eyes
Dong Nai Province is about an hour’s drive northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, the center of economic activity in the south of Vietnam. The province is also home to a large number of large factories built with foreign capital. The sign-language school is part of the Center for Research and Promoting Deaf Culture, situated in a two-story building on a quiet corner of Dong Nai University in Bien Hoa, one of the province’s main cities.
The day of our visit coincided with the last day of classes before summer vacation. The scene in the classes stood in stark contrast to classes for the nondeaf. Students’ eyes were all riveted on the teacher. They didn’t look down at their textbook and nobody was gazing out the window. After listening to the teacher’s explanation, students raised their hands and began to earnestly ask questions. The rest of the class fixed their attention on each student asking a question.
Nguyen Thi Hoa, the director of the center, says this is common in sign language classes. “Deaf people can’t rely on their ears and must ‘listen’ with their eyes. Students have to keep their eyes on the teacher. Sign language keeps them focused during class and leads them to a deeper understanding.”
In Vietnam, students in junior high school and high school must take a standardized test at the time of their graduation. Hoa notes that the students at the center have consistently outperformed hearing students in Dong Nai Province. At the end of the academic year, students receiving an overall grade of “excellent” number the highest, and some even are awarded merit scholarships from the provincial government. Thanks to the education they have received here, they are now able to reach their potential.
The center got its start in 2000 as the Dong Nai Deaf Education Project, supported by the Nippon Foundation. The project encompassed a number of courses, including classes for junior and high school students in sign language, a junior college teacher training course, and an interpreters’ training course. In 2007 a graduate from the school gained admission to a university, becoming the first deaf person in Vietnam to do so. The project subsequently came to the attention of the Vietnamese government for its achievements, and funding was eventually made available by Dong Nai Province. Accordingly, fiscal 2010 marked its final year as a Nippon Foundation project.
Hoa describes some of the changes that have occurred over the last 13 years. “In the old days, people didn’t want others to see them using sign language and find out they were deaf. Deaf children, for example, would immediately stop signing when somebody passed by. At the time, nobody thought of sign language as a language in its own right. Deaf kids at regular public schools were considered dim-witted, and most were not able to go to junior high school. Thanks to Dr. Woodward, we realized that sign language really is a language and that it is only natural deaf people use it.”
Impact on Government Policies
Hoa also notes that the project set in motion a process of change. “The start of classes in sign language at the school triggered change with repercussions for deaf people in Vietnam. The students were the first to change. They became more interested in their studies once they knew what was going on in class and could ask questions in sign language about points they didn’t understand. Their grades improved, and they became more confident, optimistic, and outgoing.
“The families were the next to change. Before it was not unusual for parents to try to hide the fact their children were deaf and forbid the use of sign language at home, but after visiting the school and seeing the change in their children, many parents decided to learn sign language themselves. Ultimately, society at large began to change. The provincial government, impressed by the school’s success, decided to fund the program, and this in turn made it possible to grant admission to all applicants.”
In 2012, Lam Nguyen, who was a member of the first incoming class and one of the first graduates to receive a college degree, was hired by the school as a math teacher. Nguyen says that when he was young, he went to a school for hearing children and was told he probably couldn’t go to junior high because his grades were bad. This was in 2000, just when the project was starting up, Nguyen enrolled in the new school at the center, and his grades improved dramatically. By the time he graduated from junior high school, he ranked first in the province on the standardized test. “I decided I wanted to be a teacher because of my experiences at this school. I wanted to be able to help students have the same chance to find out that studying is fun.”
One of the students in the college course says she has lived apart from her family in the dormitory since starting junior high but is very happy with her situation. “Back at home, I wasn’t able to use sign language and didn’t have any friends. I love it here, because we can speak to our heart’s content. Studying is a lot more fun, too.”
Many schools for the deaf provide students with hearing aids and continue instructing them in spoken language and require them to read lips. And some sign language schools have had to shut down because they were unable to get funding from the local government.
Hoa nonetheless believes it’s only a matter of time before the idea that sign language is a primary language takes root. This is because almost all of the graduates of the center’s high school have continued their education, with the aim of getting a teacher’s license. Currently, eight people are enrolled in the college course. They come from all parts of the country. When asked what they dream of doing in the future, all seven give the same answer: go back home and work as a teacher there.
The hope they gained from classes taught in sign language is the message they want to bring to deaf children back home.
Photographs by Hisayoshi Osawa