Global Impact

Connecting with Vietnamese Language and Culture

A second-generation Vietnamese American, junior Valerie Nguyen feels more connected to her roots than ever after a semester in Carolina’s new Vietnamese language pilot program.

A hillside in vietnam

A second-generation Vietnamese American, junior Valerie Nguyen feels more connected to her roots than ever after a semester in Carolina’s new Vietnamese language pilot program.

A second-generation Vietnamese American, junior Valerie Nguyen feels more connected to her roots than ever after a semester in Carolina’s new Vietnamese language pilot program.

Nguyen’s parents immigrated to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War, and Nguyen grew up speaking mostly English, slowly losing her connection to her family’s first language. Taking part in the Vietnamese language pilot program has been invaluable as she reconnects with her heritage.

“I learned a lot about my culture and heritage by strengthening my Vietnamese language skills,” she said. “I am now able to communicate with my family and learn about our family history and immigration story. In other words, it has given me back a piece of myself that I thought I would never otherwise find.”

Organized by the Carolina Asia Center and the UNC Study Abroad Office, with support from the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs, Carolina’s Vietnamese language pilot program is allowing students to enroll in introductory Vietnamese language classes at SOAS University of London, which specializes in the study of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

“In a practical sense, I hope students gain a basic knowledge of Vietnamese language and culture,” said Becky Butler, Southeast Asia coordinator of the Carolina Asia Center and adjunct assistant professor in linguistics at UNC-Chapel Hill. “More broadly, I hope the course offers every student a new way to conceptualize and discuss the world around them.”

The Tar Heels in the program meet their instructors and classmates over Zoom twice a week to gain language skills and cultural knowledge about Vietnam. While traveling for study abroad was temporarily postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this program allowed students to learn remotely from a European university with classmates overseas.

“I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I picked up reading, writing and speaking even though I was never formally taught,” Nguyen said. “I am excited because now I feel that I have the basic foundation so that even when this class ends, I will be able to self-teach myself more words in Vietnamese during my free time.”

Students chose to enroll in the program for various reasons, such as looking to pick up a professional skill, trying something new, connecting with Vietnamese-speaking friends, or because they are heritage speakers.

“Heritage speakers often take language courses to connect more deeply with their families or cultures more generally, so their motivation is often more personal,” Butler said. “I hope those students, in particular, are able to strengthen those connections.”

That is exactly what happened for Nguyen.

“My favorite part of this class was being able to apply what I learned in class to real-life at home, speaking with my parents and extended family,” she said. “This past holiday season, being home, everyone was very impressed with how good I’ve gotten at Vietnamese and my ability to effectively communicate with our family. It has been such a rewarding experience.”

The program is, in part, a response to the growing student demand for increased representation of Southeast Asia in UNC-Chapel Hill’s curriculum.

“Interest in Southeast Asian studies at UNC has been slowly but surely growing over the past several years thanks to a lot of hard work from certain faculty and staff, and due in no small part to students interested in the region, including our growing numbers of Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian-American students,” said Butler.

The Vietnamese language pilot program is also helping the University find a new way to meet a number of longstanding goals, including preparing students for successful careers after graduating.

“Of course, all of us want to keep the University internationally engaged — even amid the pandemic — by teaching students about the world and preparing them for the increasingly globalized workplace after they graduate,” said Kevin W. Fogg, associate director of the Carolina Asia Center.

Fogg believes the program will help the University better meet the needs of the people of North Carolina since Vietnamese is the most commonly spoken language in North Carolina homes not currently taught at any UNC System school.

“Teaching Vietnamese, including through this virtual Vietnamese pilot, is key to preparing the future leaders of the state who can serve this community,” said Fogg.

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