“Teacher Tien, may Toshi ask you a question?”
The question was asked in Vietnamese during a break in his zoom class. Toshy, a project manager in the U.S., is one of 145 students that 21-year-old Trong Thoi Tien has from eight countries – the U.S., South Korea, Netherlands, Australia, Germany, Russia, France and Canada. The youngest of the students is 18 and the oldest is 35.
Coming from different walks of life, the students share a love for and desire to learn Vietnamese culture and language, Tien says.
“This is the greatest motivation for learners of VieTalk – to try and learn Vietnamese every day,” Tien says.
A VieTalk Zoom class. Photo courtesy of Trong Thoi Tien.
Born in Ho Chi Minh City, Tien finished his high school in Vietnam and pursued higher studies in the U.S., where he saw many members of the Vietnamese diaspora unable to communicate with their loved ones due to the language barrier.
Tien, student at the Lone Star College, decided he must do something to help his community.
“My greatest strength was Vietnamese then, so I asked myself: Why don’t I teach it to them (the diaspora) and all those who love my country and culture?”
Tien spoke to his high school classmates about his brainchild, VieTalk, offering Vietnamese language lessons for free. Nearly 20 friends liked his idea and agreed to help him run the free Vietnamese language class.
The young man then reached out to Vietnamese communities worldwide, telling them about VieTalk. He was hoping to get 50-60 learners, but got nearly 600 applications in just one day.
“I had to stop receiving applications because my resources were limited. While getting 600 applications made me happy, I was also worried. I did not know whether I could do it well.”
He chose 145 learners from 600 letters, and divided them into six classes, which began in December 2020.
Tien was moved by the motivation and stories of many applicants.
Beth Trinh’s, a U.K. citizen is married to a British-Vietnamese man who always talks to his parents in Vietnamese, so “I want my future children to speak Vietnamese and connect with their roots,” she wrote in her application.
Toshi Pau has a Vietnamese-Chinese mother and a Japanese-South Korean father, both of whom speak Vietnamese fluently Vietnamese after learning the language in a refugee camp.
“I have never taught myself Vietnamese, but I think I will understand better the hardships they’ve been through if I can understand the language, then I can become a kinder person,” Pau wrote.
Such letters inspired Tien to do what he could to help people connect with their Vietnamese roots and others to connect with Vietnamese culture.
Tien (standing in the middle) and his friends in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Trong Thoi Tien.
In preparing lesson plans for his classes, Tien soon found out that he could not use Vietnamese children’s books to teach foreigners. So he used Vietnamese textbooks from some American universities.
“I contacted an acquaintance and borrowed Vietnamese books from the California University, and I created my lesson plans based on those books.”
Aiming to help his students learn basic Vietnamese in 2-3 months, he created a ten-week program. Tien and his friends spend two hours a week teaching each class. Encouraging their students to be more proactive, they use a lot of pictures, photos, and videos. In the first month, they are taught the alphabet, intonation and spelling.
This part has led to several “funny lessons,” Tien said. The Vietnamese language has dozens of pronouns, depending on age, relationship and even locations. The learners were confused, and some called Tien “ba” (grandma) and others also used the wrong word to address people.
After several classes, the learners settled down and started calling him “thay Tien” (teacher Tien).
“I don’t need them to call me a teacher, I just wanted to introduce Vietnamese pronouns. When people who are older than me call me ‘thay’ I feel a bit shy, but also happy,” Tien said.
During the Lunar New Year holiday, Tien introduced a lot of Vietnamese customs and culture to his learners.
Toshi, a member of VieTalk, said he could only speak some Vietnamese words related to food before joining Tien’s classes. But now, he can introduce himself and talk about his weaknesses and strengths.
“I feel confident. I can go to a Vietnamese shop and talk about some topics,” he said. Apart from the language, he has also learned about Vietnamese culture and traditions. Yearning to visit Vietnam with his parents in the near future, the man hopes that Tien and VieTalk will inspire more and more people to learn Vietnamese and learn about Vietnamese culture.
Trong Thoi Tien, founder of VieTalk. Photo courtesy of Trong Thoi Tien.
Every day, Tien spends three hours teaching and grading his learners’ works.
“But I have got the chance to meet people from all over the world and listen to their stories about Vietnamese culture and people. I teach them the language and in turn, I learn about their culture from them.”
In the future, he plans to expand VieTalk with more learners, teachers and other staff. After the basic course for ten weeks, he is thinking about starting an intermediate course for those who have a better understanding of the language and can go to the next level.
Some people have offered him money, and Tien said he would use it to create a website and buy Zoom subscriptions so that the virtual classes will be “more stable.”
He said VieTalk will always be free and welcome all who share a love for the Vietnamese language.
After his graduation, Tien plans to return to Vietnam and keep nurturing his love for education.
“I do not see VieTalk as a volunteer job. It is a bridge connecting Vietnam to international friends. I hope I can create a community of people from all over the world who share a love for Vietnam….”