Are international schools bad for you?

Open to all workshop

By Matthew Cowan, LSU

A newspaper article did the rounds on social media in Vietnam recently because it reported that some influential people in Vietnamese society believe early second language acquisition dilutes the identity of Vietnamese children. It also stated there’s a strong belief that  it meddles with children’s identification with Vietnamese culture and their ability to learn their native language properly. This indicates an element of fear within sectors of our community that Vietnamese culture is at risk of decline because of, among other things, international schools. There is in fact a government decree that limits the number of Vietnamese students enrolled at fully foreign-owned international schools to 10 per cent.

The article goes on to report that foreign curricula, “wrongly changes the objectives of Vietnamese education” and that there is a “responsibility to protect the Vietnamese language, culture and other distinctive characteristics.” Naturally there is opposition to this line of thought. The newspaper article provides examples of Vietnamese families who dismiss the notion that early bilingualism negatively impacts on identity and argue that learning foreign languages at a young age actually enhances children’s cognitive and linguistic development.

Certainly children’s cognitive development is guided by their interaction with their immediate environment. Thinking abilities develop while in the company of people, particularly when we’re with people important to us (Grosser & Lombard 2008). Therefore, it’s only natural, given what we know about children, that they will learn things from significant others like friends and teachers. Understandably this is where some of the apparent concern in our community highlighted in the newspaper article might’ve come from, particularly from those who aren’t familiar with research in the area of cognitive development in children. Vietnamese children at international schools will naturally learn much from their immediate surroundings, quite possibly much that’s in opposition to their native culture, but research confirms that it’s not to the detriment of one’s native culture.

There’s a significant amount of literature on culture and cognition with DiMaggio’s work concluding that people have the capacity to participate in multiple cultural traditions (DiMaggio 1997). This might not come as a surprise to many of you reading this in Vietnam, or elsewhere for that matter, as it’s probably become second nature without your noticing. Nevertheless, the research findings in this field make for interesting reading.

Grosser and Lombard refer to DiMaggio and Hong et al 2000 (who have written extensively on cognition and culture) in their study on cognitive development in South Africa. They present two prominent views regarding the relationship between culture and cognition. One as culture being a latent variable – like something lurking but hidden – and the other as a ‘toolkit of strategies’ that can be called upon to help one think critically and reflexively.

Historically, culture was presumed to be acquired through socialisation alone and enacted unproblematically. It was believed to be coherent across groups and situations – something quite generic – however, more recent research has revealed culture not to be as suffusive as once thought but rather made up of complex rule-like structures. This means that given the right conditions, culture can be used strategically providing much opportunity for choice and variation. International schools, one would suggest, provide a fertile environment for this to be nurtured.

This is where terms such as ‘frame switching’ and ‘dynamic cultural approach’ enter the conversation. Frame switching is related to the internalisation of two cultures. Research has confirmed that internalised cultures don’t always blend and that by absorbing a second culture, it doesn’t always involve replacing the original culture. This is good news for those who may have been concerned that their kids’ ‘Vietnameseness’ isn’t developing as it should be, or that it might be eroding away. Hong et al. cite studies by LaFromboise et al 1993 and Phinney & Devich-Navarro (1997) that report bicultural individuals allow their two internalised cultures to take turns in guiding their thoughts and feelings. Not only that, it’s thought that frame switching may occur according to context, with cues such as home or school as triggers, or with symbols, such as language. It’s most likely then that Vietnamese kids who attend international schools frame switch constantly from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep at night, particularly between home and school where their cultures may be quite different.

Finally, in even better news, children who frame switch are more likely to develop better critical thinking abilities as they tend to have a greater number of beliefs, attitudes and strategies tucked away in their cultural toolboxes at the ready.

And that has to be good for students at international schools and Vietnamese society in the long run.

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4 responses to “Are international schools bad for you?”

  1. Allyson Keane says :

    Great article, Matt! When we lived in Vietnam, my daughter lived in a house where Vietnamese, Chinese, English, Tagalong and French were spoken, and she attended French kindergarten for two years. I saw her naturally switching frames from school to home, and even to some of the other linguistic/cultural idiosyncracies in our home… can’t say it has done her any harm! We were fascinated though, when she started to dream and talk in her sleep in French! That’s when I knew she had truly started to internalise the language. These days, two years on, she doesn’t remember much French, but she has only just turned 6 and is reading books at 8-10 years old level, has an astonishing vocabulary, and is very sharp at maths too. I see this as part of the advanced cognitive development offered by learning a second language at a young age, and makes me feel better about exposing her to new cultures and languages from a young age… and she still identifies as an Aussie. It isn’t a case of either/or when it comes to culture, it’s not a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ situation, and that children can only be enriched by exposure to as many educational stimuli as we can provide.

  2. Stephen McGrath says :

    A well-written piece covering all the bases, but quite probably way over the heads of those doing the complaining. Furthermore, might I suggest that those people have other reasons than what they presented for being concerned? I don’t think I need to elaborate on that.

    • LSUvietnam says :

      Thanks again for your comment Stephen. We’re glad you liked it, and yes, the question you raised has been discussed in our office ; ) We look forward to hearing from you again. Cheers.

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