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FEATURE STORY April 13, 2021

A Vietnamese Deaf Teacher’s Story Sheds Light on Overcoming Barriers to Integrate into Society

Born deaf, growing up with linguistic barriers, and as a result, a sense of isolation and loneliness, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Anh didn’t give up. Instead she rose to the challenge and became a primary education teacher – and a fighter for a future without language barriers where deaf children can develop equally to those who can hear.

A lip-reading childhood

Ngoc Anh’s parents were sad when they learned that their daughter could not hear. But they were determined to give their child the same education as other children. Their first stop was a kindergarten in Hanoi for hearing children where Ngoc Anh was quickly left out of games with peers because she could not understand what they were saying. Next was Xa Dan school where Ngoc Anh and her fellow students learned to read lips and associate them with words. Day by day, patiently observing the movements of her teacher’s lips, Ngoc Anh could finally babble some words.

Lip reading was not enough for Ngoc Anh to go with her daily life. Language and learning remained barriers she needed to break to be able to socialize with her peers, family, and others.

Feeling trapped in an unknown future consisting of superfluous conversation, incomplete sentences, and indecipherable vocabulary, Ngoc Anh was determined to communicate, to be understood, and be part of the whole community. She wished she could find an institution with a decent sign language education that could broaden her knowledge and fully enhance her capacity to communicate.

Sign language: “the light and faith” of my life

Mastering sign language by learning from peers opened the path for Ngoc Anh to pursue a higher education at the National College for Education. There, teachers tried to learn sign language from deaf students and used it together with visual methods during most lectures. It was a collaborative and supportive environment for deaf students.

The more knowledge Ngoc Anh gained, the more confident she became. She started participating in activities with the Hanoi Deaf Club, supported by Intergenerational Deaf Education Outreach (IDEO, a World Bank-funded project). One of her proudest and most unforgettable experiences was teaching deaf preschoolers in the IDEO project. Ngoc Anh recounted that “deaf children can learn similarly to their hearing peers if they are taught sign language as early as possible. If they start their education with the help of symbols, they can absorb lessons quickly and be ready for first grade. Language acts as a foundation for students to extend their knowledge for higher education levels.”

Teacher Ngoc Anh instructs 7-year-old student Nguyen Ngoc Bao Chau during a Vietnamese lesson. Photo: Le Thang/The World Bank

"In school, I was able to write down simple Vietnamese words rather than build a meaningful sentence, express myself, or convey my complete thoughts. This greatly depressed me. I kept wondering why my parents and others around me could hold long conversations, but they struggled to understand me, which to me was a big disappointment."
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Anh

Visual teaching strategies support deaf students’ learning better

Such striking realizations encouraged Ngoc Anh to become one of the 500 sign language teachers and teaching assistants trained in the 4,000-Vietnamese sign word catalogue and 150 Vietnamese sign language-based Math and Vietnamese video lessons.

These resources were developed under the Quality Improvement of Primary Education for Deaf Children QIPEDC) project, supported by the Global Partnership for Results-Based Approaches (GPRBA) of the World Bank, and funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The project aims to increase access for deaf children to primary education using Vietnamese sign language (VSL) to improve their learning outcomes and is implemented by the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) in 20 provinces.

The use of sign language plays a fundamental role in educating deaf children. “Applying methods designed for hearing students to teach the deaf is not a good strategy, since deaf students cannot absorb the information through those methods. Therefore, applying visual strategies is helpful,” according to Ngoc Anh.

In addition, the partnership between the schools and families is vital in the process of educating and preparing deaf students to become successful. Parents should also learn sign language so that they can communicate with their children and encourage them to express themselves. This can give them a chance to communicate on ordinary things like chores, hygiene, and express their opinions and explore talents and hobbies.

Teacher Ngoc Anh instructs 8-year-old student Dam Thi Minh Nguyet during a math lesson. Photo: Huynh Cuong/The World Bank

The story of Ngoc Anh is not only about the journey to become a primary education teacher and overcoming adversity.  It is a statement for the powerful role of sign language – an essential tool for deaf children’s development. Sign language is a communication tool for the deaf community, it is part of their culture and identity. It is by teaching and using sign language that deaf children can communicate, learn, grow their mindsets and overcome barriers to integrate into society.

Deaf pupils should enjoy opportunities to study sign language equally to hearing ones studying spoken language,” says Ngoc Anh.