When I was a college student 10 or 15 years ago, “foreign hunting” was a popular trend. The slang describes the practice of many students, mainly those at university, wandering around tourist attractions to find foreigners and practice speaking English. At that time, “foreign hunting” was common in Hanoi, around the Old Quarter, where young people could find many tourists sitting and relaxing around Hoan Kiem Lake.
“Hunting foreigners” was indeed a useful practice to help Vietnamese students improve their English. About ten years ago, English teaching in schools focused mainly on grammar and vocabulary, when the Internet was not as easily accessible as it is today. Therefore, “foreigner hunting” was a creative way for students to hone their English skills, including speaking and listening.
However, this practice had various drawbacks, and “hunting foreigners” was far from the only way for English learners to improve their skills. This is no longer appropriate today and I think students should find other ways to practice their English.
First, terminologically, “foreign hunting” seems problematic to many people. Who are the hunters and who are the hunted in this situation? Many people disapprove of these “hunting seasons” where groups of students gather around one or two tourists, bombarding them with endless questions.
Second, not all tourists are happy to be surrounded by a group of strangers. The situation can put them in danger and trigger their defense mechanisms because it is similar to tourist scams where they would be distracted and someone would steal their stuff. Tourists also tend to feel more cautious in foreign countries where there are lower levels of cultural similarity.
Lacking cultural sensitivity, many students often raise questions regarding their private lives, such as “What do you do?” “Where are you from?” or “Are you single/married?” Living in America, I know that these questions aren’t always welcome when you’re not sure who you’re talking to. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese treat these questions as bread and butter and use them almost every time they talk to strangers.
Third, “hunting foreigners” is not an effective way to practice English. When conversing with strangers, these students usually repeat certain questions. Many tourists are only willing to answer a few questions, then the students go off to find other tourists and ask the same questions again. I believe that one can gain more confidence through this practice when done over a long period of time, but it will be difficult to see a significant improvement in English proficiency by doing so.
On top of that, “foreigner” is a nuanced term that implies people from many countries, and not all of them use English as their native language. Talking to people from different countries can help you adapt to different accents, but I think it’s not a priority for many students at the beginning of their English learning journey.
Students practice speaking English with a foreigner (on the bench) in a park in HCMC in 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
How to improve your English without “chasing out foreigners”?
Nowadays, you can find a wealth of learning resources on the Internet to help you improve your English. There are many programs and projects from non-profit or educational organizations to connect learners around the world with people from English-speaking countries, such as America, Australia and Britain. Social media also makes it easier to find friends online to practice English. . Language exchange has never been easier in the past without the development of the Internet.
Joining student clubs and organizations is also a good way to practice English. I was a member of Hanoikids – a student organization in Hanoi that offers free private tours to foreigners. Hanoikid members do not need to “hunt” strangers and they always have the opportunity to improve their communication skills, among other social skills. I must say that my English has improved considerably during my time with Hanoikids.
Spending more time practicing English through multimedia content, such as articles, documentaries and English lessons is also another effective way. At first, I didn’t watch movies or listen to music to improve my English because they used a lot of slang or informal English. Instead, I often watched documentaries in which the narrators spoke adequate English at an appropriate pace, with good grammar and a diverse vocabulary. Likewise, learners can read news in major newspapers such as the New York Times and Reuters, which use standard, easy-to-understand language.
In Vietnam, the number of cultural exchange programs has increased. Students now have more chances to participate in conferences and seminars with international students. Many embassies usually organize language exchange programs for students from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. To me, these are better ways for students to practice their English than boring “foreigner hunts.”
*Bui Minh Duc is a media specialist at the non-profit iSEE and a freelance journalist.