Sunday, April 5, 2015

October 1887: French Indochina and Vietnam's Amazing Literacy Rates

Look at these crazy stats! These are for youngsters;
they taper off a few percentage
points as age increases.
In October of 1887, France formally founded French Indochina, and with it solidified a path which would result in modern Vietnamese rates that are through the roof.


Wait, really?

Yes! But let's give credit where it's due: this story spans much more, from French Jesuit missionaries to a 8,000 word trilingual dictionary to a very recent (historically speaking) adoption of the entire written Vietnamese language.

Today's script is called Quoc Ngu, or "National Language," and is the national script of Vietnam. It's most interesting characteristic, beyond the tones inherited from it's Chinese history, are that it is in Roman characters and is pronounced phonetically! This makes it different in appearance from most other SE Asian languages, which generally looks like beautiful scribbling.

However, below the makeover it got in the 17th and 19th centuries, the grammar remains very similar to others in the regional language family (and the grammar is so easy it's almost comical, which probably also helps literacy).

In addition, literacy rates in Modern Vietnam are high. Like, really high. Per UNICEF's most recent data (2013), total adult literacy rate, 2008-2012, lies at a cool 93.4%. For youth it climbs even higher - 96.7% of Vietnamese females 18-25 are literate, and the males figure rests at 97.5%. These are STUNNING figures, and, if accurate (I'm not sure if that data was collected in-house by UNICEF or outsourced), are a serious achievement. We'll learn more about how these great literacy rates run up against the State Party and their media restrictions much later in this series, so keep these in the back of your mind.

To put this in perspective, America has an ongoing literacy crisis (as does much of the world, developed or no). 14% of American adults can't read. A ridiculous 19% of high school graduates cannot read. What. the. f*ck. (Yes, the problem is definitely unions, and not the fact that poverty shrinks your brain from birth. *eyeroll*) These numbers are from a US Department of Education paper published in 2013. If that doesn't break your brain, I don't know what will.

Ok, but backing away from the politics and back to the French (if I had a nickel)...

A portrait of de Rhodes. Even banishment,
and almost execution,
couldn't keep him away from Vietnam.
Vietnam's amazing literacy numbers didn't just appear overnight, though. In the 17th century, a French Jesuit missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes spent a decade converting Vietnamese to Catholicism, and produced one of the most important documents in Vietnamese lingual history: the Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum.

This was a trilingual Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary, and presented the Vietnamese language, derived from Chinese and still taught in Chinese characters, in the Roman alphabet. He added tonal markings, a few new vowels and consonants, and poof! Quoc Ngu, or as it was known then: Annamese.

It didn't become so influential until the founding of French Indochina, however. Before this, both scripts were in use, and use of the romanized version was concentrated in Christian Vietnamese communities. In 1910 the French government declared it mandatory everywhere and it spread rapidly through the government and educational systems, where the French held absolute management authority.

The first page of the dictionary. You can
browse it all on WikiMedia.
It wasn't until after 1954, when Vietnam declared independence from France, that Vietnamese government officials discovered that this 'new' script resulted in a much, much easier system to teach - where it took 4-5 years to master the basics of the Chinese-influenced system, this new language suddenly only took 2 years, as well as becoming more accessible for Westerners familiar with the Roman characters.

And just like that, it became officially Vietnamese. It's a fascinating language, and easy as hell to learn (just not to, you know, speak or hear). The end results are these great literacy rates. Vietnam Impressive, indeed! True, there is some illiteracy, especially among ethnic minorities, and Vietnam has implemented a few steps to try and curb these rural statistics in partnership with groups such as UNESCO and UNICEF.

Today, missionaries are prohibited from proselytizing in Vietnam. Given everything we've just learned about how drastically foreign players were able to manipulate the entire path of Vietnam's history (although over a matter of centuries), that's probably a wise move.

Maybe English is overdue for a makeover... there's really no reason 'bologna' and 'pony' should rhyme, after all.

But the French left a broader legacy than just the standardization of a national language - tune in to my next historical post, concerning the 1954 withdrawal of the French, and the complicated and interesting legacy they left behind! (Troops and politicians that is, the bread can stay. And cheese. Also some of your other foods. And your fashion. And your architecture. And you can come back and visit anytime you want.)

For all of you Christians waking up to Easter this morning, Happy Easter! And those of you inclined to worship chocolate, Happy After Easter Candy Sales!

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Hi! Thanks for speaking up! :) - Ben