A Study into English Learners Needs in Vietnam

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Needs analysis is a useful tool to understand students' needs and to help the implementation of educational policies (Munby, 1978, Richterich & Chancerel, 1980, Van Els et al., 1984). In recent years, language teaching has become more and more learner-centered, that means "Everything starts from him and everything goes back to him. It is not merely in relation to him, but with him, and depending on his resources (time, available cash, personality, etc.) that his learning objectives will be defined, that the methods of judging when and how they have been attained will be selected, and that a curriculum of learning (by curriculum we understand all the means employed to attain the objectives: teacher, teaching materials, technical aids, methods, timetable etc.) will be made available to him." (Richterich & Chancerel, 1980, p.4-5) Based on this conception, learners' needs need to be analyzed and based on consideration of these needs, learning objectives can be selected and precisely defined, so that administrators of the language institutions and teachers can use the result as a basis to construct or modify existing systems in order to suit the learners the best.

Needs analysis theories

There is a long history of analyzing student needs in ESL, EFL field (Richterich & Chancerel, 1980, Buckingham, 1981, Van Els et al. 1984). All the studies show that needs analysis plays an important role in second language or foreign language teaching. Richterich & Chancerel (1980) suggest that learners were at the center of the teaching system.

It is important to seek a compromise between the learners' resources available, objectives, curricula thought and the resources, objectives, methods of assessment and curricula of the teaching units/institution and the society. As a result, needs analysis can help the learners to awaken their awareness of what they need, the teacher to adapt his teaching accordingly, the producer of the teaching materials to develop their material to suit learners' needs, and the administrator and teaching executives to plan and adapt learning systems.

The term needs analysis generally refers to the activities that are involved in collecting information that will serve as the basis for developing a curriculum that will meet the needs of a particular group of students (Iwai et al., 1999).

Brindley (1989) and Berwick (1989) offer definitions of different types of needs and accounts of various problems and limitations in making use of this concept, including ways in which we might usefully distinguish between needs identified by analysts and those expressed or experienced by learners. In his state-of-the-art article, West (1994) gives a thorough overview of needs analysis in language teaching, including its history, theoretical basis, approaches to needs analysis, etc.

According to Iwai et al. (1999), formal needs analysis is relatively new to the field of language teaching. However, informal needs analyses have been conducted by teachers in order to assess what language points their students needed to master. In fact, the reason why different approaches were born and then replaced by others is that teachers have intended to meet the needs of their students during their learning.

From the field of language teaching, the focus of this paper will be on ESP. Clearly, the role of needs analysis in any ESP course is indisputable. Needs analysis is considered the first step in course design and it provides validity and relevancy for all subsequent course design activities.

Though needs analysis, as we know it today, has gone through many stages, with the publication of Munby's Communicative Syllabus Design in 1978, situations and functions were set within the frame of needs analysis. In his book, Munby introduced 'communication needs processor' which is the basis of Munby's approach to needs analysis.

Needs analysis can be done before the course, during the course or with a combination of both. Needs analysis done before the course starts, foster knowledge of the learners' resources, objectives, and curricula, which they consider suitable. It can also be undertaken during the course, in order to ascertain whether learners resources are in line with the course they are following, whether the objectives can be attained and whether the methods of assessment used appropriate to judge the learner progress. The present research is done during the course in order to serve the latter purposes.


In Foreign Trade University in 1995, they have done a study of Vietnamese learners' needs and have evaluated the course books available. They used a questionnaire survey method by sending out 400 questionnaires and mailed to non-native speakers of Vietnamese who were staff in two Vietnamese institutions and some expatriates working in the business sector. At the end of the survey 183 questionnaires were returned; a response rate of about 45%. There are three major groups of expatriates in Vietnam with different attitude towards learning English. The first group makes no attempt to learn English. They think that English is useful but difficult to learn, and not essential because they can get along fine without it. The second group focuses on their mother-tongue rather than English. They view learning Vietnamese is more prestigious and useful. The third group (with a significant number) do make effort to learn English but with a varying degrees of success.

The present research focuses on the third group, since our institution involves more than half in the English learning population in Vietnam. It is more in-depth to look at the needs of the learners learning the language at present. The present research also has an instrumental purpose that is to identify learners' needs in order to develop appropriate teaching materials, teaching method, and to match the available resources of our institution with the learners' expectations. The questionnaire used in the present research will adapt the one used in Foreign Trade University (1995) with some modifications in order to suit the current situation of the institution.


Questionnaires and semi-structured one-to-one interviews will be used in collecting data. About 70 learners in FTU will be given the questionnaires and about 10 will be selected for short interviews. Each interview will last for about half an hour. The questionnaire data will be analyzed statistically on a quantitative basis while the interview data will be on a qualitative basis.

The questionnaire is divided into four parts. The questionnaire asked the respondents to identify: (1) what language skill they think most important (they are asked to rank the skills, such as reading, writing, speaking, listening, etc.), (2) situations in which they need English, (3) their attitudes towards English as a language and their experience in learning English, (4) their personal data, which includes whether they need to use English at home, with whom they use the language, how long they plan to stay in Vietnam, and other factors which may affect their learning attitude and motivation.

In part I, students are asked to rank the language skills they think important and the domains in which they need to use the language. In part II, students are given various situations where they think or they actually used English. In this part, a four-valued-scale is used, that is "always", "most of the time", "sometimes", and "never". Part III consists of some open ended questions, which consist of their attitudes towards English and difficulties they encountered during learning English. Part IV questions are for gathering biographical data.

At the end of the questionnaire, respondents are asked whether they would like to take part in a short interview by putting their name down. Subjects for interviews are picked randomly from those who show a positive response towards having an interview. A sample questionnaire is attached in Appendix I for reference.

The second phase of the research is to conduct interviews. Each interview lasted for about half an hour. The investigator talked to the subjects one by one and took notes in each interview. The setting of the interviews was casual; it took place in students' common room, cafeteria, canteen, etc. The reason for choosing a casual setting is to avoid subjects feeling nervous, so that they can express their feeling and attitude freely. The questions in the interview are also about the reasons for learning English, attitudes towards English and students' learning habits. A set of the questions used is attached in Appendix II.


All the learners show that they are interested in learning the target language, English, as a foreign language in the data. Despite various reasons behind, they all like to use the language in their working and private life. Some of them find English difficult. The tones and the ever-changing colloquial expressions do give them a challenge. Teachers and teaching materials play an important role. Teachers need to be helpful and be able to arouse learners' interests in learning the language. Materials need to be authentic, up-to-date and have cultural elements. Since most of the learners intend to learn the language for working or finding a work in Vietnam (which is reconfirmed in the interviews), more job-related materials or courses need to be developed. In addition, learners also enjoy using the language and practice the language in their daily life while living in Vietnam. New materials or curriculum would build in more cultural elements and more lively daily conversations.