The I Love Vietnamese Project hopes to spread the language and culture among expatriates. Claudia Davaar Lambie speaks to the founder of the group.

Ashamedly, I mutter a broken không đường when ordering my orange juice. My pronounced tones are off key and the waitress looks at me, confused.  I repeat again and can feel the girls that I am with look away, embarrassed. I quickly try again, mustering some more confidence and slur the words, slower this time. The waitress nods her head, she understands. I turn to the group slightly red faced but at least I got there in the end. It has only taken me two years.

Sitting in the first management meeting of the year for the ‘I Love Vietnamese’ Project (ILV) highlighted to me what little progress I have made with the language since moving here in 2013. The project was developed for people like me. Having arrived in Vietnam with no Vietnamese, I was desperate to learn the language; even if it was just a few words to get by. In truth, I still find the language extremely difficult with its tonal intricacies but studying with ILV for six months did help me to converse a little with the locals. For this, I am thankful.

In attendance was Jessica Chau, 24, and founder of ILV and her two friends-cum-colleagues Bao Van, 24, and Y Nhat, 23. They form part of the organising committee. There were meant to be around 10 people joining the meeting, organisers and tutors alike, but Chau admits that scheduling is one of the biggest challenges they face at ILV.

Chau started ILV to simply share the Vietnamese language and culture among the expatriate community. Since its establishment in 2011, it has grown tremendously with both volunteer tutors and expats signing up in droves to be part of the language movement. The management team was formed subsequently in order to deal with the sheer volume of work generated by the demand. At its busiest, Chau tells me that she was overwhelmed with the amount of students interested in studying at ILV. “It was crazy, in one week I received over 100 applications.”

What makes ILV unique (and slightly pulls at my heartstrings) is that the tutors are volunteers and accept no hourly fees except for the one-off VND 200,000 registration payment which covers the grammar book and printing costs. There is an expectation, however, that when they meet for their lesson, the student pays the motorbike parking for their tutor and treats them to a beverage or two. The tutors generally do not want to accept this miniscule token of appreciation. “They get embarrassed so I tell me them [to] just order La Vie,” Chau says.

I ask the million dollar question: “Why is it free of charge?” Chau explains that she realises Vietnamese is not a commonly spoken language around the world and so is happy to provide a service whereby students and tutors alike can have some fun learning about Vietnam. In some ways, knowing it does not cost ensures that students appreciate their tutor’s time.

As an ex-student of the project, the girls were interested to hear how far I had progressed with my linguistic skills since ILV. I proudly told them that I could direct the taxi driver, count in triple digits and say random words in Vietnamese like “banana” or “stop.” The girls smiled sympathetically at me. “Oh just the basics then,” said Van.

My tutor at the time, Dung, simultaneously went to university, had a part-time job and tutored me and my friend on a weekly basis. Her hard-working ethic was visibly exhausting but she made every effort to ensure her lessons were planned with learning objectives in place. Cara Giblin, 29, an ex-ILV student remembers her teacher as being reflective. “She was always keen to get my feedback on her lessons and would listen to what I wanted to study,” Giblin says.

The tutors are themselves students attending universities around the city; some are medical students and others are training to be engineers and lawyers. Whatever the mix, they all share the same passion.  After graduating from university in 2013, Chau worked at the Singapore Business Group and continued to manage ILV simultaneously but it became too much. She had to close the online student application and consider the future of ILV. Three months of to-ing and fro-ing led to Chau giving up her full time job to focus on what makes her happy: teaching English and managing the ILV Project. “It was a very difficult decision to quit as I’ve got bills to pay but I had to do it for myself,” she says.

She is now streamlining the recruitment process in the hope of finding the best volunteer tutors that ILV can offer. The recruitment day will be held at 8am at the weekend and around 50 eager volunteers are expected to show. Chau is sure that the early rise will deter those who are not truly interested. “If they don’t come then they are not really passionate about it,” she says. Nhat invites me to attend the recruitment day but warns me it will be hot. I look at her inquisitively. “It’s in the park,” she says.

The way in which ILV is structured seems to mirror a business organisation minus any desire to make a profit. There is an inspiring ‘muck in’ attitude that everyone involved adopts. No one is afraid to get their hands dirty. Luckily, as ILV has gained exposure over the years, external people also want to lend a hand. Some of the business associations have already contacted the team to donate working space for training days. A handful of professors have also agreed to donate their time and resources.

When I ask Chau about the longevity of the ILV Project she is heart-warmingly optimistic. ILV Project is like her baby and she is looking forward to seeing it grow. The team realise that this will be an arduous process but Chau remains determined, “I know it will be a long journey but it will be worth it,” she says.

Chau dreams of building a school as a home for the ILV Project and is dedicating some of her boundless energy to looking for sponsorship opportunities to make this vision a reality. Impressively, people from overseas are also becoming interested in learning Vietnamese through ILV. The far reaching effect that the project has had both at home and abroad is a testament to the hard work of Chau and her army of tutors.

Towards the end of the conversation, which was conducted entirely in English to my embarrassment, I feel a sense of guilt that I never carried on my lessons. Asking the team what the key ingredient to learning Vietnamese, they all cry in unison: “Practice!” Chau tells me, “If you connect with the community right from the beginning and practice your Vietnamese as much as possible, you will get better, eventually.”

If you would like to learn about Vietnamese language and culture with the ILV Project, applications will be online from December 2015 at www.ilovevietnamese.org