Keeping the Swedish Mother Tongue

The United Nations International School of Hanoi (UNIS) is the biggest international school in Hanoi with about 890 students from nearly 50 nations around the world. UNIS has strong ties to Sweden due to the fact that the school was established by Sweden and the United Nations in 1988. Back then there were no schools for foreign kids in Hanoi so Sweden and the UN, who at that time were involved in aid projects in Vietnam, decided to establish a school of their own. This school grew and became UNIS.
Because Sweden had been involved in founding the school the Swedes made an agreement with the UN allowing Swedish students to take Swedish during school hours. Thus, Swedish became the only Scandinavian mother tongue to be fully integrated into the UNIS curriculum. Other mother tongue languages such as German, Danish and Dutch are also available, but these are only offered after regular school hours as extra curricular activity.
Students at UNIS have the possibility of enrolling at grade two when they are about 7-8 years old. Graduation is in 12th grade at the age of 17-18 after which most students go abroad for their university degree.
Most Scandinavian students at UNIS come from Denmark, 29 students, the second biggest group is from Sweden, 20 students. Norway has eleven students and Finland four. The majority of students are from Vietnam and Korea. Since a lot of the local Vietnamese schools are at a lower level compared to western schools many wealthy Vietnamese families choose to send their children to UNIS. However, in order to keep the school truly international, the school policy dictates that one single nationality shouldn’t be larger than 20 percent of the total student body.

Teaching at UNIS
Charlotta Ekman is a Swedish teacher employed by UNIS but paid by the Swedish School Association, which cooperates closely with UNIS due to the historic relation between the school and Sweden.
Charlotta recently moved to Hanoi to start teaching UNIS’ Swedish mother tongue classes. Even though Charlotta just started five weeks ago she already feels comfortable in her new surroundings despite the fact that working as a teacher at UNIS is very different from teaching in the Swedish schools.
Her new job at UNIS means longer working weeks but unlike her previous job in Sweden she now has only two students per class because the number of Swedish students at UNIS are quite limited. In Sweden Charlotta used to teach classes with up to as many as 30 students.

UNIS is the best!
13 year old Swedish twins Louise and Alexandra Lien are students of Charlotta and study Swedish at a regular basis as part of the Swedish mother tongue program. They moved from Sweden to Vietnam in 2006 because their parents, Molly and Christian, got a job at the Embassy of Sweden in Hanoi. The girls speak mostly English in school and have become so good at it that their Swedish accent is almost none existing.
Even though Louise and Alexandra are twins they are very different both in looks and personality. Louise is a big fan of sports and technology while Alexandra is more into softer subjects as art and nature. Both of them attend basketball as an after school activity, though not entirely voluntarily but more because their mother wants them two, Alexandra says with a big laugh.
School days are typically from 8.15 to 15.25 after which Louise and Alexandra have to do about two hours of homework every day, depending on the teacher.
“At UNIS you learn a lot more than in the Swedish schools. The education is better, it’s more serious, you work harder in school and you have more assignments. It’s a bit harder but after a while you get used to it,” Louise says. The teachers are also firmer than in Sweden.
`“In Sweden we didn’t have to work hard at all. You could just sit and talk to your friends in class and the teachers wouldn’t care, but here they are more strict about it,” Louise adds.

Tuff but worth it
Another of Charlotta’s Swedish students, 17 year old Carl Wingårdh, has spent a big part of his youth in Vietnam, approximately 7 ½ years. Before Vietnam he lived in Singapore as his father, August Wingårdh, had a job there working for Ikea. They moved to Vietnam because his dad left Ikea and started the furniture company UMA in Hanoi. So even though Sweden is Carl’s native country he has only lived there for a very small part of his life.
“I don’t really count Sweden as my home anymore. Vietnam is more like home because I’ve lived here for such a long time,” Carl says.
Despite not considering Sweden as home, Carl still visits Sweden regularly and has friends there.
At UNIS Carl studies subjects as Swedish, English, business management and computer science. He doesn’t know what he wants to work with in the future but he is interested in engineering, so it will probably be something in that area, he thinks. After graduation in two years he would like to go back to Sweden for a year and then go abroad again preferably to Europe where he wants to attend a university with an international campus like the one at UNIS.
Like Louise and Alexandra, Carl considers UNIS to be tuff because the school expects more from the students which often results in big piles of homework. But Carl accepts the terms in that he knows that the school’s diploma is very prestigious and that it can help him get accepted at reputable universities. Carl especially likes UNIS for its open-mindedness. He thinks the open-mindedness comes from the fact that the school houses all sorts of people with different backgrounds and cultures.

Not forgetting the Swedish heritage
All three students are very happy to be in the Swedish mother tongue programme. In class they learn about Swedish language, geography and literature.
“It’s very fortunate that we have this chance. Without these classes I probably wouldn’t be able to talk Swedish,” Carl says. Carl only talks Swedish to his parents. With his sisters and Swedish friends he uses English because he feels more comfortable this way. Louise and Alexandra share the same view.
“The Swedish mother tongue classes are good because we get a change to catch up with everyone else in Sweden so we don’t forget our mother tongue,” Louise says.
Besides studying Swedish language, geography and literature they also learn about Swedish culture.
Once a year during Christmas the Swedish classes get together for a St. Lucia Day event in honour of Saint Lucia – a young Christian martyr who lived between the year 283 and 304. For the procession the students dress in white gowns, while carrying candles and singing the St. Lucia song. In Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland it’s a tradition to hold a St. Lucia Day event. This is why Danish, Norwegian and Finnish students at UNIS often join in when the Swedish students get ready to prepare for the annual event. The students spent altogether four weeks practising after which they visit the employees at the Swedish Embassy. Sometimes they also go to Ikea and Ericsson’s offices in Hanoi. Every year they sing at the Swedish Embassy as it is a mandatory destination.
Carl has taken part in the procession since he started at UNIS. But after so many years of preparing and doing the same thing, the event has kind of lost its charm, he says.
The St. Lucia Day procession is also a part of the schools community service programme. A programme dedicated to help the local community. Every year the students have to do a certain amount of hours.
“It’s a weird thing to have to do but it is a good thing knowing how to take care of your community and to not just focus on your school work. It’s very important,” Carl says. Also Alexandra and Louise appreciate the community service programme. Right now they are helping the local vet with the animals every Friday.

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