For Mongolians, E Is for English, F Is for Future

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Feb 15 15:44:49 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,

February 15, 2005

For Mongolians, E Is for English, F Is for Future

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia - As she searched for the English words to name the
razor-tooth fish swimming around her stomach on her faded blue and white
T-shirt, 10-year-old Urantsetseg hardly seemed to embody an urgent new
national policy.

"Father shark, mother shark, sister shark," she recited carefully as the
winter light filled her classroom. Stumped by a smaller, worried-looking
fish, she paused, frowning. Then she cried out, "Lunch!"

Even here on the edge of the nation's capital, in this settlement of dirt
tracks, plank shanties and the circular felt yurts of herdsmen, the sounds
of English can be heard from the youngest of students - part of a
nationwide drive to make it the primary foreign language learned in
Mongolia, a landlocked expanse of open steppe sandwiched between Russia
and China. "We are looking at Singapore as a model," Tsakhia Elbegdorj,
Mongolia's prime minister, said in an interview, his own American English
honed in graduate school at Harvard. "We see English not only as a way of
communicating, but as a way of opening windows on the wider world."

Its camel herders may not yet be referring to one another as "dude," but
this Central Asian nation, thousands of miles from the nearest
English-speaking country, is a reflection of the steady march of English
as a world language. Fueled by the Internet, the growing dominance of
American culture and the financial realities of globalization, English is
taking hold in Asia, and elsewhere, just as it has in many European

In South Korea, six private "English villages" are being established where
paying students can have their passports stamped for intensive weeks of
English-language immersion, taught by native speakers from all over the
English-speaking world. The most ambitious village, an $85 million English
town near Seoul, will have Western architecture and signs, and a resident
population of English-speaking foreigners.

In Iraq, where Arabic and Kurdish are to be the official languages, a
movement is growing to add English, a neutral link for a nation split
along ethnic lines. Iraqi Kurdistan has had an explosion in
English-language studies, fueled partly by an affinity for Britain and the
United States, and partly by the knowledge that neighboring Turkey may
soon join the European Union, a group where English is emerging as the
dominant language.

In Chile, the government has embarked on a national program to teach
English in all elementary and high schools. The goal is to make the nation
of 15 million people bilingual within a generation. The models are the
Netherlands and the Nordic nations, which have achieved proficiency in
English since World War II.

The rush toward English in Mongolia has not been without its bumps. After
taking office after elections here last June, Mr. Elbegdorj shocked
Mongolians by announcing that the nation of 2.8 million would become
bilingual, with English as the second language. For Mongolians still
debating whether to jettison the Cyrillic alphabet imposed by Stalin in
1941, that was too much, too fast. Later, on his bilingual
English-Mongolian Web site, the prime minister lowered his sights and
fine-tuned his program, developing a national curriculum devised to make
English replace Russian in September as the primary foreign language
taught here.

Still, as fast as Mr. Elbegdorj wants the Mongolian government to proceed,
the state is merely catching up with the private sector.

"This building is three times the size of our old building," Doloonjin
Orgilmaa, director general of Santis Educational Services, said, showing a
visitor around her three-story English school that opened here in November
near Mongolia's Sports Palace. This Mongolian-American venture, which was
the first private English school when it started in 1999, now faces
competition from all sides.

With schools easing the way, English is penetrating Ulan Bator through the
electronic media: bilingual Mongolian Web sites, cellphones with bilingual
text messaging, cable television packages with English-language news and
movie channels, and radio stations that broadcast Voice of America and the
BBC on FM frequencies. At Mongolian International University, all classes
are in English. English is so popular that Mormon missionaries here offer
free lessons to attract potential converts.

Increased international tourism and a growing number of resident
foreigners explain some developments, like the two English-language
newspapers here and the growing numbers of bilingual store signs and
restaurant menus. During the first eight months of 2004, international
tourist arrivals here were up 54 percent; visits by Americans doubled to
nearly 9,000, helped by popular Mongolian movies like "The Story of the
Weeping Camel." Foreign arrivals increased across the board, with the
exception of Russians, whose visits declined by 9.5 percent. That reflects
a wider decline here of Russia's influence and the Russian language. Until
the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian was universally taught in
Mongolia and was required for admission to universities.

"Russia is going downhill very fast," said Tom Dyer, 28, an Australian
teacher at the Lotus Children's Center, the orphanage where Urantsetseg
was describing the shark family.

Russia, leery of immigration from Asia, has imposed visa requirements on
Mongolians. China has not. Today, it is hard to find a Mongolian under 40
who speaks better than broken Russian. Within a decade, Mongolia is
expected to convert its written language to the Roman alphabet from
Cyrillic characters. "Everyone knows that Russian was the official foreign
language here," T. Layton Croft, Mongolia's representative for The Asia
Foundation, said in an interview. "So by announcing that English is the
official foreign language, it is yet another step in a way of
consolidating Mongolia's independence, autonomy and identity."

So far, Beijing has adopted a laissez-faire stance toward Mongolia's
flirtation with English, even though China is now the country's leading
source of foreign investment, trade and tourism. Such a stance is easy to
maintain because Chinese-language studies also are undergoing a boom here.

For a trading people known for straddling the East-West Silk Road,
Mongolians have long been linguists, often learning multiple languages.
But for many of Mongolia's young people, English is viewed as hip and

"Chinese is very boring," Anuudari Batzaya, a fashionably dressed
10-year-old, said in the Santis language lab, pausing an interactive
computer program that intoned in crisp British vowels: "When he lands in
London, he'll claim his baggage, and go through customs."

Stopped on a sidewalk on a snowy afternoon here, Amarsanaa Bazargarid, a
20-year-old management student at Mongolian Technical University, said
optimistically: "I'd like English be our official second language.
Mongolians would be comfortable in any country. Russian was our second
official language, but it wasn't very useful."

With official encouragement, the American Embassy, the British Embassy,
and a private Swiss group have all opened English-language reading rooms
here in the past 18 months.

"If there is a shortcut to development, it is English; parents understand
that, kids understand that," Munh-Orgil Tsend, Mongolia's foreign
minister, said in an interview, speaking American English, also honed at
Harvard. "We want to come up with solid, workable, financially backable
plan to introduce English from early level all the way up to highest

After trying in the 1990's to retrain about half of Mongolia's 1,400
Russian-language teachers to teach English, Mongolia now is embarking on a
program to attract hundreds of qualified teachers from around the world to
teach here.

"I need 2,000 English teachers," said Puntsag Tsagaan, Mongolia's minister
of education, culture and science. Mr. Tsagaan, a graduate of a Soviet
university, laboriously explained in English that Mongolia hoped to
attract English teachers, not only from Britain and North America, but
from India, Singapore and Malaysia. Getting visas for teachers, a
cumbersome process, will be streamlined, he said.

Mr. Tsagaan spins an optimistic vision of Mongolia's bilingual future if
he can lure English teachers. "If we combine our academic knowledge with
the English language, we can do outsourcing here, just like Bangalore," he

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