International Herald Tribune – on line
Mongolians learn to say ‘progress’ in English
By James Brooke The New York Times
Language is viewed as ticket to future
ULAN BATOR, Mongolia As she searched for the English words to name the razortooth 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. Stumped by a smaller, worried-looking fish, she paused and frowned. Then she cried out: “Lunch!”
Even 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.
“We are looking at Singapore as a model,” Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Mongolia’s prime minister, said in an interview, his own American English honed at graduate school at Harvard University. “We see English not only as a way of communicating, but as a way of opening windows on the wider world.”
Camel herders may not yet refer to each other as “dude,” but Mongolia, thousands of kilometers from the nearest English-speaking nation, is a reflection of the steady march of English as a world language.
Fueled by the Internet, the growing dominance of U.S. culture and the financial realities of globalization, English is now taking hold in Asia, and elsewhere, just as it has done in many European countries.
In South Korea, six “English villages” are being established where paying students can have their passports stamped for intensive weeks of English language immersion, taught by native speakers imported from all over the English-speaking world.
The most ambitious, an $85 million English town near Seoul, will have Western architecture, signs and a resident population of English-speaking foreigners.
In Iraq, where Arabic and Kurdish are to be the official languages, there is a growing movement to add English, a neutral link for a nation split along ethnic lines.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, there is 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, where English is emerging as the dominant language.
In Chile, the government has embarked on a national program of teaching English in all elementary and high schools. The goal is to make that nation of 15 million people bilingual in English within a generation. The models are the Netherlands and the Nordic nations, which have achieved virtual bilingualism in English since World War II.
The rush toward English in Mongolia has not been without its bumps. After taking office after the elections here in June, Elbegdorj shocked Mongolians by announcing that it would become a bilingual nation, with English as the second language.
For Mongolians still debating whether to jettison the Cyrillic alphabet imposed by Stalin in 1941, this was too much, too fast.
Later, on his bilingual English-Mongolian Web site, the prime minister fine-tuned his program, drawing up a national curriculum designed to make English replace Russian next September as the primary foreign language taught here.
Still, as fast as 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, which opened in November near Mongolia’s Sports Palace. The first private English school when it started in 1999, this Mongolian-American joint venture now faces competition on 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 repeaters that broadcast Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation on FM frequencies. At Mongolian International University, all classes are in English. English is so popular that Mormon missionaries here offer free lessons as a way to attract potential converts.
Increased international tourism and a growing number of resident foreigners explain some moves, 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 were up 54 percent; visits by Americans doubled, a rise partly fueled by the movie “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” a documentary set in Mongolia.
Foreign arrivals were up across the board, with the exception of Russians, who experienced a 9.5 percent drop. Their decrease reflects a wider decline here of Russian influence and the Russian language. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian was universally taught here and was required for admission to university in Mongolia.
“Russia is going downhill very fast,” said Tom Dyer, a 28-year-old Australian who teaches 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 does 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 the nation’s written language from Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet.
“Everyone knows that Russian was the official foreign language here,” Layton Croft, Mongolia representative for the Asia Foundation, said in an interview. “So by announcing that English is 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 to Mongolia’s flirtation with English, even though China is now the 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 famed 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 universal.
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 U.S. Embassy, the British Embassy, and a private Swiss group have all opened their own English language reading rooms here in the last 18 months.
“If there is a shortcut to development it is English,” Munh-Orgil Tsend, Mongolia’s foreign minister, said in an interview, speaking American English, also honed at Harvard. “Parents understand that, kids understand that.”
“We want to come up with solid, workable, financially backable plan to introduce English from early level all the way up to highest level,” the minister added.
After attempting during the 1990s 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. A graduate of a Soviet university, he laboriously explained in English that Mongolia hoped to attract English teachers, not only from Britain and North America, but from India, Singapore and Malaysia.
Tsagaan spins an optimistic vision of Mongolia’s bilingual future. “If we combine our academic knowledge with the English language, we can do outsourcing here, just like Bangalore,” he said.