[Paleopsych] NYT: For Mongolians, E Is for English, F Is for Future

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International > Asia Pacific > For Mongolians, E Is for English, F Is for Future
February 15, 2005


    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,

    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 countries.

    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

    "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 universal.

    "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 level."

    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 said.

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