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


By James Brooke

New York Times
February 15, 2005

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 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 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 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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