A story by James Brooke (originally in the New York Times, but linked here from the International Herald Tribune website) discusses the increasing prominence of English in Mongolia, until recently under the sway of Russia and its language:
“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…
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…
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.
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.
I’m surprised that “it is hard to find a Mongolian under 40 who speaks better than broken Russian,” but I guess it makes sense. Oh, and I highly recommend The Story of the Weeping Camel.
(Via The Argus, where Nathan adds “I can’t tell you how happy I would be if English education in Inner Asia improved to the point that ‘dude’ replaced ‘fuck you’ as a friendly greeting.”)