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.”)


  1. Michael Farris says

    “We are looking at Singapore as a model,” Tsakhia Elbegdorj”
    He wants a Mongolian-English pidgin to become the everyday language for the majority of the population? What a strange thing to want for one’s country? Or maybe he’s talking about the fascism.

  2. I’m struck, Michael – is there a gaping hole in my world picture? I wasn’t aware Singapore is a fascist country. Or for you a country willingly cooperating and friendly with US, like Singapore, is a fascist one automatically? Than so is Poland. Do you list Poland as fascist country, too?
    I’m lost.

  3. I read the interesting article on English in Mongolia in The New York Times, myself, this morning. However, I must say that even in this age of modern satellite technology, I think it’s hard to escape geography. Despite more Mongolians studying English, Russian and Chinese will continue to overshadow Mongolia the most just as English will in Latin America. In fact, I remember when Cuban students began learning Russian in the 1960’s and when Castro sent large numbers of them to Moscow to study. Yet, today English is still the number one foreign language in that country.

  4. Tatyana – Fascist is a bit far, but authoritarian, Victorian, and built atop some remarkably strict social controls is fairly close to true for Singapore, and I hope not so true of Poland.
    As for English in Mongolia, Singapore is not a likely model. Singapore has several major ethnic groups, and its Chinese majority is divided by a number of different dialects. English as the language of the colonial administration was the only unifying language they had. Korea is much closer to Mongolia’s actual conditions, and the state of English in Korea is not like the state of English in Singapore. But really, I suspect that Russian and Chinese are not going to start declining in importance in Mongolia any time soon. I note that the rise of global English has not stopped Swiss children from studying German, French or Italian.

  5. Michael Farris says

    Tatyana: I was referring to Singaporean government’s penchant for micro-managing its citizens lifestyles. They’ve loosened up slightly in recent years (I think chewing gum is no longer illegal, I don’t know about facial hair or video games). Very strange place. I was maybe a little provocative with the word ‘fascism’ but there are few places I’d less rather live (from my viewpoint as an outsider)
    Scott: English may have been the language of colonial power, it was by no means the only common language available to them. The area is right in the middle of the Malay lingua franca zone. Of course the raison d’etre(sp?) of Singapore was to not be Malay and so using that language was distasteful to the Chinese majority (one of the reasons Chinese have always been distasteful to Malay speakers). (yes, the above is a gross simplification, but I think the outlines are clear enough).
    hat: I’d be skeptical about the claims for Russian declining. The IHT knows that English speakers like to read about their language’s good fortunes and writes accordingly.
    Similarly, the Hungarians I know are insistent that English is far more studied now than is German (traditional second language) but when my Hungarian isn’t up to the tasks I set for it (by no means a rare occurence) I’ve noticed that Hungarians are more likely to try German instead of English (esp. outside of Budapest, but in Budapest too outside the highdensity tourist areas).
    I’d say it makes sense for Mongolia to add English to the foreign language mix, but it’s just not suited for the goals of it’s addlepated prime minister. (maybe his grasp of other issues is more realistic than his grasp of language policy).
    I’m very sceptical about the supposed impending romanization of Mongolian. I once read that plans for re-introducing the traditional mongolian alphabet stalled because people strongly preferred the current cyrillic orthography (though it’s far from ideal). I have seen some short messages in ASCII though and interestingly, they seem to use v as the vowel [y].

  6. As an ESL teacher who has worked with adult students from around the world, I have had only a handful of Mongolians. The country is poor, far away and probably had restricted travel. It was also a Soviet client state. (I had to use my intermediate Russian skills to communicate with the beginning level ESL students I had from Mongolia.) More and more of them are coming here, at least to the big city where I live and work. In addition, there are diplomatic relations and probably a trade mission.
    In style, there is something Soviet in their behavior, their handwriting, their manners. In a class with ethnic Kazhak and Mongolians, I’d get them confused.
    Putting an emphasis on English is an excellent idea, not only because I’m American and an English teacher. Remember the word “vehicular load”? Well English’s got it big time.

  7. I don’t wish to embroil myself in a political dispute here (I am a Singapore citizen) so I shall restrict myself to commenting on the more language-related aspects of this post.
    While it’s true that many Singaporeans speak a hodge-podge of English, Malay, the Chinese dialects (plus a bit of Tamil), this is one of the basilectal forms of “Singlish”. Many Singaporeans, especially among those born post-independence, wouldn’t have much of a problem communicating if you plucked them out of Singapore and deposited them in any of the major English-speaking cities in the world. The accent would be different, there may be some grammatical mistakes, but it’s passable. In fact, many people (though not a majority) speak utterly grammatical English, with few mistakes – no more than you would hear from the average American or Briton. In this sense, the government has succeeded in its aim of building up a corps of people who can go to the West and do business with native English speakers, with no communication barriers other than the usual cultural ones. In fact, they succeeded so well that the standard of Chinese is declining. (The newspapers and Parliament have been going on about it for months, discussing Chinese language teaching reform.)
    As for the comment on Malay, when Singapore became independent the government went out of their way to give Malay a privileged place. Malay is our national language, the National Anthem is in Malay, and initially all schoolchildren, including Chinese ones, were expected to learn Malay, though that requirement has since been phased out. The decision to make English the language that official correspondence and lessons were carried out in was purely pragmatic, in my point of view. And everyone knows the legendary pragmatism of the Singapore government.

  8. Thanks for the comment — it’s always nice to hear from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about!

  9. Where I work (in an inner city mostly black school teaching ESL to Spanish-speaking immigrant children), we have a new staff member. He’s from Singapore, of Indian ethnicity. I asked him point-blank, hoping he wouldn’t be offended, if Singapore was fascist. He said not at all, though there are certainly authoritarian features to the society. Previously, he was commenting on its unusual prosperity, high standard of living and education.

  10. Many of the ‘well off’ Mongolians have come to La La Land to brush up on the American Version, so that they then can fix the internet and fix japanese cars and all the mod cons. But the Malay connection maybe to de-emphasize the Hollywood and be given a useful ballance. Their economy has faced bad weather related connections, and they be next to answer your Pharmaceutical bill or phone bill problems in lieu of those in Madras etc.

  11. How are you everyone! I wanna study English more.
    What should I do?

  12. Cyber Critic says

    Isn’t it sad….the rest of the world want’s to learn English in order to do business with America, and yet here in America it is considered totally acceptable if you only speak Spanish, and have no intention of ever learning English. In fact the use of Spanish only is encouraged by the US goverment as ALL goverment forms, including those for citizenship, are available in Spanish.
    Anybody have any clue why English has not been made the Offical language of the US…?

  13. michael farris says

    Critico Cibernetico;
    Escribiria a usted en ingles, pero soy norteamericano y mi govierno no me permite. Que lastima.

  14. Dear: deeply respected Language.com in Mongolia
    Hi, how are you?
    Please, write me soon
    My name is Khusan.My surname is Khudiyarov. I always dreamed to go to Splendid Mongolia to study english language plaese, help me.
    My home address
    63 Q0ri Niyoziy street
    Tashkent region

  15. please help me

  16. Khusan: I’m afraid I can’t help you, but I wish you luck; I’m sure you’ll find a way to study English if that’s what you want.

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