An interview with Dr Sender Dovchin, Senior Research Fellow at the School of Education, Curtin University, Australia.
Ewen Levick | Editor
Kheltei bol khultei – if you have language, you have legs.
The collapse of communism in 1990 brought innumerable changes to Mongolia, but one of the most significant has been the increasing popularity of English as a foreign language, particularly in Ulaanbaatar. The growth of Mongolia's hip hop scene and the success of English-language bands like A-Sound in the 2000s were the country's first steps with its new democratic, global legs.
Dr Sender Dovchin is a Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University's School of Education in Perth, Australia, specialising in applied linguistics: how people learn second or foreign languages and how they apply them in day-to-day life. Originally from Mongolia, Dr Dovchin has lived and worked in Australia and Japan, and her past research has examined how Mongolian language and culture accommodates the rise of English.
"The Mongolian language is the principal member of the Mongolic language group," Dr Dovchin explains. "That's a language family spoken in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and northeast Asia, but mostly in Mongolia and surrounding areas - Kalmyk or Buryat.
"The language has no living linguistic relatives.
"Previously Mongolian used to be grouped alongside Japonic, Koreanic or Turkic as an Altaic language group, but recently linguists argue that it is on its own."
For most of the past century Russian has been the predominant foreign language in Mongolia, facilitated by political ties to the Soviet Union and the movement of people to and from Russia. Now, however, English has taken over from Russian as the dominant foreign language in Mongolia, particularly in Ulaanbaatar.
"When Mongolia was a Soviet satellite, English was resisted as it was considered the 'capitalist' language," Dr Dovchin says. "At the time, Russian was the most popular foreign language and Mongolian now has a lot of borrowed words and expressions from Russian – even though modern Mongolians often don't realise it.”
"But since 1990, Mongolia has opened itself to the world and has become much closer to the West, meaning English has become the main foreign language in Mongolia. It has almost completely replaced the value of Russian.
"Everybody knows the value of English – they see that with English, you can have access to capital, resources, education and entertainment."
In the 2000s, the Mongolian government under former president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj tried to accelerate the uptake of English and even floated the idea of making it Mongolia's official second language. The idea was to emulate Singapore, which regards Malay as its national language but in practice uses English.
"English is not just a method of communication; it opens windows to the world," Dr Dovchin says. "It hasn't happened yet, but it might – English language education is becoming more prevalent and English has become the required foreign language in Mongolian primary schools.
"And in non-institutional contexts - in popular music, digital media, the Internet – English has become the main language."
The idea of legalising English as Mongolia's second language still has traction. In a meeting with the US ambassador in February, Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene mentioned Mongolia's 'commitment' to the concept.
"They're still looking to the Singaporean model," Dr Dovchin says. "But it's a big change. To do that, they'd have to listen to language policymakers and educators, they'd have to look at different models around the world."
Another obstacle is the enduring strength of the Mongolian language, partly derived from the linguistic homogeneity of Mongolia itself. While there are eastern, central and western dialects of Mongolian, the Khalkha dialect is dominant - a significantly different situation to Singapore, which has four official languages (English, Malay, Tamil and Chinese) and a host of unofficial languages.
"Singapore is different – it's a multicultural country. Whereas Mongolians only speak Mongolian. It's much more homogenous. So it could be challenging," Dr Dovchin explains.
"The government needs a lot of language experts and policy practitioners to make it happen."
There is also the question of alphabets. Mongolia, of course, predominantly uses the Cyrillic alphabet but is also undergoing a government-sanctioned revival of traditional Mongolian script, spurred on partially by China's suppression of the script south of the border. How would English fit into this picture?
"Keep them all separate," Dr Dovchin says. "This has already been happening in Ulaanbaatar anyway. Traditional script and Cyrillic are mixed with English, even Korean and Japanese in some places."
In addition, mandating English as Mongolia's official second language may isolate the country's rural population, which does not have access to the same language education as the population in Ulaanbaatar.
"In the rural areas of Mongolia, even though English is promoted, there aren't enough English teachers," Dr Dovchin says. "It is a stark contrast to the urban context."
Is there a possibility that the rise of English may come to be seen as a cultural threat to the Mongolian language? Could Mongolia follow the model of France, whose Académie Francaise presides over the 'purity' of the French language?
"English can be perceived as 'unacceptable' in Mongolia if it is mixed with Mongolian," Dr Dovchin answers. "In this case the purity of Mongolian is being polluted and distorted. So there are a lot of purists who argue that it's important for Mongolians to learn English, but not to mix it with Mongolian. Keep them separate.
"But Mongolian is also a flexible and adaptable language. It has survived thousands of years. We have this theory of language re-localisation: it can evolve, and if the language is transferred between generations, then it still exists."
So while the role of English is increasing in Mongolian society, it is also revealing the real strength of Mongolia's language and traditions, embodied in the proverb kheltei bol khultei – a phrase that could only emerge from a culture that is both outward-looking and self-confident.
"Language is the window to understanding the traditions, culture and identity of Mongolia," Dovchin says. "These all combine to define the nation."
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