Will Uzbekistan start speaking English?
It is easy to comment on the Uzbek president’s resolution on steps to further improve a system of learning foreign languages, but it is hard to implement.
By Aleksey Ulko, a Samarkand-based linguist
Everyone realised the need to study a foreign language a long time ago, and no measures that help this are excessive.
That is why President Islam Karimov’s resolution of 10 December on the introduction of foreign language studies, mostly of English, from Form One in 2013 is necessary and timely.
However, any person who knows about the current state of the sphere of teaching and learning foreign language in Uzbekistan is right to doubt whether this will be implemented fully and properly.
Reasons for doubts
The main of them is that the compliance of learning programmes and curricula with international standards will require not simply “further improvement” but gradual, but radical reform in the entire education system and education philosophy which is hard to achieve by simply expanding the relevant administrative divisions of ministries and the testing centre.
The widely accepted language standards in the world is the Common European Framework of Reference, which distinguishes six levels of fluency of any language based on a broad range of criteria bearing mostly practical and communicative nature.
All language skills in this system are presented in the form of statements describing a certain skill.
For example, a student of the B1 level should be able to communicate in most situations that may arise in a country whose language he or she is learning.
All curricular, programmes, methods, materials and tests should aim to develop such skill depending on a level set at a certain educational establishment or in a country for certain students.
In other words, the current system of marking students’ performance is usually tied to norms that are conventionally and subjectively set by a teacher and it should be replaced by an objective, verifiable, fair and unambiguous system.
In practice, this should mean that “A” in English should be assigned to the same skill shown in an urban and rural school. Is this possible?
Teachers and textbooks
Foreign language teaching in Form One should not be introduced just by changing standards of marking and adopting a new curriculum.
A huge number of mutually complementary learning materials should be devised and produced, including audio, video and electronic resources.
This problem cannot be solved by a small group of qualified teachers from the Uzbek State University of Foreign Language, but teams of local experts should be trained, and this is not simple because it requires time and effort.
Finally, the most important is to train an army of teachers who are not just fluent in a foreign language but are also proficient in modern methods of teaching it, which brings up the issue of education philosophy, or even mentality.
Modern education is based on democratic and liberal principles: children should not be forced, but motivated.
A teacher is not a tyrant who strictly maintains order in class, checks homework and in deathly silence explains grammar rules, but is an older friend who can help, support and interest a pupil and ideally only directs his or her conscientious desire to learn the language.
Not only should a teacher be able to explain grammar and vocabulary but organise work in groups and pairs to enable pupils to communicate in a foreign language to solve problems without mindless repetition of words written on the blackboard.
This envisages fostering an absolutely new type of pupil, who is full of initiative, interested in the subject and ready to undertake responsibility for his or her own education rather than to study under the lash.
I often talk to clever and independent students, including from provinces, who speak good English and are ready to study further, but these are isolated cases.
I meet more often teenagers who come to English classes only because of their parents and who are not interested either in English or education in general.
We have to change such attitude to learning in the root if we want to bring our standards of foreign language learning to international levels in the near future.
English is good for society
Naturally, in order to conduct a large-scale reform we need not only teachers but also managers who are capable of solving long-term problems.
These administrators should be fulfilling not only formal requirements of the resolution but also calculate what measures to implement them will benefit society.
This programme will undoubtedly contradict some regulations and structures that exist in the country.
For example, a growth in the number of young people speaking English and using computer technologies will inevitably lead to their unlimited access to resources in English language from Jeremy Clarkson to Steven Fry and various aspects of English-language culture from Hollywood to Harvard.
Not only will this impact their worldview but will also make strict Internet censorship useless.
In order to master a language classes in school are not enough as we need a properly functioning speaking medium: Uzbekistan should attract more tourists who should be given greater freedom to communicate with the Uzbek people. However, this remains a dream given the level of bureaucratic hurdles, from receiving visas and problems with registration and free movement.
This is also important for outward tourism: if our young people, including specialists, are not able to go abroad freely, we can forget about hopes to widespread fluency of foreign languages.
Will English replace Russian?
The new programme will lead to the complete collapse of the Russian-language medium in the country.
Speaking to David Graddol, the author of the book English Next, about the future of English in the world, I have concluded that Russian in our region is undergoing similar changes as English globally.
These languages will stop being regarded as academic disciplines and practical considerations will turn them into basic skills like computer literacy.
Young men from Kashkadarya and Namangan Regions, who are now laying bricks or sweeping streets in Moscow and St Petersburg, are paying the price for the government's short-sighted policy in the language sphere in the 1980s-1990s.
We should admit that another Eduard Sagalayev or Alisher Usmanov will not grow out of them and they will not be able to exchange experience with colleagues from Cambridge.
However, they are studying Russian in the form and context they need for basic communication and they number millions in contrast to those who learn English outside the language medium.
We can mourn the loss of interest in Russian classical literature but like it or not it has been replaced by the Internet.
In this regard Russian and English occupy different niches in society and perform different functions but paradoxically the mastering of the one language helps the learning of the other.
Education is path to freedom
Finally, we should also take into account influence the reform in foreign language learning will have on other subjects including many aspects of culture and public life, including ethics and relations in society.
One Brazilian psychologist once said that education could serve either as a tool to manipulate people or a mean of their emancipation.
Soviet education was an example of the former, while the resolution on foreign language teaching, if implemented at least for 10%, will be a step towards the latter.
Time will tell if this step will be made in practice or remain only on paper.
Aleksey Ulko, a linguist, especially for Uznews.net