Manning the Home Front
Manning the Home Front

Speaking Identity

Language Schools Spark Controversy in Armenia

Three years after a government bill paved the way for foreign language schools to open their doors in Armenia, the issue remains a matter of heated debate. Opponents view non-Armenian education as detrimental to national identity. Supporters counter that Russian, the language of the regional powerhouse, and English, the international language, are essential for future generations. Since then, 11 private language schools have gained government authorization, though none have opened thus far. As a staunch group of opponents continue to protest the schools, many parents quietly hope they will open by the time their children reach school age.

Armenian citizens are today staunchly divided over the reintroduction of foreign language education in their country. Underlying the debate is the longstanding antagonism between those who grew up speaking Armenian versus Russian under the Soviet system.

In 2010, Armenian lawmakers removed a two-decade ban on foreign language educa­tion, passing amendments that would allow citizens to choose a "priority language" for their children.

The historic ban was the product of a swell of patriotism during Armenia's early days of independence from the Soviet Union. At that time, many felt their country needed to go back to its linguistic roots, and the removal of the ban has been met with a wide range of reactions, ranging from anger to relief.

Today, critics view the sanctioning of foreign language schools as a veiled attempt to restore the supremacy of Russian education in Armenia, still living under the dominance of its powerful ally. A number of the proposed schools will teach in English, which opponents view as similarly problematic, also placing the national language second.

The amendments to the language and education laws sparked a civil movement. One pressure group—Against the Reopening of Foreign Language Schools—staged a series of protests, first to fight the legislative amendments and then against the presidential ratification of the changes. Posters were plastered across the capital at the time, warning passersby: "Keep your genes and your language" and "No, to colonization."

The group failed to prevent the ratification of the bill, but it did make an impact: instead of approving 32 foreign schools in the bill as proposed, the number was reduced to eleven.

In Soviet Armenia, Russian education was considered a guarantee for a successful career. Roughly one-quarter percent of the population | attended "Russian schools", where the entire; curriculum—including Armenian history— I was taught in the national language of the USSR. Armenian language classes began only in the second grade.

While many graduates of Russian schools successfully became bilingual, a sizeable chunk entered the job market with very poor knowledge of Armenian.

Anna Harutyunyan recalls that she could barely read Armenian when she graduated from her Russian-language high school in 1986.

"I never realized how poor my Armenian was until my own children went to school. Starting from the fifth grade, I could hardly help them with lessons, as I would come across too many words I did not understand," said the 44-year-old, who ended up learning Armenian from scratch alongside her children.

Russian in the Balance

In the early 1990s, amid a push for nation building in Armenia, Russian-language schools were transformed into Armenian.

However, the reform could neither erase a language that had become ingrained in society, nor mitigate its importance in the region. While Armenian is the official language of the country, the need for and influence of Russian endures, reinforced by the largest Diaspora community of nearly two million Armenians in Russia.

Russian language classes are required for all Armenian students starting from the second grade, with English added the following year. Some schools also offer parents the option to pay for additional English and Russian courses as part of a ministry-approved program.

Zara Arzumanyan chose Nairi Zaryan School No. 130 for her son, as children learn both Russian and English starting in the first grade.

"I would never think of sending my son to a non-Armenian school. But I want him to start learning foreign languages from childhood," said Arzumanyan.

Gayane Azizyan, 39, a Russian language teacher, believes that Armenians need to learn a global language to succeed.

"Armenian language should be a priority, but for such a small country, the know edge of any foreign language—Russian, in particular— is essential," said Azizyan, who teaches Russian at Yerevan School No. 19.

"There are ties with Russia, at all levels and in all sectors, which one cannot ignore," she said.

Among Armenia's 1,400 schools, 42 offer Russian language classes for children of foreign citizens. Georgian national Nune Mazmanyan enrolled her daughter Vivyen in one such class.

"This controversy over foreign language schools seems illogical to me," said Mazmanyan. "I attended Russian school and I am bilingual. We speak Armenian in our home. What is wrong with us?" she demanded.

Mazmanyan, 44, lived in Moscow during Armenia's energy crisis in the early 1990s, but she returned to Yerevan in 2000.

"We came back to Armenia and found a whole generation of half-educated people, who knew neither Armenian nor Russian well. One of the mistakes of the education system in Armenia was the closure of the Russian schools, as the education material was not properly translated into Armenian or published on a suf­ficient scale.

"I wonder if the country got a generation of patriots who can't spell their names in their native language without mistakes."

Mazmanyan says she sees her family's future in Armenia and enrolling her daughter at a Russian school does not reflect any intention to leave.

"It only means she will know Russian as well as Armenian. I put my daughter in a Russian class so as not to deprive her opportunity to learn a wonderful language and literature."

Dilijan in the Spotlight

The recent debate over changes to Armenia's language law began soon after the an­nouncement of a $100-million project for the construction of the Dilijan International School (DIS), scheduled to open in fall 2014. Classes will be held in English and students will graduate with an international baccalaureate degree—a globally recognized high school diploma. The boarding school will accept up to 650 students from around the world, with one-third of the places reserved for Armenian nationals. Tuition is estimated at $30,000, though scholarships will be available.

The enormity of the investment—unprecedented in Armenia's education sector— raised eyebrows among the local population and led many to assume that the 2010 amendments were made to allow its construction.

Public criticism reached a head in June, when the Armenian parliament endorsed tax and custom privileges for the elite institution. The movement against foreign schools demanded that the government require DIS to translate into and teach its program in the Armenian language.

"Foreign schools are founded in Armenia, are granted privileges, then enroll the best Armenian students, who in turn study in a foreign language," said Aram Apatyan, one of the members of the pressure group against the language schools.

"All this will produce elite in Armenia that speaks and thinks in a foreign language, and which eventually will widen the gap between the elite and the rest of society," he said.

A key victory for the movement came when Armenian Education Minister Armen Ashotyan gained permission from the International Baccalaureate Organization to translate the DIS curriculum into Armenian. Apatyan worries that without consistent pressure, this translation will never be put into practice at the school.

Parents Look to the Future

Although DIS and other planned language schools have faced criticism, many parents say they would be happy to enroll their children.

Nonna Gulkanyan, a 35-year-old ophthalmologist in Yerevan, said that concerns of los­ing national identity while studying in a foreign language are groundless.

"Identity is not only a language, but something that is ingrained in a child from birth, at least in our society. I don't believe a child will feel non-Armenian if he studies at Dilijan School," said Gulkanyan, a mother of two.

As a graduate of a Russian school, Gulkanyan feels the criticisms against the schools are equally targeted at people like her.

"My Russian education did not spoil my being Armenian at all. I took advantage of knowing Russian during my career by attending professional training courses in Russia.

"It's natural that children having the Dilijan diploma will be granted privileges and be in demand in the labor market. But just think of the advantages the country will gain by having such professionals," she said.

Gulkanyan's son is a first grader at Yerevan School No. 8, which is named after Alexander Pushkin, the renowned poet and founder of modern Russian literature. Her daughter Maria, six, joined him this year.

"There are those who believe that foreign language education is bad for Armenians, but I think the opposite. This tiny, homogenous, landlocked country needs to provide the younger generation the proper too s to discover the world and seek the best knowledge out there," Gulkanyan said.

Engineer Anna Grigoryan, a mother of two boys, shares Gulkanyan's views. "Of course, I would like my children to study at the Dilijan School—the only thing that would hold me back is the high tuition fee," she said.

Grigoryan's seven-year-old son David has studied English with a tutor for the past year. Many parents view English as a desirable skill to teach their children in a globalized world and to round off a repertoire that already includes Russian.

"English is more important for us today. David already has a good command of Russian, and I want him to continue his education at a for­eign school here or abroad," said Grigoryan, 31.

Grigoryan is doubtful that the language of instruction has any definitive bearing on a child's national identity.

"All of us know people whose children grew up in a completely foreign environment, but it did not stop them from maintaining their Armenian identity. And we have seen many examples to the contrary," she said. "Just because a student graduates from an Armenian school does not guarantee he will be a real patriot."

Originally published in the October 2013 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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