Kyrgyzstan: Minority Children Need More than State Language

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In Kyrgyzstan, where memories of last June’s ethnic violence are still raw, children’s futures risk being entangled in a flourishing nationalist impulse. As the country attempts to move beyond the tragedy, some officials are increasingly calling for education solely in the state language, Kyrgyz. Such a move risks not only hurting the development of minority children, but Kyrgyz kids as well.

Language is a delicate element of education policy across Central Asia, where newly independent nations understandably want to embrace their ancestral tongues and explore their identities. Education in the “titular” language is an important aspect to nation building. But high-quality learning materials in the region’s languages are in short supply. Sometimes provoking resentment, Russian-language schools, with better access to textbooks and an older generation of Soviet-trained teachers, provide better education.

The region is full of minorities. They make up approximately 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population. Studies show that children whose native language is not the language of school instruction need educational support in their mother tongue to fully develop literacy and writing skills in the language of instruction. Without such support, minority language students are at a significant disadvantage that can lead to dropout and limited employment opportunities later in life. In schools without alternative languages, though, kids from the majority are hurt, too, cut off from news, information, and professional development opportunities in languages other than Kyrgyz – languages such as the regional lingua franca, Russian.

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament is currently considering a concept on ethnic policy which outlines plans to provide instruction in primary school subjects in children’s native languages; parallel instruction in Kyrgyz would be gradually added and, as children gain fluency, minority languages – including Russian – would be offered separately. Children whose native language is Kyrgyz would also receive parallel, supported instruction in a second language, thus ensuring that all children would be bilingual by the time they finish school. This laudable policy would support education equity for minority-language children in Kyrgyzstan and could prevent future conflict.

However, the current political climate may sabotage equal education opportunities for Kyrgyzstan’s minorities. According to reports from the Assembly of Nationalities of Kyrgyzstan, an advisory body, on June 19 President RozaOtunbayevasaid that ensuring that the Russian and Uzbek minorities speak Kyrgyz will help avoid future ethnic violence. She was also quoted as saying that Kyrgyz should be the sole language of instruction. In a statement June 21, she softened this position slightly in favor of parental choice for language of instruction and acknowledged of the importance of Russian. While preferable to forcing all children to study solely in Kyrgyz without any support for other languages, this approach still risks segregation based on language and the creation of a second class from the day children enter school.

This is an abdication of good policy in favor of nationalism and populist xenophobia. What Kyrgyzstan needs from Otunbayeva is a commitment to the spirit of diversity, inclusion, and good education policy outlined in the education section of the Assembly of Nationalities’ concept. Access to Russian is important, but respect for minorities by ensuring that all children have appropriate language support in schools is essential. Such a policy demonstrates diversity as a universal value. That is something children — from all of Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic groups — can take to adulthood.

Editor’s Note: Kate Lapham is the Bishkek-based Senior Program Manager for the Open Society Foundation’s Education Support Program. operates under OSF’s auspices.




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