Collateral Damage from War of Words: Fallout from language law leaves international school plans up in the air

A school planned to open in Dilijian and promising to make Armenia a respected center of regional and international study may not ever see a stone laid, due to public reaction over Armenia’s controversial “law on language”, allowing for curriculum to be taught in a foreign language.

The Dilijan International School, the brainchild of Moscow tycoon philanthropist Ruben Vardanyan, broke ground in April with President Serzh Sargsyan planting a “tree of knowledge” to herald the project. Expected to open in 2013, the project now is indefinite, owing to “an atmosphere that rejects” the idea.

At present, we are regrettably seriously considering the suspension of work on the project,” says a July 15 letter addressed to Armenia’s Public Council. “. . . It is our belief that even without these additional obstacles to the successful realization of such a complex initiative, and even provided the full support of government and society, it will require an incredible amount of effort to convince parents to send their children to a country about which they know very little and which they do not conceive of as a place to live and receive an education. In the current situation we do not view it as feasible to develop the project, as it is fundamentally incorrect to create a school in an atmosphere that rejects it.”

Among other aspects of the school designed for 600 students age 13-18, the primary language is to be English – one of three languages (along with French and Spanish) which are the tutorial tongue of some 3,000 institutes of learning worldwide where students may obtain an “IB” – an International Baccalaureate. (The IB is widely seen as a respected credential signifying exceptional academic qualifications.)

Soon after the school was announced, however, the National Assembly of Armenia took up debate on whether to amend the Law “On General Education” (adopted in 2009) and the Law “On Language” (1993) that prohibited teaching curricula in any language other than Armenian at state-funded institutions. (Speculation is split over whether the timing of the Assembly debate was coincidental.)

An avalanche of protests accompanied the debate, primarily voiced by those who decried academics in a language other than Armenian, with arguments that ranged from accusations of elitism, to saying that the mere suggestion was an insult to the mother tongue.

It is this “atmosphere” to which the Dilijan Project’s letter refers.

Nonetheless, last month Parliament, following some compromised language in the original document, passed the law, thereby clearing the way for 11 of Armenia’s 1,480 schools of learning to teach in a foreign language if they choose.

Ill will stirred by the debate, however, tempered enthusiasm by principal participants in the Dilijan Project, who arguably may have taken offense at having offered free of charge to Armenia a school already expected to cost more than $60 million, only to have it rebuked by the very citizens who might have profited from the education the school would offer.

In its stern letter signed by Project Initiators of the Dilijan International School Project, the school planners, in effect, threatened to open the school “outside the territory of Armenia” unless they are satisfied upon hearing the “consolidated view” of the Public Council. The initiators appear to be seeking a referendum from the public sounding board (the Council), before going further.

“We are deeply convinced that the role of education will increase in the XXI century, which is why we consider the creation of this kind of school a vitally important task,” the letter states. “True, it's possible that today’s Armenia does not require the kind of school outlined in the concept approved by the school’s Board of Trustees. For this reason, at the next Board session in October, we will raise the question of realizing this project not on the Armenian territory. However, we do believe that Armenia will grow and prosper, and no matter what, we intend to facilitate this process by implementing projects in Armenia.” (click here to read the entire letter)

The Project Initiators’ letter points out that the school would receive no state funding, yet would offer free enrollment to 80 percent of its Armenian students through private and institutional charity scholarships. It also emphasizes that Armenian language will be taught at the school, not only to Armenians but to foreigners – who are expected to make up two-thirds of the enrollment – as well.

“The question facing the majority of the school’s potential students isn’t the loss of Armenian language, but acquiring it, since today these children go to study in Russia, England, Switzerland and America. We would like for our children, people of Armenian origin, to have the opportunity to receive an outstanding education precisely in Armenia, to study its culture and history and learn the language of their ancestors,” the letter says.

“We have never been against Vardanyan’s school; it was quite a different concept, and its creation did not need those amendments. But having the school as an excuse, the government drafted the amendments, which are unacceptable,” Karine Danielyan, member of the Public Council, and Chairwoman of the ‘For Sustainable Human Development’ NGO, told ArmeniaNow.

However, lawmakers believe whatever decision is made by the Dilijan planners will not suspend the amendments to the law adopted in the first reading.

Head of Republican Party’s parliamentary faction Galust Sahakyan says that the draft law will be adopted regardless of the Dilijian Project decision.

“What is the difference whether Vardanyan will make an investment or he will not? This is a generally necessary legislative initiative, which will later give an opportunity to create a competitive educational system,” Sahakyan told ArmeniaNow.