Speaking in Tongues: Government further moderates position in foreign-language school debate

The Armenian Government is no longer pressing for changes in one of the two laws that would pave the way for opening a limited number of schools in Armenia teaching curricula in a language other than Armenian.

Five months after the Government proposed the changes, it now appears the matter will be dropped from discussion in this current seating of the National Assembly.

The Government’s initial move to amend the laws was met with strong opposition by a considerable number of intellectuals, journalists, politicians and various public groups who say that such changes threatened the very core of Armenian identity.

Members of the 131-seat National Assembly of Armenia voted in June by 71 yeas to 13 nays to clear, through the first reading, a controversial package of amendments to the laws ‘On the Language’ and ‘On General Education’. The package was to go for a second-reading discussion and voting this fall, possibly in its modified form.

But having given up its intentions to change the Language Law and clear it through the second-reading vote, the government still appears to remain adamant in its position that changes and amendments must be made in the Law ‘On General Education’.

If adopted, these changes will still clear the way for opening 11 alternative schools in Armenia, two of which are planned as non-state education institutions that will operate in the resort towns of Dilijan and Jermuk and will teach foreign-language curricula beginning from the seventh grade up (in the 12-year education system).
The remaining nine foreign-language schools would be set up based on interstate and intergovernmental agreements and would teach only beginning from the third level of secondary education, i.e. high school.

Armenian-related subjects, such as the language, literature, history of the Armenian people and church at such schools still must be taught in Armenian, according to the proposed legislation.

The government initiative to amend legislation to clear the way for foreign-language schools has been a matter of stormy debates in recent months and even gave rise to a Facebook movement “We Are Against the Reopening of Foreign-Language Schools”.

Critics, in particular, fear that the removal of the ban on foreign-language education reflects the desire to restore primarily Russian-language education, which was banned in Armenia’s state schools in the early 1990s shortly after the country gained independence. By that time, a considerable number of people in Armenia had completed secondary education in Russian, the state language in the former Soviet Union that was required for any successful career.

Opponents of the bill also have concerns that the statutory changes accentuate the “inferior” nature of Armenian as compared to other languages and fear that Armenians taught in a foreign language will lose the ability to have “an Armenian language-mentality”.

The government, meanwhile, believes a limited number of such schools will only help raise the quality of general education in Armenia and will also allow Armenia to borrow extensively from the experience of foreign and international educators working in Armenia.

Strong criticism from those who oppose the initiative even prompted the initiators of an international school in Dilijan, a project planned for 2013, to address a letter to the Public Council of Armenia, stating that they are “seriously considering the suspension of work on the project” as in the current situation they “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.”

Dilijan project officials are likely to announce their final decision after the next reunion of the school’s Board of Trustees scheduled for October.

Discussion of changes in the law began soon after the announcement of a $60-million project for an international school in Dilijan, and groundbreaking took place in April and was attended by the initiator, Moscow-based Armenian tycoon Ruben Vardanyan, and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.

This led the pressure group opposed to the changes to assume that it is this project that, in particular, triggered the whole initiative on amending the laws.

Education and Science Minister Armen Ashotyan said during parliamentary hearings on the subject held on Monday that if the package of legislative changes is adopted the first school with subjects taught in a foreign language is likely to open in Armenia as early as in 2012 or 2013.

Parliament Speaker Hovik Abrahamyan, in turn, said that the issue is so delicate that it requires a comprehensive review.

“Our task is to preserve the national image, the language and continuity, avoid another assimilation and risks of alienation, on the other hand [our task is] not to limit international cooperation, the exchange of experience in educating generations, to be flexible in the matter of organizing education, to be capable of rapidly responding and staying competitive,” said the parliament speaker.

Abrahamyan suggested defining in the Law ‘On General Education’ notions like “Alternative Education Program”, “Author’s Education Program”, “Experimental Education Program” and ”International Education Program”, as well as to maintain the principle of limiting the establishment and regional quotas for institutions of general education teaching alternative educational curricula.

Members of the civil group “We Are Against the Reopening of Foreign-Language Schools” who attended the hearings appeared unconvinced and voiced their dissatisfaction even after this new concession.

They said they were against opening any kind of school teaching in a foreign language in Armenia and that no changes should be made in the Law ‘On General Education’ either.

The proposed changes in the law are unlikely to come up for parliament discussion at the coming session period pending further elaboration.