Language and Loss: Russian schools in Armenia raise concerns

The news on Armenia's accession to the Customs Union, voiced during the September visit of President Serzh Sargsyan to Moscow, has given place to speculations in Armenia, that Moscow will take serious efforts in the promotion of the Russian language in Armenia.

While some in Armenia may treat such developments indifferently, many others perceive the possible “revival” of Russian as a threat to Armenian language in particular, and to Armenian national identity in general. The concerns are not misplaced, given the fact Russian is the official language of the Customs Union and Russia top officials repeatedly voice the idea of Russian language popularization in Armenia.

At the meeting with the Armenian counterpart in September, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spoke about cultural initiatives that Moscow will realize in Armenia in the near future, including the opening of Russian lyceum in Armenia and a branch of Moscow State University.

Earlier in September Yerevan hosted a roundtable "Russian Language as a Basis for Creation of Civilization and Development of the Eurasian Union," during which its participants from Armenia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus spoke about Russian as the language of economics and security. The Russian officials also spoke about steps in strengthening the position of Russian language in Armenia.

The language issue has been in the center of public attention in Armenia since 2010, after the adoption of the controversial government-proposed bill on opening of foreign language schools in Armenia.

The bill factually removed the 20-year-old ban on foreign-language education in the country, imposed during the first years of independence. It cleared the way for opening of (11private) foreign language schools in Armenia.

The amendments, which many considered as an attempt to restore primarily Russian language education, stirred a great controversy in the Armenian society with opponents claiming that existence of foreign language schools in Armenia would be damaging to national identity. (During Soviet times, about 30 percent of schools in Armenia offered education in Russian language)

A civil movement “We are against the Reopening of Foreign-Language Schools” was created in Armenia, which had staged a series of protest actions against the changes. The posters were spread throughout the city saying “Keep your gene and your language", “No to colonization.”

The pressure group failed to prevent the ratification of the bill, but due to its efforts instead of 32 foreign schools in the bill (as it was firstly proposed,) the number was reduced to eleven.

“In fact the steps on spreading Russian language in Armenia is not taken now, but started a few years ago, primarily, with the amendments to the law and founding of Russian agency “Rossotrudnichestvo”, says Aram Apatyan, a member of the “We are against the Reopening of Foreign-Language Schools” initiative.

“As our initiate stated before (during the protests against the bill ratification) the same we would say now -- the programs aimed at the popularization of foreign languages should not be done at the expense of the native language,” he says.

Apatyan brings example of the Russian lyceum to be opened soon in Armenia, saying that the graduates of the lyceum will know Armenian superficially.

“The language becomes part of the culture when it is actively used in all spheres of life. Any foreign language school, be it Dilijan International School or Russian lyceum is a threat to the Armenian language. The educational system in Armenia must be in the Armenian language for all citizens of Armenia that are ethnic Armenians,” he says, adding that the accentuating of the “inferior” nature of Armenian as compared to other languages involves numerous risks, including loss of identity.

However, the supporters of foreign language education argue that Russian is the language of the regional powerhouse and thus is essential for Armenians.

Many parents in Yerevan prefer that their children attend schools with a Russian language bias, (as well as English); some parents resort to various tricks to enroll their children to the Russian schools or “Russian classes”. To enroll a child in such class, one of the parents should have foreign citizenship. Many parents give guardianship of their child to a relative who lives in Russia, to enroll a child in the Russian class. (There are 1400 schools in Armenia; 42 of them offer “Russian-language classes”. Besides, there are five Russian schools which are in jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense.)

Andranik Nikogosyan, Chairman of the Youth Union of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), believes that the Russian language is an integral part of Armenian culture, as for centuries the Armenian people have had close ties with the Russians.

"We have a common history, a common past and I am sure that we have a great future,” says Nikoghosyan. “Russian is the regional international language, and we should also take into account that Russian is the language of the Customs Union. How can we be part of an economic union without knowing a common language?

Two years ago, at the initiative of the Youth Union of CIS a first Russian language training center was opened in Yerevan. Now there are about 100 such centers that operate throughout the republic, of which ten are located in the capital.

Now about 7,000 people are studying Russian at the training centers; another 3,000 have completed the courses. The education is free of charge; 140 Russian language teachers work in the centers. Since 2011, three Russian publishing houses were opened in Armenia.

“Within last two years over 100,000 Russian books were sold though our stores. Another 20,000 people will be enrolled in the Russian training courses by December. The facts are obvious- the number of people willing to study Russian is so high, that the centers are overloaded and we are thinking on opening more. People decide by themselves what they need,” says Nikogohosyan.

Ruben Tarumyan, a member of "We are against the reopening of foreign languages schools", says he does not doubt that Moscow will take more steps in spreading the Russian language, but for him it is obvious that English is in a higher demand as compared to Russian in Armenia.

“I would say that parents who stake the future on Russian language play with their children’s destiny,” Tarumyan says. “Don’t let your children lose the mother language, because it would mean losing culture.”