Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechnya's Language Dilemma

Schoolchildren speak poor Russian but have almost no Chechen text-books.
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Chechnya has a language problem. The government is concerned that many adults cannot read or write in the Chechen language. At the same time, many children start school with only a bare knowledge of Russian, the language of tuition.



A government programme to promote teaching through the medium of Chechen in schools instead has had little effect so far.



In April, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov signed a law “on languages in the Chechen Republic” which had earlier passed by the republic’s parliament. Deputies had spent six months working on the law, which seeks to “preserve and develop the Chechen language.”



The law entitles people to choose which language they want tuition to take place in the schools - Russian, Chechen or another language.



However, in September, when the new school year began, it turned out that the curriculum drawn up by the republic’s education and science ministry was entirely in Russian. Only two subjects, Chechen language and literature, are taught in the local language. All others are in Russian, although in practice some teachers have to resort to Chechen to answer their pupils’ questions.



A new generation of children growing up in Chechnya speak Russian much worse than their elders because of years of war and instability.



“Children have problems understanding Russian,” said Roza Satuyeva, who used to work as a teacher in the village of Alkhan-Kala. “Right in the middle of classes we’ve had to translate exercises because the children didn’t understand Russian.”



Eight-year-old Jamila Matsieva is in year two. She studies Russian intensively and tries to use it when talking with her elders or watching television, but she still fails to understand everything the teachers tell her. “Of course it would be easier for me if the teacher explained the lessons in Chechen,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t understand the meaning of words and as a result I do some things wrong.”



“But I do speak Russian better than before,” she added.



Edilbek Khasmagomadov, the director of Chechnya’s national library, said many parents want their children to study in Russian because without a proper knowledge of it they will not make it into higher education.



Officials in the education ministry insist the new law leaves it up to citizens to decide which language they are taught in. “The government has never ordered primary schools to adopt a Chechen language-based curriculum,” said first deputy minister Kurzhan Akhmadova. “We drew up a programme for shifting the teaching in primary schools over to Chechen as far back as 2006.”



She said the transformation of the curriculum from Russian to Chechen was a long-term, major exercise requiring a great deal of effort and expense.



“We have already translated the maths textbook from Russian into Chechen,” Akhmadova said. “We are working on a programme for singing and drawing lessons, and a mathematics teacher’s manual is being written.”



Ruslan Betrakhmadov, who chairs the Chechen parliament’s committee on science, education, culture and information policy, said the idea behind passing a law was to confront those in the education system who oppose efforts to introduce the Chechen language in schools.



“No one is trying to remove Russian from the teaching programme,” he insisted.



Ruslan Betrakhmadov set out the three factors needed to make the new education system work - “proper study materials, teachers who can and want to teach in Chechen, and public support for this teaching system”.



The passing of the law reflects a wider debate in Chechnya about the place of the local language. Betrakhmadov noted, “The day the president signed the law – April 25 – was declared Chechen Language Day.”



Tamara Chagayeva, a well-known Chechen translator, said few adults were literate in the language, and only 10 to 15 per cent of people living in Chechnya were able to read and write in the national language.



“Since our mother tongue is regarded as a state language, we ought to have a state policy for it,” she said. “The idea of preserving the mother tongue should be part of each family.”



“I think our neighbours are in a better situation as far as the use and development of their languages is concerned,” complained Chagayeva, referring to other North Caucasian ethnic groups which she said had a much better record. Very few works of world literature have been translated into Chechen, she added.



Chechnya should take note of the situation in Tatarstan, she said. “The Tatars, who are Russia’s second-largest nation, have over 50 magazines in their mother tongue, some 130 newspapers and nine theatres,” she said. “And most of this has been achieved over the past 15 to 20 years. We are the third-largest nation of Russia - what have we done with our language?”



Zulai Demelkhanova, 75, who lives in Grozny, said she had many grandchildren at school and she favoured Chechen as the language of instruction. “Our children don’t go to kindergartens, they hear Russian only on TV, which they don’t watch very often,” she said. “Naturally, it will be hard for them to study in Russian from year one, whereas [if they are taught in Chechen] they will have a better chance of mastering the curriculum.”



Demelkhanova recalled her own childhood, when she says schools taught through the medium of Chechen. “How can a child learn things if he doesn’t understand the language in which they are explained to him?” she said.



At the same time, she expressed concern that the quality of Russian-language instruction would suffer once the new system is put in place. “It’s impossible to find a job or to study without knowing Russian,” she explained.



Ilyas Matsiev is deputy editor of Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper in Grozny.