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

Turkmen Officials' English Shames President

President wages war on foreign languages, then orders ministers to speak fluent English in matter of months.
By IWPR staff
President Saparmurat Niazov’s obsession with himself and all things Turkmen appears to have caused him some embarrassment.

Apparently shamed by his ministers’ poor linguistic skills at a recent trade meeting in China, Niazov ordered them to learn fluent English in under six month – a near impossible task, especially since there’s hardly anyone left in the country to teach foreign languages.

Over the last ten year, Niazov – better known as Turkmenbashi – has systematically destroyed foreign-language teaching, as part of his attempt to hermetically seal the country from outside influences and promote Turkmen language and customs together with his own personality cult.

Niazov’s latest quixotic edict followed the visit of a Turkmen trade delegation to China in December, where negotiations on a range of deals – including gas deliveries, the construction of the silk mills and financial loans – were held.

Members of the delegation - which comprised top officials from a number of important ministries, such as food, textiles and oil and gas - were reliant on an interpreter while their Chinese counterparts spoke in English.

Apart from being evidently embarrassed by his subordinates’ poor grasp of the language, Turkmenbashi was also seemingly concerned that their linguistic shortcomings could undermine the Turkmen negotiating position in economic talks with China and other states.

“We have every possibility for joint, mutually beneficial work with foreign countries. Gain experience and learn languages,” he urged members of his government at a recent cabinet meeting. “Even the Chinese speak in English, but my officials don’t understand a word. I give you six months to speak English as if it were your native language.”

The problem is that Niazov has over the years closed almost all the specialist foreign-language centres and reduced the teaching of Russian and English in secondary schools and universities to a minimum.

Senior officials may try to turn to private tutors for English coaching, but the latter are few and far between as unemployment has prompted most language teachers to leave the country.

“It is currently a major problem to find English teachers who will teach you the language properly: to speak, write and read fluently, “ said a former member of staff at a defunct Ashgabat foreign language centre. “Most top teachers, with prestigious diplomas from Russian universities, lost their jobs in the cutbacks. They left for Russia and teach successfully there.”

Even the teaching of Russian has been severely curbed, despite it being the second language. “This means only one thing,” said a Russian-language teacher at an Ashgabat school. “The type of education provided by Turkmen schools will not be sufficient for students to enrol at institutes of higher education outside the country. In Russia, our students cannot even pass the entrance exams.”

According to one deputy agricultural minister, aged 28, the authorities have intentionally brought up the younger generation completely isolated from the outside world so as to consolidate both Turkmen culture and adherence to the Ruhnama – the president’s bizarre philosophical treatise, which is required reading for all citizens.

“At the university where I studied, foreign- language instruction was restricted to one hour a week. All the emphasis was placed on the development of a truly Turkmen culture and the rejection of everything foreign,” said the official.

For ten years, state educational policies were directed towards ensuring that people could not understand foreign television and radio; talk to foreigners without the help of interpreters; or go abroad to study to work.

Turkmenbashi’s insularity and distrust of the international community has been such that he even closed down the American Peace Corps’ so-called Friendship Camps – summer camps aimed at broadening the horizons of Turkmen children.

“They fell out of the favour with the regime because along with the [English] language, the children imbibed the spirit of freedom, gaining the opportunity to feel like individuals with inalienable rights,” said one former camp participant. “ When the children returned home, they saw the world differently.”