There have been many debates and discussion around the topic of learning foreign languages at a young age and its influence. The UB Post wrote about its advantages and disadvantages on January 24. Because many readers shared their opinions on this issue, The UB Post explored the issue further with the help of specialist PhD D.Sainbilegt, professor at the National University of Mongolia and doctor of education.
Because many of our readers shared their opinions on this article, The UB Post wanted a specialist’s take on the issue. First of all, could you tell us what it means to be a Mongol?
You are right, above all, we need to describe what it is to be a Mongol. While Mongolia is geopolitically located between two big countries and is one part of this globalizing world, there is no doubt that we should be educated, healthy and learned about our language, traditions and history to be a Mongol who lives here. But also, as part of this globalizing world, a Mongol should learn foreign languages in order be able to study, work and compete both physically and mentally anywhere in this world; so that we can make great achievements and promote Mongolia in not only sports and arts fields, but also the intellectual field. People have multi-aspect opinions on this matter considering these two points of view.
Firstly, issues on building addresses and billboards written in foreign languages were mentioned in your article. It relates to urbanization that Ulaanbaatar should consider all type of citizens as it’s a big city which has a population of over a million inhabitants.
Secondly, issues on the educational system in Mongolia were mentioned in your article. It is required that we should become a world citizen while being a Mongol. Therefore, parents are divided into two groups, some of them send their children to private schools letting them learn foreign languages at an early age and broaden their mind with that knowledge even though the tuition is comparatively high, while others find it not necessary. As we see now, there are many private schools with high tuition and many parents who send their children to those schools.
Because there is a demand there’s a supply. What do you think about it?
I think wanting and trying to help your child to be a well-educated world citizen is a very good thing. The problem occurs when we don’t know or are not able to do it correctly. Of course, there are costly international schools for a certain group of people such as the diplomats’ school in foreign countries. But according to the law, education must be given equally. If around 90 to 95 percents of Mongolians receive education through public education it’ll be called “equality”. But there is no such balance in Mongolia, and the government doesn’t find any solutions and allows private schools to fix the price. In this society, anyone can open a school and anyone can attend it. But as an educationist, I’d say there is no necessity of education that costs 10,000 USD at a young age due to cognitive and mental ability. How much a child can take in and learn is called the standard. Apparently, there might be people who require more than the standard but making it up to 30 or 50 times expensive is not appropriate. As a parent, I’d also say that we should make decisions depending on the child’s age and their physical, cognitive and mental ability as well as the standard. The many thousands of dollars parents pay tend to be wasted when it comes to young children and extremely expensive schools.
What is the recommended age for learning a second language?
According to research, learning foreign languages at a young age has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, it has benefits that allow children to have good pronunciation, multitasking skills and broadens their mind.
On the other hand, children can absorb much but they tend to lose much as well. Even if I spend 10,000 USD, there’s a limit to what a child can learn, a certain number of words and grammar. I didn’t mention about special cases such as multilingual families. According to scientists, it’s recommended to let children learn foreign languages at age 10-13. It’s said that children’s brain and abilities are ready to absorb it and tend to lose or forget it less if they start learning foreign languages at these ages. As I mentioned earlier, there are exceptional cases such as multilingual families and special needs.
Has this been legislated into Mongolian law?
The government is supposed to establish the foundation through standardization laws. As stated by the Law on State Official Language adopted by Parliament in 2005, foreign languages are to be taught from fifth grade of general education school. In reality, it can’t really be implemented because there are needs and benefits to learning foreign languages at a young age. For instance, I’d like to say that there are two factors, internal and external, which led to the current situation.
What are those internal and external factors?
If Mongolia was an economically, politically and educationally powerful country, it’d be implemented successfully because we can be proud of our country and language. Since Mongolia is not that powerful right now, we should prepare young generations with adaptability in order to be competitive.
It’s a norm for some of us to study abroad and come back to contribute to the country’s development. Many people apply for scholarships of Mongolian and other governments to study abroad. Since Mongolian government scholarships are available for a limited number of people, most people tend to apply for foreign governments’ scholarships, which mostly takes place after high school graduation. Here the problem occurs when those who have started learning foreign languages at a young age have more possibility to receive full scholarships. It’s not the parents’ fault, because they’re doing their best for their children’s future. There is no need of rush to study abroad if our country was a powerful exporting country. Mongolians aren’t able to implement this law because they don’t have a choice.
Additionally, if foreign countries offer good opportunities, such as scholarships, high-paying jobs, and good living conditions, people tend to prefer to stay there.
It requires a lot of effort to find the balance while being a Mongol and a world citizen at the same time in this contradicting circumstances.
What can we do to make it better?
What I think about this issue is that we should do what other countries do. Specifically, I’d say developing soft power works well for almost any country even though most developed countries do it. Denying or forbidding anything is hard power and it doesn’t really work well. Instead, we should focus on soft power.
For example, a Mongol who grew up abroad finds Mongolian language, traditions and culture so dear and probably wants to come to Mongolia if their relatives live here. When he or she comes to Mongolia, we should welcome them warmly and help them learn about Mongolia more through Mongolian food, culture, and music. It might not be easy to become accustomed to Mongolian food and milk in the beginning. So why not change it a little bit if it’s too strong for them. The more they learn about it, the more they’ll get used to it and like it.
Moreover, they will start learning even more and promote Mongolia to the world. I tried to explain the way we should increase the number of both Mongolian and foreign people who love and care about Mongolia with this example. What we should do is promote, develop, introduce and invite instead of forbidding, denying, criticizing or blaming. Also, the government should support it all the time. Additionally, national cultural production, new contents, and entertainment need to be supported.
What do you think about the reaction of people on it?
Apparently, people don’t really have a mutual respect on this matter. It’s inappropriate to disparage others in order to promote your ideas. There are many types of people living in the same country at the same time which results in many different cases. If we keep arguing about these differences, we will never find any solutions but waste our time.
This topic is one of the serious ones we have been discussing recently. But as soon as we bring this topic, people get heated over an argument criticizing what is Mongolian, who is not Mongolian. As a culturist, I’d like to say my comment on it. We can make big changes on those non-Mongolian items brought by foreign agenda. But mostly, after hundreds of years, those items are adjusted and become accepted by Mongolians and we can’t tell that if it’s a non-Mongolian item anymore. For instance, to stop the use of borrowed words is impossible since all languages consist of many foreign-origin words. All we need to consider most is to balance everything. Some words can be translated while some words can’t be translated directly. Scientists and specialists need to work on such things, including school tuitions and borrowed words with the support of the government.
What is the biggest problem in the educational field?
Apparently, there is a lack of investment in educational institutes, including universities and schools in Mongolia. That’s why some schools increase fees and some schools offer fewer opportunities. As I see, those who are successful and have a lot of money provide support to the educational field in most countries. Raising the entire cost of education from children puts pressure on the masses and causes contradictions and inequality. There is a lot to learn from others. There is a necessity to find solutions and make improvements. But we are just wasting time arguing.
Does learning a foreign language influence the mindset of children? If it does, what should we do to maintain the balance?
When you learn a language, you’ll learn the mindset, culture, history and traditions of that country at the same time. Since children have fewer filters, they accept and receive almost everything given to them and start making it the base understanding of everything. Depending on the amount of influence, it may alter, but young children compare those multi-languages and cultures. It’s similar to putting two different things on a scale; the more you add to one, the stronger its impact will be. If your child doesn’t like things related to Mongolia, you can’t just get mad and force them.
Both the government and parents need to use soft power and understand and support younger generations instead of criticizing them in order to instill a national pride.