Azerbaijan International

Spring 2000 (8.1)
Pages 68-69

Changes in Azerbaijan's Educational Landscape

by Isgandar Isgandarov, Deputy Minister of Education

So much has changed during the last decade in regard to alphabet and language usage in our country.

Left: More and more parents are sending their children to Azeri-track schools rather than Russian-track schools because they want them to be fully versed in their native language. But the lack of Azeri-language textbooks is a serious problem.

One of the first laws passed by Azerbaijan's Parliament after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when our country gained its independence, was the adoption of the Latin script to replace Cyrillic, which had been imposed on us in 1939 by the Communist regime.

In fact, this event somehow put an end to the unprecedented "experiment" of changing the alphabet, which has occurred four times during the 20th century, primarily on the initiative of the Soviet government.

But at a much deeper level than alphabet usage are the perceptions and attitudes towards national language that are changing. Though Azeri used to be "on the books" as one of our national languages during the latter years of Soviet rule, still Russian was much more dominant, especially among the individuals who held the highest professional positions. Only those who mastered Russian attained those ranks in government, science, medicine and academic life.

Soviet government and Communist ideology directed its power to the propaganda and development of the Russian language. National languages, including Azeri, were not allowed to enter the orbit of the Russian language.

Left: During the Soviet period, a two-track system (Azeri vs. the more prestigious Russian) became widespread. Today the goal is to strengthen Azeri instruction to equal the Russian education.

Today, now that Azerbaijan is independent and its Constitution declares that Azeri - and only Azeri - is our State language, public attitudes are gradually changing. Azeri is becoming a more important factor in our socio-political life. Of course, all these transitions that are occurring in the usage of our alphabet and language have deep ramifications for educators. For example, publishing educational books has become one of our biggest problems. It's a topic that demands much attention and planning. We are carrying out serious work in this field.

Pressure to Use Russian
During the Soviet period, I used to work as an inspector in the Sumgayit Department of Education. At that time, the Russian language prevailed over Azeri, even in everyday situations. Even people who couldn't really speak Russian were trying to use it. You sensed it all the time - in government offices, on the street, waiting for elevators, in stores, everywhere. All documents, meetings and conferences were held in Russian. If someone couldn't speak Russian at a Communist Party meeting, he was never given the floor, no matter how brilliant or worthy his ideas were. This is a historical reality. It's a sad remembrance of the recent past.

I remember that when I had to give speeches at Party meetings, I used to prepare my reports in Azeri. But I was never allowed to make any speech in Azeri, so someone was assigned to translate for me. Even though I spoke Russian with a heavy accent and wasn't nearly as fluent in Russian as in Azeri, I was required to use Russian. I'm sure that if Russian had prevailed after we gained our independence and the emphasis had not shifted to Azeri, I would never have been appointed as Deputy Minister of Education.

I remember how parents used to ask me to recommend a good Russian school for their children. Sometimes they themselves didn't even speak Russian. Nevertheless, it was only natural that families wanted to send their children to Russian schools - they wanted the best for their children's future. Let's be frank. In many cases, education in Russian language schools was superior. First of all they had more textbooks and the quality was better. Even pre-school and kindergarten classes were better.

Of course, the Azeri language was taught even at the Russian schools, but mostly on a formal level, not at a very profound level. In fact, the Ministry of Education itself stated that failure to pass exams in Azeri would not be held against students, as the study of Azeri in Russian-track schools was voluntary. Some Azerbaijanis didn't even bother to take those classes; some even protested that such classes were being offered.

I was educated in Azeri as were all four of my children. Even though they went to school in the 1970s, when Russian was at its most dominant, I sent them to Azeri schools. I respect the Russian nation and language. But I think that if someone does not love and understand his native culture, he cannot value other cultures. As the educator Ushinski once said: "If a child has not learned his native language by the time he is 11 or 12 years old, it will be difficult for him to learn foreign languages later on."

Azeri Language
Today the attitude towards Azeri has changed considerably. Of course, Azeri has had official status as a State language since 1978 (along with Russian), but such prestige was just on paper. In practical terms, Russian dominated.

After we gained our independence, a new Constitution was drawn as guidelines for our new independent republic. When it was adopted in November 1995 by a general referendum, the role of Azeri increased substantially. Now the language is used everywhere at the official level - socio-economical, cultural and political. It's required. At State organizations, all correspondence and meetings are conducted in Azeri, even though many of the decision-makers know Russian better than Azeri.

The Azeri language has also become the language of instruction in our schools. President Aliyev himself has emphasized the role of Azeri several times in his speeches. When people don't speak Azeri at high-level meetings, he openly criticizes them. The President has told us several times: "We want our children to be able to read Shakespeare in English, Pushkin in Russian as well as some of the other world literature and scientific works in their original languages. But at the same time, they need to be able to read our own Azerbaijani poets, Nizami, Fuzuli and Nasimi in Azeri. It's essential that we teach our children correct and beautiful Azeri. Every Azerbaijani must be fluent in the Azeri language."

Improving Azeri Schools
The outlook for Azeri schools is improving. Now there are some very strong Azeri schools, not only in Baku but in remote villages. For example, Azerbaijani (not Russian) school students took third place in an international mathematics contest last year. This year, two pupils from an Azeri school took first place at the national Mendeleyev Contest in Chemistry. These days the winners of national school competitions are usually from Azeri schools; several years ago, the winners usually had studied at Russian schools. This fact itself shows that the attitude toward our national language is improving; this process is strengthening day by day.

Now parents call and ask me to help them find a good Azeri school. This often surprises me as I would have expected such people to choose a Russian school - they hold high positions and their children speak excellent Russian. It looks like they are beginning to understand how to value the historical reality and possibility of national progress and prosperity through the use of our national language.

Statistics also support this trend. In 1990-1991, out of 1,322,416 students, 14 to 15 percent of them were in non-Azeri tracks including Russian, Armenian and Georgian. Today the figure has dropped to 6 percent. This doesn't mean that there has been pressure to transfer from Russian to Azeri schools. It has taken place naturally. First of all, the ratio between Azeri speakers and Russian speakers is changing in favor of Azeri. Second, Azerbaijanis have come to realize the importance of Azeri in the political, social and cultural life of the country. A patriotic attitude toward the national language is being formed.

Strengthening Education
Our school programs and curricula are also improving, but it's not an easy process. The curriculum still needs to be updated. Literature textbooks need to include a greater selection of our own authors. Right now, some of Azerbaijan's most important writers who created their works during the Soviet period are totally being neglected and ignored. Each literary work and writer must be valued according to the period in which it was created - not according to today's standards.

The method of teaching languages also needs to be changed. Have we learned foreign languages like Russian or English from what we studied at school? Not really. It's the same with Azeri. I think we need to adopt new teaching methods, especially in language learning. We need to take advantage of international experience and teaching techniques. At the Ministry, we've already allotted more hours for teaching Azeri, and now we require an Azeri exam for Russian schools.

One of the important factors is that the new educational program requires the teaching of Azeri on the level of State language in non-Azeri track schools (Russian and Georgian).

Knowledge of Azeri is the key to learning and understanding our own literature and our own mentality. Right now, Russian-track students do not even know the works of such valuable writers as Nizami, Fuzuli and Sabir because the Russian school curriculum did not include intensive study of Azerbaijani literature. Our goal is to create the same curriculum for Azeri schools and Russian schools.

Of course, we can't expect to see sweeping changes overnight. We have much to learn and we must be open to new ideas. At the same time, we shouldn't blame our young people for not knowing Azeri - it's not their fault. There are many young people who don't know Azeri but are still patriotic and valuable for building Azerbaijan's future. These young people comprise what we might call our "golden fund."

I've always had deep confidence in the future of this nation. I knew that Azeri would eventually gain its rightful place in our culture. I was optimistic because I knew that no empire can last forever, nor can it sustain itself, even for a long time. People who are far from their native culture and tradition will never be successful in building a nation. I'm not saying, "Don't learn other languages." By all means, learn as many languages as possible - but first of all, learn your own. As the great educator Firudin bey Kocharli once said, "The mother tongue is of moral value to the nation." May we always protect and esteem this value. It is our moral duty.

Azerbaijan International (8.1) Spring 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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