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Thoughts on Bilingual Education

July 12, 1986

I've just read Lee May's article (Times, June 18), "Less English Urged in Bilingual Teaching." The report stating that most bilingual programs nationwide use no native languages at all sounds really alarming because we view bilingualism as an urgent necessity in a melting pot like the United States or the U.S.S.R.

Take the experience of my country, the Soviet Union, where more than 100 nations and nationalities live and about 130 languages are spoken.

After the 1917 October Revolution the state took on the herculean task of fighting illiteracy. For the peoples who had no written language, like the Kirghiz, Bashkir, Chukchi, Komi and others, the development of their culture began with the creation of a written language. A written language was considered unnecessary for tiny national groups who lived among other peoples whose language they knew and used as well as their own. That is why nearly 50 peoples remain without written language of their own in the U.S.S.R.

True, while illiteracy was being fought and there was intensive language development, there were failures, setbacks and errors such as changing a number of languages from Arabic to Roman script. But with time these mistakes were corrected. The Russian language now serves as a means of contact between the different republics. And what language could be more suitable for that purpose?

Born in the Ukraine myself and having grown up with my native language, I never doubted as to what second language to learn. What language could I use to talk to an Uzbek, a Georgian, a Moldavian or to a Karelian? Should I have asked for Esperanto or imported English? Of course, Russian was logical.

Mind you, the Russian language has never been given paramount status. It has been studied in the country's schools along with each republic's tongue, promoting the development of bilingualism among the population and providing access to Russian and world science and culture through the Russian language since, historically, the Russian people were at a higher stage of development than many other peoples inhabiting the Soviet Union.

There is no standard curriculum for studying the Russian language, the number of academic hours being established by each republic's Ministry of Education, with due account taken of the local conditions, requirements, the level of command of the Russian language, the population's ethnic composition and the functioning of the Russian language in that area. The number of academic hours Russian is studied has only increased in a few republics like Moldavia, Kirghizia, Armenia and Estonia, which in fact was necessitated by an earlier introduction of the Russian language--in the first grade. Most important, the number of academic hours for studying the native tongue has nowhere been reduced or replaced by the Russian language. The number of hours spent studying the native language is double that for the Russian language.

All languages are considered equal by both the state and educators. To enforce a single state language would be "police-regime practice."

The major policy for linguistic development in the U.S.S.R. is one of free and equal use of both national tongue and the language of association among the many ethnic groups in the country--i.e. the Russian language--or in other words, complete bilingualism.


Novosti Press Agency

Soviet Embassy


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