As Central Asia Fragments, Could English Be the Answer?

On Christmas Day, 1991, five new countries were born. This year Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan turn 20. A lot has changed.

When the Soviet Union fragmented in to its component parts, and the new nations of Central Asia were left standing on their own, they inherited a physical and social infrastructure that was designed to tie them together. Electrical transmission lines crossed what had previously been administrative districts, but were now national borders. The education system gave unifying prominence to the Russian language. And political structures faced Moscow.

But the new nations, some rich with abundant natural resources, wanted to assert their independence. Meanwhile, all over the world, strategists woke up to the fact that a new, valuable, geostrategic area might be up for grabs.

While Moscow's grip weakened, in part due to problems at home, new suitors came calling. China wanted the resources and an extension of its political reach. The West wanted not only the resources, but access to strategic basing. And religious groups wanted souls.

China poured money in to carefully chosen pockets and started putting in infrastructure to link Central Asia to China. The West backed leaders who promised to support its interests, both strategic and economic. The Saudis and Turks started funding madrassas and schools.

Eventually, as Russia regained its strength, it also came back to the region. But, by then, things had changed. In the 20 years since the birth of the 'stans', the one thing that truly knit the region together has started to disappear. It is no longer a given that a Central Asian can speak to another Central Asian in Russian.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the Russians who had settled in the stans (some for generations) left for Russia. That included a large percentage of the teachers and professors. As the stans tried to rebuild their education systems, they relied on local teachers, some with minimal training. As a result, increasingly, the medium of education in Central Asia has become the local language, with no effective, region-wide second language.

Increasingly, the Central Asians can't talk to each other. This is a problem as it makes regional cooperation harder, and makes it easier for outsiders to come in, align with specific self-contained groups, and further undermine security.

The link between language and influence is well know. It is not an accident that China is not only setting up language schools in Central Asia, it is training Central Asians to teach Chinese. The Saudis are funding madrassas that teach Arabic. The Turks are setting up Turkish language schools. All this just adds to the fragmentation in an already socially divided region. There is a particularly bad time for social weakness. There are already concerns that the instability seen in Afghanistan could make its way through the mountains to its neighbors (Afghanistan borders three of the five stans).

With Russian fading, and with no signs of its imminent revival, what Central Asia needs is another common language that builds ties within the region and also links it to the outside world -- to job prospects, to the sciences, to medical breakthroughs, to ideas. Central Asia needs English.

As with parents all over the world, Central Asians are currently sending their kids to whatever schools are available and affordable in the hope that the education, including a second language, will give them more opportunities. Low cost English schools would prove tremendously popular, and open Central Asia up to the world in ways nothing else can.

While sending over legions of grade three teaches from Dubuque might not be practical, there is a closer and more appropriate alternative. India graduates large numbers of highly qualified English-speaking teachers every year. Apart from their educational skills, many are culturally attuned to local conditions, with historic links to the region.

With funding from foundations, and a staff and administration from India, it would be possible to quickly set up a network of affordable English language schools across Central Asia. One would also expect that, as English catches on, private English medium schools for the elite would also prosper, as would eventual links with English-speaking universities around the world.

The result would be more cohesion and stability for the region, and a population that is better equipped to engage with the opportunities the English-speaking world -- from the US, to India, to the UK, to Australia, to South Africa -- has to offer. So, what are we waiting for?