Legalised Tatar language: a year since introduction of voluntary mother tongue classes at school

Supporters of compulsory official language learning in regions: “One can’t treat people’s national feelings disrespectfully”

One year ago the State Duma adopted the much-talked-of law on mother tongue learning at school in the edition that gives the right to learn any language without damaging one’s mother tongue. After improving the initiative, deputies voted for the project in the second reading on 24 July and on 25 July in the third. The Federation Council approved the document on 28 July, while the president signed it on 3 August. Heated debates preceded the adoption of the headline-making document in Tatarstan, which hasn’t ended yet. More about the results during the first year in conditions of freedom of choice is in Realnoe Vremya’s report.

Irreconcilable Pavel Shmakov

Director Sun school in Kazan Pavel Shmakov continues fighting for the right not to refuse compulsory Tatar language classes at school. He has recently filed a complaint about the ban on compulsory Tatar language teaching in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Shmakov is in conflict with the law not because of the Tatar language but Tatar language teachers whom, according to him functionaries required to lay off in the middle of the academic year — in December 2017. He didn’t obey, had trials, lost in the end and was fined.

“We continue fighting, and this will last for many years,” Shmakov told Realnoe Vremya. “We are also going to file a claim to the Constitutional Court of Russia. We are protecting children’s interests when they are divided on the basis of their ethnicity, this leads to events like those happening in Ukraine. One can’t treat people’s national feelings disrespectfully!”

However, the Russian-Finnish teacher doesn’t think the law adopted by the State Duma a year ago is bad. In his opinion, the problem rests on imperfect Federal State Educational Standards (FSES), which doesn’t say anything about learning of officials languages of republics included in the Russian Federation. And everyone must know official languages, thinks the teacher, “at least a bit”.

Shmakov’s other evidence in favour of compulsory Tatar classes is from the contrary, so to speak. He offers to think: if we can’t oblige everyone to learn Tatarstan, neither can we make English, Russia, Maths compulsory.

In addition, the director of Sun school insists that they don’t necessarily have to ask parents’ opinion about learning the language of the republic you live in. He says that it is important, they should work with them smartly instead — not to oblige to learn unclear rules from the first grade but entertain with songs and verses, the basics of oral speech, teaching a language as a game.

However, defending the right to compulsory Tatar classes, Shmakov realises that basically there won’t be enough teachers who can really interest pupils for all schools. He sees the loss of respect for the profession as the reason for the fall in the level of teachers’ training:

“We need to start to increase the teacher’s prestige!”

In answer to the question how many years ago he began to learn Tatar himself, Shmakov replied that he began to learn it for the first time in the early 90s — he learnt it for three years and then used it actively for another two years when as a deputy of the Kazan Urban Duma had to accept visitors many of whom didn’t speak Russian or were bad at it.

“I almost didn’t need Tatarstan from 1995 to 2019. I began to remember it in late 2017 when this conflict began. Now I am taking classes. It doesn’t matter here when I learn it, it matters that I am learning.”

Law isn’t the end of the debate

It seems that Chairman of the Tatarstan State Council of the fifth session Farid Mukhametshin doesn’t consider that the debate on compulsory Tatar language classes has ended. In his final speech, he expressed complaints about the prosecutor’s office that, in his opinion, didn’t show a due understanding of the gist of the processes taking place in the republic but obeyed the law strictly and formally.

Unlike Pavel Shmakov, Farid Mukhametshin didn’t criticise either the quality of programmes and Tatar books or the quality of teachers’ training. He claimed that we couldn’t permit multi-ethnic society to split and promised:

“We will certainly enable everyone to learn their ancestors’ language. But like Shmakov, the speaker of the Tatarstan parliament expressed fears that the situation in which schoolchildren had to choose — to learn Tatar or not — can backfire in the future.

“Teachers are sensitive people, how many people have been disappointed,” he insinuated the army of specialists who lost their job and that the escalation of nationalistic moods in certain circles of society might become a consequence of freedom of choice. “Now census will begin. I am afraid it can turn into a dissolution of families.”

Life-changing law adopted within minutes

The Duma adopted the law on freedom of choice of mother tongues a year ago for 11 minutes. The next day the document went through the third reading without a problem. In fact, because the elaboration of the document took much time and caused heated debateы, while the amendments satisfied all the sides in the end. Parents got a chance to choose Russia as their mother tongue, while a presidential foundation was created to support national languages.

A group of deputies from all factions introduced the headline-making bill to the State Duma last April by causing a great public outcry in national regions, including in Tatarstan. It was about making mother tongue classes facultative. Many in our republic received the initiative with widespread indignation supposing that the additional course would make the Tatar language pass into oblivion.

Moscow heard the regions’ indignation, and a working group was created in the Russian parliament to polish the document. And it prepared the text’s new edition by 24 July. The changes satisfied all the sides that participated in the work on the project. This is why the Committee for Education and Science recommended deputies to support the document in the second reading. Its head Vyacheslav Nikonov specified that many proposals had been considered.

The amendments to the law On Education consisted of two parts:

  1. Federal state educational standards of preschool, primary and basic general education provide an opportunity to get an education in mother tongues among the languages of the Russian Federation’s ethnicities, learn official languages of republics of the Russian Federation, mother tongues among languages of the Russian Federation, including the Russian language as mother tongue
  2. Free choice of language of education, mother tongue among the languages of nations in the Russian Federation, including the Russian language as mother tongue, official languages of republics of the Russian Federation is made by claims of parents who are legal representatives of minors who study when they are admitted, go to study on educational preschool education programmes that have state accreditation, general and basic general education programmes.

“So I am saying with all the responsibility that there is no option regarding languages. They are presupposed by federal state standards. Moreover, the Russian language can be chosen as a mother tongue in those schools where the Russian language is taught as a subject,” head of the Committee for Education and Science Vyacheslav Nikonov stressed.

At the same time, it was said about the creation of a foundation for support of mother tongues. The foundation was created by the Russian president’s order. It was supposed it would allow preparing books on mother tongues, education programmes, train specialists and do research in this sphere. Just 40 million rubles were allocated to finance these purposes.

The resolution of the first reading also includes the necessity to create a concept of mother tongue teaching. This work will also go on in Tatarstan. The first public discussion of the “draft of the Tatars’ strategy” and its first presentation to the wide audience took place this January. Chairman of National Council of the World Congress of the Tatars Vasil Shaikhraziyev said when the Tatars would achieve sustainable development, if the number of Tatar schools would increase and how national culture would develop.

By Inna Serova, Vasilya Shirshova

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