Tajiks turn to Hollywood to push English

Tajikistan’s state broadcaster has started airing Hollywood and Bollywood movies without dubbing or subtitles in an attempt to improve English language learning among school and university students in the Central Asian country.

The idea behind the move, initiated by the former Soviet republic’s First Channel last autumn, is to encourage viewers to pick up English from watching films they love.

The initiative, on Thursdays and Sundays, has proved so popular that two other state channels, Safina and Bahoristan, are now also airing English-only movies two days every week.

Komro Safarov, the deputy head of First Channel, told Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, or RFE-RL, that in Soviet times many young Tajiks learned Russian from watching films broadcast from Moscow.

As English becomes ever more popular, but opportunities for speaking or listening to native speaks remain very limited, movies shown in their original language can help promote and support learning, complementing the work of language centres and universities in teaching English.

“It is through watching and hearing people speak that one accelerates the learning process for a foreign language,” Safarov told RFE-RL.

The initiative is sorely needed in a country that, nearly a quarter of a century after independence, remains the poorest of the former Soviet Union.

In an economy characterised by a low-skilled workforce and massive labour oversupply, only 5% of the population speak English. As many as 740,000 of the country’s eight million people work abroad, mostly in Russia, sending home US$3.5 billion a year – in 2012 equal to over 45% of GDP.

Many young Tajiks see learning English as a path to a brighter future: last year 1,000 Tajik secondary school students applied through the US Congress-sponsored Future Leaders Exchange, or FLEX, programme to study for one year at a high school in the United States. One hundred of the applicants were accepted.

Although the move to English language screenings did not originate in the university sector, it is clear that demand is growing for more exposure to the language. Tajikistan shares part of its border with China, with almost limitless current demand for English tuition.

Such is the shortage of trained teachers that many Tajik graduates of language courses opt to move to China to teach English there. Chinese investment in Tajikistan is growing and for many of the Chinese specialists employed on infrastructure projects in the country, English is the medium of communication rather than Chinese, Russian or Tajiki.

Parvon Jamshed, the chairman of Tajikistan’s Association of Teachers, says the popularity of English is growing fast.

“Currently, there are a lot of language centres and most institutions of higher education include study of the English language,” he told RFE-RL. “But because few people ever communicate in English, the only way for them to develop their fluency is viewing movies.”

Many films shown on Tajik television continue to be shown dubbed or voiced over into Russian, as films shown in the country are supplied by Russian distributors. Russian has long been Tajikistan’s second language and remains widely spoken.

But the country’s president, Emomali Rahmon, has said that every Tajik should know English and Russian as well as their mother tongue,and television executives have taken note.