01 November 2017

UNICEF gives Tuvan children a better chance to learn with mother-tongue textbooks

Uudoo is rehearsing the poem she wrote in Tuvan that she will recite at her graduation ceremony.
Nearly 1,800 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar on the western-most edge of Mongolia, remote Tsengel soum in Bayan-Ulgii province is probably the only place in the entire country where children grow up speaking three different languages – Tuvan, Kazakh and Mongolian. Tuvan children speak their native language at home and learn Mongolian when they start school. Some also learn Kazakh from their friends in the neighbourhood, which is predominantly Kazakh, or from their classmates when they start secondary school, which is also attended by Kazakh children.
The Tavan Bogd mountains, where Uudoo’s family lives. ©UNICEFMongolia/2017/OdgerelMyagmar

Tuvans are one of the smallest ethnic groups in Mongolia. In Tsengel soum, there are less than 1,800 Tuvan people, comprising only 20 per cent of the soum population. The remaining 80 per cent are Kazakhs, who are, in turn, also an ethnic minority in Mongolia (only 7 per cent of the total population).

Eleven-year-old Uudoo, who is in her fifth and final grade at Tuvan Primary School, grew up speaking only Tuvan at home in the snowy Tavan Bogd mountains. When she was 6 and about to start school, Uudoo moved some 100 kilometres to the soum centre where her grandparents live, to be near her new school.When children from rural herder families start school, they have two options – either to stay in a school dormitory or to move in with relatives nearby. Fortunately for Uudoo, her grandparents, aged 72 and 69, had already moved to the soum centre when her older cousin started school, to take care of their school-age grandchildren.

Uudoo was soon joined by her younger brother Unurjargal, aged 9, and this year by her 7-year-old sister Ulziikhishig. Uudoo’s youngest brother, Usukhbayar, aged 1, still lives at home with their parents.
For Tuvan children, learning to read, write, count and study other subjects in a ‘foreign’ language used to be very challenging.  However, Uudoo and her two younger siblings, Unurjargal and Ulziikhishig, are learning to read and write in their native language using Tuvan Alphabet, a beautifully printed book which UNICEF Mongolia helped to develop and publish in 2013. It is the first ever textbook produced for Tuvan children in their native language. 

For many years, Kazakh and Tuvan children in Bayan-Ulgii province performed poorly in state examinations and college and university entrance tests. School dropout and illiteracy rates in this province are higher than anywhere else in the country. Research[i] identified a critical shortage of learning materials in their mother tongue as a major reason for students’ poor performance.

To address these challenges and to give ethnic minority children a better chance to learn, UNICEF Mongolia gave financial and technical support to the Ethnic Minority Children’s Education Research Unit (EMCERU) of the Education Research Institute to develop and publish student textbooks. With invaluable input from the teachers of Tuvan Primary School, four language textbooks were produced – Tuvan Alphabet and Tuvan Language 2, 3 and 4 – and further four textbooks were translated (Mathematics 1, Human Beings and Environment 1, Arts 1, and Civic Education 1), as well as teachers’ guides. UNICEF Mongolia also upgraded the school library by investing in new children’s storybooks and literature from the Republic of Tuva in the Russian Federation.

Dr. Gansukh and Ms. Bolorchimeg are delighted to hear how much the children like their Tuvan language textbooks. ©UNICEFMongolia/2017/Odgerel Myagmar

In mid-May 2017, a joint team of UNICEF Mongolia and EMCERU visited Tsengel soum to see how the textbooks were being used, get feedback from students, teachers and parents, and discuss any further support needed from UNICEF Mongolia. Dr. Gansukh, a native Tuvan, EMCERU Researcher and the principal author of all the textbooks, was part of the mission team.

All the teachers at Tuvan Primary School were enthusiastic about the Tuvan language textbooks and the positive impact they have had on their students over the last four years. The children are now much more able to express themselves in both Tuvan and Mongolian, and are more eager to learn.  

Dr. Gansukh was impressed with what she saw. “I was surprised to see how the children had changed. In my past visits, the children at this school were very shy and quiet. It was hard to engage them in a conversation, being an outsider. Now they seem to have become much more lively, cheerful and outgoing. They were communicating with us freely in very fluent Mongolian.”

One of their teachers, Ms. Buyangaa, agreed. “It’s amazing to see how different it is for children to learn in their mother tongue in the first year of school. Their ability to write and speak improves very fast. It used to take a whole week for our children to memorize a Mongolian poem. Now our children can easily memorize a Tuvan poem in just a 40-minute class, and they can learn a Mongolian poem in a short period of time as well. Nowadays, fourth and fifth graders are writing poems in Tuvan, which is wonderful.”  

The team met Mr. Togtai Nasanbat, Director of Tuvan Primary School, who is very proud of what the children have achieved. Children as young as 9 and 10 are now writing beautiful poems in Tuvan, something that was unheard of several years ago. Uudoo, who is one of his best students, was very excited about reciting one of her own poems, ‘My Father’, at the school’s upcoming graduation ceremony. She will recite it in Tuvan, and her friend will read it out in Mongolian, as translated by Uudoo herself.

Bayarbat is very happy that his younger daughter, Ulziikhishig, aged 7, can read the Tuvan alphabet fluently. ©UNICEFMongolia/2017/Odgerel Myagmar
Uudoo’s proud father, Bayarbat, is a 36-year-old herder. He had come to the soum centre with his wife and their youngest child for two important events – Uudoo’s graduation and her younger sister Ulziikhishig’s ‘Alphabet completion celebration’.

“As we live far away in the mountains and are very busy with livestock and a small baby, we cannot visit our children very often. We only see them during quarter breaks. This time, we came to the soum centre to join in school events, and to sell cashmere”, he says.

Interestingly, Bayarbat was one Tuvan Primary School’s first students when it opened in 1991.

“As a parent and a Tuvan, I’m very happy that my three children are learning our native language using textbooks that are keeping with our local dialect, livelihood and culture”, he said. “When I was at school, we used textbooks from the Tuvan Republic in Russia, so I learnt to write in ‘their’ Tuvan, but not ‘our’ Tuvan.”

Uudoo and her brother and sister really miss their cute little brother during the many months they live apart.  ©UNICEFMongolia/2017/Odgerel Myagmar

This was not easy, as Tuvan spoken in the Federation of Russia changed considerably under the influence of Russian language and culture. Like Bayarbat, the other parents very much appreciate the Tuvan language textbooks and are thrilled that their children are learning to read and write in their own language first.

In 2016, the school organized a parents day, where parents attended classes instead of their children.  The parents all struggled with dictation in the Tuvan language class, admitting that though they could speak Tuvan, their writing skills were not as good as their children’s. Some vowed to improve their written Tuvan using their children’s textbooks.

A 2016 study by the Education Research Institute on the learning achievements of Kazakh- and Tuvan-speaking students in their mother tongues as well as in Mongolian confirmed the positive impact that these textbooks have had. Supported by UNICEF Mongolia, the study focused on 724 lower-secondary grade students and 558 teachers in nine soum and provincial centre schools in Bayan-Ulgii province, using different research methodologies. It revealed that students and teachers from Tsengel soum had the highest performance in both their mother tongue and in Mongolian, thanks to UNICEF Mongolia’s steady support since 2013.

“It is very encouraging for us to see the results of our work on the ground and observe with our own eyes that the children enjoy learning with the textbooks we supported”, said Ms. Bolorchimeg, Education Specialist at UNICEF Mongolia. “We are also happy that in this short period of time, there have been noticeable improvements in both the educational achievements of Tuvan children and in their social and communication skills.”

“The many positive remarks and appreciation from parents, teachers and students have reaffirmed the importance of our efforts to support the education of ethnic minority children, and provide children like Uudoo and her brothers and sisters with better opportunities for their future”, she continued. 

“We at UNICEF Mongolia and the Education Research Institute are also trying to reach other Tuvan children living elsewhere in the country – such as Buyant soum in Khovd province, Tsagaannuur soum in Khuvsgul province, Shariin Gol soum in Darkhan-Uul province and Kushaat soum in Selenge province – by sharing the Tuvan learning materials and providing guidance to Tuvan adults who wish to supervise extracurricular learning activities for their children. 

A set of these materials has also been shared with the Tuvan ethnic minority community in Xinjiang Province in the Republic of China to be used by the 9-year Tuvan school”, she said. Meanwhile, Uudoo has already chosen her future profession. “I want to study in a university in Ulaanbaatar to become a primary school teacher and want to come back to my school as a teacher”, she said, eyes shining.

UNICEF and EMCERU staff with teachers at Tuvan Primary School ©UNICEFMongolia/2017/Batmandakh Buriad

Odgerel Myagmar
Communication for Development Officer
UNICEF Mongolia


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