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In Kazakhstan, a call to change the language of education is enough to get a minister into hot water.

On March 8, 2016, American-educated minister of education, Yerlan Sagadiyev, proposed a plan to reform the Kazakh education system to include English as a third required language of study. Kazakh nationalists reacted critically to the proposal. In a March 3, 2017 editorial in SkifNews, a faction of scholars even demanded Sagadiyev’s resignation

Currently, students in Kazakhstan are instructed in Russian or Kazakh, which is the official state language.

While critics aimed their venom at the minister, Sagadiyev was little more than a scapegoat for long-standing concerns surrounding the reforms. Since 2006, members of the government have intermittently floated the idea of introducing English into the education system. President Nursultan Nazarbayev brought up the change again in December 2012, saying that “For the future of our children, we have to make that decision, which will create the conditions for our integration into the world. For our children it will assist in a better learning of English, and most importantly, it will give impetus to the modernization of the Kazakh language.”

Earlier this year, the president proposed a series of reforms, dubbed the “Third Stage Modernization” plan, which included vast changes targeting the country’s economy, education system, and government. The plan mentioned incorporating English instruction into the education program for select subjects.

As with Sagadiyev’s call, Nazarbayev’s various proposals to add English to the education system have received much criticism. This uproar is part of broader concern with national identity. As reported in Al Jazeera America and Radio FreeEurope/RadioLiberty, in 1991, the government encouraged Kazakhs living outside Kazakhstan to repatriate and encouraged ethnic Russians to emigrate to Russia The effort was widely considered to be a push to “Kazakhify” the country. Before the USSR unraveled in 1989, ethnic Kazakhs made up less than 40% of the population of Kazakhstan. By 2014, that number had risen to 66%.

Earlier efforts in 2015 to change the Kazakh education system were postponed, due to an unexpected economic downturn. At this juncture, it seems highly likely that the new school reforms will be instituted, since the World Bank has pledged $67 million to the process. This includes implementing the proposal to incorporate English into the curriculum.  How Kazakhstan’s nationalists will react to these changes remains to be seen.

That ire for the changes will land on his ministers.

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