MONTREAL — Forget what you thought you knew about Kazakhstan from Sacha Baron Cohen’s wickedly satirical 2006 movie Borat.
The large Central Asian country is not a backward wasteland populated by anti-Semitic yahoos.
On the contrary, the predominantly Muslim, former Soviet republic of 17 million people has a booming oil-fuelled economy, a rapidly modernizing society, and is very much open to the world.
Staff and students at the Hebrew Foundation School (HFS) discovered that when a five-member Kazakh delegation spent a day at the Dollard des Ormeaux Jewish elementary school on Oct. 28. These leading educators wanted to learn the key to HFS’ successful trilingual curriculum.
They were from an organization called the Autonomous Educational Organization-Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (AEO-NIS), and their visit was co-ordinated by the chair of the department of psycho-linguistics at McGill University, Fred Genesee, one of the world’s leading experts in the field of language acquisition.
He has done pioneering research on the impact of French immersion on anglophone children’s mother tongue. In more recent years, he has studied trilingual education and undertook a seven-year longitudinal study of HFS. He made the connection between the AEO-NIS and HFS, which he felt could provide a successful role model.
Like other Montreal Jewish schools, instruction at HFS, which has a modern Orthodox orientation, is in French, English and Hebrew, but its higher than average numbers of hours per week devoted to French and Hebrew set it apart.
The AEO-NIS is trying to establish a network of trilingual schools where Kazakh, the indigenous Turkic language; Russian, the official language used in government and business, and English, which has become increasingly popular since the fall of Communism, are the languages of instruction.
The AEO-NIS currently has 15 schools (soon to be 20) that are math and science-oriented. Considered in the vanguard of educational reform in the country, the AEO-NIS is developing its own curricula, learning materials and teacher-training programs. It co-operates with such leading universities as Cambridge and Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania to ensure that it meets international standards.
The delegation spent time in classrooms and spoke with administrators, guidance counsellors, teachers, parents, students and former students.
“We were particularly interested in learning how the HFS supports its student in achieving high levels of proficiency in three languages,” said Svetlana Ispussinova, deputy CEO of AEO-NIS.
“HFS has a wealth of experience. Everyone shared their rich experience with us. We appreciate the time and care they put into receiving us.”
They said they were impressed by the atmosphere in the school, the dedication of the staff, and the way the various stakeholders work together and plan for the future in a thoughtful manner.
“The visit to HFS is the first by the delegation to a trilingual educational institution, and they are anxious to learn as much as they can about the way HFS manages their school, how they work with parents, teachers and students, some of the problems they have faced and how they solved them and have built a quality learning environment,” said Peeter Mehisto, a London, England-based educator who accompanied the delegation.
“HFS is very much on the map. It is one of the few schools with a trilingual program that has been the subject of such research.”
An expert in multilingual education, Mehisto is an independent consultant to AEO-NIS and has advised several European and Asian countries.
HFS head of school Rabbi Achiya Delouya said his students receive 18-1/2 hours of French, 11-1/2 hours of Hebrew, and 7-1/2 hours of English per week. HFS has been communicating with AEO-NIS since the summer and sent it a lot of information before the delegation arrived.
“The Kazakhs have been moving very fast in the last five years,” he said, commending their progress and desire to learn the best practices of others.
“It’s nothing like Borat [Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakstan]. They are putting a lot of money, coming from the country’s oil and gas resources, where they should. They are doing the right thing with that wealth.”