Giving Mongolians a linguistic stepping stone

Anita Fahrni travels to Mongolia once a year to interview candidates for her programme and catch up with old friends

The boxes are piled high inside Anita Fahrni’s garage in eastern Switzerland, a makeshift sorting centre for thousands of donated books heading to Mongolia.

This content was published on February 16, 2011 minutes

Fahrni has just a few days to comb through the masses of English and German school textbooks and novels before they go onto the 40-foot container she ships every year to the developing Asian nation.

The Swiss-American dual national has been collecting books from Switzerland for the past 12 years. Over 310,000 copies have since made their way into school and university libraries in the capital Ulan Bator and villages and towns across the country.

A former parliamentarian for canton Thurgau, Fahrni is a seasoned networker, sitting on boards and committees ranging from the Swiss National Council of Women to an international group protecting the rare Takhi horse that is native to Mongolia.

She gave up politics in 2007 to focus on her various Swiss-Mongolian projects. Now 68, she says she has to work “120 per cent” to get everything done.   

As well as arranging for Swiss teachers to go to Mongolia to teach English and German – over 100 so far – and short internships for Mongolian teachers of English, she has started an exchange project that pays for Mongolian university students to spend a year in Switzerland honing their German.

Broadening horizons

Since its early beginnings in 2003, her Swiss Program for Language Instruction and Teacher Training has expanded to place nine Mongolians in schools and teacher training universities in the cantons of Zurich, St Gallen and Thurgau every year.

As it stands, only women are making the grade. Each recruiting time, Fahrni writes to the German departments at Mongolian universities and asks them to put forward their top two students for the programme. Few men study German and women are inevitably top of the class.

Fahrni interviews the candidates and finds the host families for the nine chosen students, who then spend a year in Switzerland. A private Swiss foundation that wishes to remain anonymous fronts the SFr120,000 that it costs to look after the students.

“It’s giving these young women a big boost. It’s expanding their horizons. It’s proven that this is a tremendous boost to them in their futures, not only in finishing their degree back in Mongolia but also in finding jobs after that,” she explains.

Starting small

It may be a small endeavour but Fahrni believes it will have long-term implications for the country.

“Cumulatively it is growing. It is small things with individuals here and there, however most of these individuals will become teachers. And I believe that the whole level of language instruction in Mongolia, which is very important, will be improved,” she says.


“Behind the whole thing is my feeling that education is the best kind of development aid. Offering people the opportunity to get a good education and to broaden their horizons.”


Some Mongolian teachers also come for short internships and can experience modern teaching methods and improve their own language and speaking skills, she enthuses.

“When they return to their own schools I believe they will raise the level of instruction in those schools.”

Cultural differences


For her efforts, the Democratic Women’s Union, a Mongolian political party association, has awarded her a peace medal, making her the fourth foreign person to receive it.

She has also been made an honorary professor at Otgontenger University in Ulan Bator, which houses 25,000 of the books sent from Switzerland.

Swiss also get something out of it, she adds.

“Swiss who go to teach in Mongolia come back with an entirely new attitude towards our luxuries. We live in excess. From the Mongolians, Swiss host families learn something about their country, they get to know another person on a personal level, and many travel to Mongolia.”

It’s not always easy being a host family though. It can involve learning the subtleties of Mongolian culture and customs, such as a common dislike of cats or how people show respect or thanks.

“I only learned during one of the orientations, that in Mongolia one doesn’t really say thank you. One shows it in some other way. Several of the host families had the feeling that these students weren’t grateful for all that we’ve done for them.”

While sometimes the chemistry doesn’t mix and students are moved on, many families go on to host again and again, and some even visit their former guests in Mongolia.

Fahrni believes hers is the only student exchange programme with Mongolia so far. While still a personal initiative, as it grows she hopes to bring more people on board to help coordinate the placements in the different cantons.

“I never expected it to grow this much. I think it’s done a little bit of good for the general relationship between Mongolia and Switzerland.”

Key facts

Ethnic groups in Mongolia: 90% Mongolians, 10% Kazakhs

1.57 million km2 – Switzerland by comparison is just over 40,000km2.

Population: 2.6 million

Literacy: 97.6% (2000 Census results)

GDP per person: $1,991

There  are 754 schools and 218 higher educational institutions.

(Source: World Development Bank, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation)

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Relations between Switzerland and Mongolia date back to the second half of the 1950s, when Zurich company Debrunner established trading relations with the People's Republic of Mongolia.

Switzerland officially recognised the Democratic Republic of Mongolia in 1964, though contacts between Bern and Ulan Bator remained modest until the socialist period came to an end.

Relations became closer from 1990, when democracy came to Mongolia. 

By 2006, bilateral trade reached SFr2.8 million. As of 2007, trade turnover reached SFr4.4 million, of which Mongolian exports made up SFr2.1 million and imports stood at SFr2.3 million. (Source: 2008 Swiss Consulate)

The Swiss Consulate opened in 2002. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) began supporting Mongolia in 2001. The opening of the Swiss Cooperation Office in 2004 was important in promoting further ties between the two countries. 


The Mongol-Swiss Development Foundation, an NGO, was established in 2003 further collaboration in all areas.

Among the cultural ties, the Swiss Mongolian Cultural Association and the Swiss Mongolian Cultural and Solidarity Association were founded in Switzerland in 1990 and 2004. The SDC also opened the Swiss Cultural and Information Center at the Children’s Book Palace in the capital in 2006.

Swiss colony: around 30 persons

(Source: Swiss foreign ministry)

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