DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AFP) - Tom Cruise's Tajik and Russian are on the way out in Tajikistan where state television has made English - without subtitles - the preferred lingo to boost opportunity in the impoverished former Soviet state.
Viewers can now watch Hollywood films in the original language, which is challenging the once pervasive Russian as most popular foreign tongue.
This month Tajiks were treated to American hits in prime-time slots including "Scoop," Woody Allen's romantic comedy starring Scarlett Johansson and "A Few Good Men" starring Cruise - all in English.
Isolated Tajikistan is the poorest ex-Soviet Central Asian state. Its economy depends heavily on remittances from Russia where many young men work as labourers and street cleaners.
Only a tiny fraction of the population know English well but many are keen to learn, hoping to study abroad or work for an international company.
Dubbing films into the local language is the norm in much of the former Soviet Union.
"Does TV help me learn English? Of course and it's absolutely free. But you can only understand when you have got a grip on the spoken language," said Anvar, a third-year economics student who is learning English at a private language centre.
But he believes it will even help improve vocabulary for those who only "catch 'Hi' and 'Bye' and nothing more" at the moment.
A reporter for Tajik state television said the channel picks films with "plenty of dialogue, plenty of positive, memorable moments of colloquial language." What matters is not the popularity of Hollywood stars but "that the viewer is able to memorise words and expressions and most importantly, hear the pronunciation," said the reporter, on condition of anonymity.
Channel One state television shows two or three films in English a week in the evening. The films are shown without ad breaks, unlike films shown in Tajik or Russian.
RUSSIAN LOSING GROUND
"Showing films in English is to help those viewers who are starting to learn English or already know it but do not have enough exposure to the language. From films, they get a chance to hear native speakers," a spokesman for Tajik state television told AFP.
The state television also shows news broadcasts in English, read by Tajiks.
In 2010, the 16-year-old daughter of President Emomali Rakhmon, Zarrina Rakhmonova, read the news in English as a summer job while on holiday from her British school.
Language courses teaching English have proliferated. Many are eager to go abroad to study, particularly to the United States, or hope to work at an international organisation where English is a job requirement.
"In Tajikistan, the number of those who speak or are studying English is several times higher than in the Soviet Union," said Parvon Dzhamshedov, the head of Tajikistan's association of English teachers.
The numbers are still tiny however, he said.
"Out of more than 8 million people, only 3 or 4 percent know English," mainly school pupils and students, particularly in the capital, Dzhamshedov said.
During the Soviet era, Russian was widely taught in Tajikistan. Dozens of newspapers and magazines came out in Russian and many schools taught all their lessons in Russian.
In the late 1990s, however, President Rakhmon issued a decree that citizens should study both Russian and English.
Yet most Russian speakers left the country after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, followed by a devastating civil war in Tajikistan, and today there is a lack of Russian teachers to work in schools.
In 1989, the country had 8 percent Russian (ethnic) population, while in 2010 it was 0.46 percent. Russian films are still shown daily on all Tajik television channels, and Tajiks can also watch news broadcasts in Russian.
But English is increasingly seen as the key to economic opportunity and "Russian is starting to lose ground to English," said Latofat Saidova, a linguist.
Already a few international conferences held in the capital Dushanbe have used English, rather than Russian, as the second language.
"Better-off young people who are studying English try to leave and go to Western countries, to the US," she said. "You want to go and study abroad? Then learn English."