Kazakhstan’s many peoples speak many tongues – Russian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Uyghur and Tatar, among others – but after decades of suppression in the Soviet days, the country’s mother tongue, the Kazakh language, is still working to reestablish itself across the steppe.
The Rise of Literacy, the Fall of Kazakh
Though Kazakh was not officially forbidden in Soviet Kazakhstan, Russian was to be the lingua franca of all the Soviet states. It was the language of interethnic exchange, the language of business and politics, the language of the urban centers. Kazakh, and often Kazakh people, were relegated to villages and remained far from hubs of national decision-making.
Kazakhstan, which became part of the Soviet Union in 1920 (as the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic; it became the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936), was subject to the Soviet central government’s wide-ranging, and quite successful, literacy campaigns. Though those campaigns also taught literacy in local languages, the special status of Russian, and the fact that so many ethnicities lived on Kazakh soil, meant that Russian was widely taught. Russian became mandatory in schools in the 1930s; by the time of independence in 1991, higher education was offered almost exclusively in Russian.
To be fair, Kazakh was still allowed to be spoken in Soviet Kazakhstan, and was even taught in schools – just not in very many. “I remember in my hometown, there was only one Kazakh school and 10 Russian schools,” said Shinar Bekisheva, 36, who grew up outside of Astana.
“We spoke Russian outside, but our parents tried to save our language,” Bekisheva said. “[Kazakh] was reduced everywhere – in mass media, in literature, everywhere.” Children, often encouraged by their parents, focused on Russian, because that was what you needed to get a good job, she said.
Bekisheva learned Kazakh at university after independence, studying it for four years “like a foreign language,” she said. Now, she teaches English, Russian and occasionally Kazakh, and her son goes to a Kazakh language school. She’s an example of what the government of Kazakhstan is actively encouraging – trilingualism. But to achieve that, many citizens of Kazakhstan, even Kazakhs, are going to have to sit down and learn what once would have been their mother tongue.
An Uncertain Mother Tongue
Farida Kanagatova, a teacher from Almaty, moved to Astana four years ago. “Today, unfortunately, my language is not used among the young generation,” she said. “Even though they know Kazakh language, they do not try to speak Kazakh. … Even though most children today study at Kazakh schools and inside the schools they use the language, outside the schools they don’t use the language. … Today, unfortunately, this is the reality of my language.”
Kanagatova decries the loss of literary Kazakh, and the habit she hears in the streets of Kazakh words being plugged into Russian sentence structures. “We have to change something for the young generation today,” she said. “We have to do something for them not to be shy, about their culture, about their language, about their roots, folk music. Today, unfortunately, many things affect the lives of the young generation. They look to the Western countries – and, of course, there are positive things that come from that. But there are not only positive things coming from other places. Nowadays we are open. [In Soviet times], we were just locked. But even though we were locked, we paid a lot of attention to the development of the young generation, to their education. Now we know more things about the whole world, about the history of every country, about geography … but we’ve lost something about the culture, about the language today.”
Bekisheva sees the opposite: in her opinion, it is young people who are enthusiastic about Kazakh, and adults who resist it. “I’ve noticed among younger people, they’re more interested in studying [Kazakh] than older people, because older people all came from the Soviet Union. And maybe it’s also because of their age, because it’s easier for younger people to learn languages. Many people, even non-Kazakhs, are trying to influence their children and to send them to classes or to Kazakh kindergartens,” she said. “[Adults] always want to turn to Russian. Even if they try to speak Kazakh.”
Kanagatova is heartened by the desire she sees in some adult Kazakhs to learn Kazakh as a foreign language. “I didn’t know that one day I would teach Kazakh language, not only to foreigners, but to Kazakh people,” she said. “I have one Kazakh student. She’s from Pavlodar city and she works [in Astana].” The Kazakh woman saw her teaching Americans in an Astana cafe. “One day she asked me, ‘Can you help me with my Kazakh?’ I was so happy! I was so happy that she wants to speak Kazakh language!”
Nurzhan Baisakov teaches Kazakh and Kazakh literature at Astana’s Haileybury School, an English-language school. He also teaches the dombra, a traditional Kazakh instrument. “I love my job,” he said. “I’m proud of my language.”
Like many Kazakh enthusiasts, he cites the language’s richness of synonyms as one of its charms. “Comparing Shakespeare and Kazakh writer Mukhtar Auezov, we can show that Shakespeare used about 15,000 words in all his works and Auezov used 16,983 words just in one book, ‘Abai’s Way.’ … In this novel, you can find 16 ways of describing the snowfall!”
Replanting Kazakh Roots
While Kazakh is now the state language, Russian is a language “officially used along with Kazakh in state institutions and local self-government bodies,” according to the country’s Constitution, and is still widely used in urban centers and for business and politics. But Kazakh looks to be making a comeback, supported by government policies and an enthusiasm among many Kazakhs to ensure that the language of their ancestors thrives.
Since independence, the government of Kazakhstan has been taking steps to promote the state language. All government documents are required to be issued in Kazakh, street signs must be in Kazakh and the state is supposed to provide citizens with free options for learning Kazakh. Kazakh newspapers and television channels have emerged and the number of Kazakh schools has increased. Kazakh competence is required for the coveted Bolashak scholarship, an all-expenses-paid presidential scholarship program that funds Kazakh students to study overseas. And in his state-of-the-nation address in January 2014, President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared that by 2020, students graduating from state high schools should be fluent in English, Russian and Kazakh.
More needs to be done, however, said the Kazakh teachers, both by the government and the population. They need new resources, they said: new textbooks, listening materials, online resources.
“We don’t have many children’s writers,” said Baisakov. “We also need more good Kazakh cartoons and films; that’s also an excellent way for children to learn Kazakh, because characters repeat words many times showing different emotions.”
Bekisheva agreed: “[My son] started to speak Russian earlier than Kazakh because he watched cartoons, especially American cartoons, translated into Russian, not into Kazakh. Every interesting thing for children is in Russian and English, not in Kazakh.”
Primarily, though, they need enthusiasm from the population. “I think the government is working on it, but it’s not only the government that has to make an effort. Of course, the government has to lead us … they have to say that this is the right thing, this is the policy of the country,” said Kanagatova. But the government can’t walk into your house and make you speak, she said. There has been some discussion of shifting Kazakh from Cyrillic back to a Latin alphabet, something she thinks might be helpful in engaging young people.
“I’d like to pay attention to national mass media,” said Baisakov. “I think the printed matter is not enough.” The majority of the print media in Kazakhstan is in Russian, he said, and what is available in Kazakh is not enough to satisfy an engaged audience.
“We need to have some patriotism,” said Bekisheva. “We need to encourage all students, all graduates, to develop our language. For example, a few studios are making Kazakh cartoons that are very funny, very interesting. Some studios are making new Kazakh films. I think the mass media is a big influence on people, and maybe we need to change some rules. I know that some rules just don’t work. For example, street signs – they have to be in Kazakh and in other languages, but you see signs in English and Russian, not in Kazakh everywhere. I think every detail is important. Because we need to be involved. We need to use it in real life.”
Kanagatova hopes to be an example in real life. “If I see a Kazakh person, I speak Kazakh, because I love my language,” she said. “Who will use my literary Kazakh if I don’t? Of course, I know Russian, but why do I have to choose my second language? … Kazakh is my mother tongue.”
People take notice when she speaks Kazakh in the street, she said. “And they find something good, something interesting, something close to their heart. I’m satisfied with that. I have to show them, to be a model of using my language.”
“We, civilized people, need to remember: languages can die out,” said Baisakov. “If people don’t speak their own language, it dies.”
“This is a nation, this is a country, and this country has its own language, its own history, its own literature, and we have to go on,” said Kanagatova. “We have to grow, we have to survive as a country. And for that we need our language.”
About the Kazakh Language
Despite having swapped words with each other for centuries, Kazakh and Russian are very different languages with very different origins. Kazakh is a Turkic language, part of the language family that includes Turkish, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tatar and many other languages. (It is also part of an ongoing debate about the possible definition of a “Ural-Altaic” language group, which would include such disparate languages as Hungarian, Mongolian and Korean, among others.)
Kazakh is an agglutinative language, “the language of endings,” Kanagatova called it. Information, including place, plural forms, person and preposition information, is added to words in the form of suffixes, which must be added in the correct order. Kazakh speakers will tell you that the language has a huge, synonym-rich vocabulary, ideal for description. Like English, its words are not gendered, and it has a variety of tenses. It also has a number of qualities English lacks, including an evidentiality system in which information about the evidence for a particular statement is expressed within a word. Yeah, it’s complicated.
The Kazakh alphabet has 42 letters, 33 from the standard Cyrillic alphabet and nine additional letters representing Kazakh sounds. Kazakh didn’t use a standard writing system until about the 19th century. It began its written life in Arabic, then was written in Latin letters in the early days of the Soviet Union, and was converted to Cyrillic in 1940.