Kazakh or Russian?

I’ve found it difficult to write this blog entry because Kazakhstan is so familiar to me. I lived mostly in Astana, but I spent several months in Almaty, and it remains well-ingrained in my memory. I left long enough for many things to happen in my personal life, but not long enough for the country to change noticeably from when I left it. That said, my experience trying to learn Kazakh in Almaty has, I think, provided me with a more intuitive understanding of how local residents experience language politics on a daily basis.

My Russian is far, far superior to my Kazakh, and trying to improve the latter in an environment where nearly everyone speaks the former fluently has been a struggle. At home, my host mother has been dedicated in her efforts to converse with me in Kazakh, but sometimes, the need to communicate a complex thought or action clearly has to override my language practice. On the street, even when I try speaking in Kazakh, the reply often comes in Russian. The relative ease with which I can slip into that language often makes it too tempting to avoid, especially when coupled with the exhaustion I feel after hours of language class, work in the library, and the long commute.

For me, this highlights the incentives and disincentives that non-Kazakh speaking locals face when trying to decide whether or not to learn Kazakh. Kazakhs who speak Russian as their primary language face strong social incentives to do so; there seems to be a pronounced discomfort if not outright shame for many to admit that they are not comfortable communicating in Kazakh. Fluency in the language also has become increasingly important for career advancement and is a must for government service. For ethnic Russians and others, however, that social expectation simply does not exist. As a result, the incentives for them to invest the time and funds in learning Kazakh are far less. I wonder how or whether this will change as time goes on, or what programs might be developed to try and increase Kazakh fluency among all ethnic groups in the country.

David Laitin explained the process of language acquisition as a tipping game, and the increasing prevalence and importance of Kazakh language among ethnic Kazakhs certainly seems to indicate a push in that direction. As an acquaintance mentioned, Kazakh youth today need three languages to succeed: Russian, Kazakh, and English. In other words, even as Kazakh language skills become more and more important, the ubiquity of Russian does not seem to be going anywhere. This bi- or tri-lingual situation does not fit well into Laitin’s (or most other) models; what happens when most of the country speaks at least two languages fluently? Does this induce ‘tipping’ among the other ethnic groups that are traditionally not expected to speak one of them?

Despite the flurry of studies on language politics that followed the breakup of the USSR, this scenario wasn’t one that was posited. It will be fascinating to return in ten years to see how the country has changed as it has traveled on that path. I do not expect that in a future visit, I will feel like I’m visiting the place of my memories!


By: Margaret Hanson

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Summer 2012

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