Bilingual in Kazakhstan

For nearly a month I’ve been learning Kazakh in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a city where Russian remains the language of prestige. Even the Kazakhs here grew up speaking Russian, and they can be uncomfortable with their “national tongue.” Attempts to speak with some local people in Kazakh are often met with bemusement and a congratulatory “Молодец!” – “good job”, but in Russian. They could just as well say “Жарайсын”, the equivalent in Kazakh, but they don’t – when interacting with foreigners, speaking Russian remains a reflex. I’m lucky that I’ve studied Russian before, too, because otherwise I wouldn’t be as amused by all the Slavic words that get thrown at me in exchange for my bumbling Kazakh.

I went to a Kazakh friend’s birthday party, and I found a stark linguistic divide. The guests, except for me, were all Kazakhs, but about three-quarters of them spoke only in Russian. They took turns giving elaborate, poetic addresses to wish the birthday boy well. One guy, who didn’t speak Russian much, tried to give a short speech in the language anyways. It was better than I could’ve done for sure, and was well-meaning. “You had two hours to sit here, and that’s all you could think of?” said a haughty Russophone from across the table. When others who were even shakier in their Russian chose to give their toasts in Kazakh, most of the guests seemed to blank out, chatting amongst themselves and giving annoyed glances. To them, it seemed, Russian was a sign of culture and Kazakh something to be embarrassed by. “You are closer to god, we’ll give you that,” I heard one Russian-speaker say to his Kazakh-speaking brother.

Yet even in Almaty, there are people who speak Kazakh loudly and proudly, and when I engage with them they are thrilled to engage right back. I can see the pride in their eyes as I explain to them that you can even study Kazakh in America. They tend to still be a little insecure, asking why I would be interested in their language. I’m fascinated by Kazakh culture, I say, and language is a window into a national worldview. And with that they nod and say жарайсын, happy to welcome this new guest to their linguistic sphere.
I’m very lucky to be living with a fantastic family of Kazakh-speakers, which is often more helpful than hours and hours of classroom instruction. My host-mom, Gulchetai (who I call “apai”, which means “aunt” or “older sister”) is a Russian-Kazakh translator for the Health Department here, and she is super gung-ho about her mother tongue and me learning it. I tend to lapse into Russian when I grow frustrated with our language barrier, but she playfully “tsk tsk”s me and gets me back on track, slowly repeating herself and getting me to repeat after her. I’m often tired after a long day at school and try to give one-word answers or mumbled grunts to her Kazakh questions. Gulchetai does not accept this. She’ll say my correct answer for me in Kazakh and demand, “Now repeat!” Her daughter Moldir went to a Russian school and is more comfortable speaking to her mom in Russian, but whether it’s for my benefit or not, Gulchetai always answers in Kazakh. There are three younger kids, too, and they all went to Kazakh school, so my household is as Kazakh-friendly as it gets in urban Kazakhstan. A Kazakh toast here would not get an eye-roll but the heartiest of applause. It’s a great place to be, and I’m happy with my stay so far.

By: Dennis Keen

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Summer 2013


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