Learning a New Language

Coming to Tajikistan to study Uzbek may seem counterintuitive, but if you have been to the northern suburbs of Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, and paid attention to the street chatter, you might have noticed that, alongside the familiar cadence of the Tajiki Persian dialect, you can find people of all ages speaking Uzbek to each other. I live in one such mahalla (neighborhood) where Tajik speakers live door-to-door with Uzbek speakers (who tend to be bilingual) and, like the members of my host family, have to get used to switching from Tajik to Uzbek and back, sometimes in the course of the same conversation.

The significant overlap in vocabulary between the two languages can be both a blessing and a curse: Knowing Tajik will help you understand Uzbek and vice versa, but it also makes it more challenging to keep the two languages mentally separate. This is important because Uzbek has, apart from its shared vocabulary, very little in common with Tajik. As an agglutinative language that is part of the Turkic language family, its grammar is very different from that of Indo-European languages such as Persian, and coming across a word that Tajik and Uzbek have in common has thrown me off more than once. I continue to be amazed by my host parents and host brothers’ ability to shift seamlessly between the two.

In addition to language classes and discussion with my host family over dinner, I get to practice my Uzbek with my language partner Orif. He comes from an Uzbek-speaking family from the south of Tajikistan and moved to Dushanbe two years ago to attend medical school. This means that, like medical students in the United States, he tends to be busy doing coursework and revising for exams, but we have managed to go on several outings together. Even though Orif knows the city much better than I do, there are plenty of places that neither of us have been to. Trips to Dushanbe’s botanical garden offer a brief respite from homework (or a cool place to study during the afternoon heat), and when both of us had deadlines approaching, Orif took me to the National Library, a nine-story building containing approximately 10 million books and an impressive main reading room.

It seems too early to draw conclusions, but if the first three weeks of my program are anything to judge by, I won’t regret coming to Tajikistan to study Uzbek. Life in Dushanbe goes to show that in many corners of this world monolingualism is the exception rather than the rule. I’m excited to experience this aspect of life in Central Asia and, the occasional case of language confusion notwithstanding, I look forward to many more days moving back and forth between Tajik and Uzbek.

By: Alexander Maier

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Term: Summer 2019

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