Kazakhstan: Astana Wants Kazakhstanis to Speak Kazakh
  • Mon, 11/22/2010 - 11:00


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November 22, 2010 - 1:13pm,
by Joanna Lillis

Officials in Kazakhstan are developing a grand plan to get virtually everyone in the Central Asian country speaking Kazakh by 2020. Data from a recent survey, however, suggests that Astana’s goal may be overly ambitious.

A census taken in 2009, the results of which were published November 12, shows that only two-thirds of Kazakhstan’s 16 million inhabitants have a decent command of Kazakh, which is the state language. Kazakhs comprise about 63 percent of the population. Russians form the biggest minority group, and the Russian language is a lingua franca officially used alongside Kazakh in state bodies.

The draft State Program for the Functioning and Development of Languages for 2011-2020 aims to get 95 percent of citizens speaking Kazakh, while preserving knowledge of Russian at the level of 90 percent. The government says much has already been done to promote Kazakh, including the expansion schools providing Kazakh-language education, along with support for Kazakh-language media. But there is a long way to go.

The census reveals that 64 percent of people believe they have a command of Kazakh, with another 11 percent saying they have a weak command of the language. While the results are unscientific – one person’s definition of a command might be another’s notion of a loose grasp – they show that 36 percent acknowledge not knowing Kazakh at all, and only 14 percent of the population is studying the language.

Although 74 percent of people can understand spoken Kazakh, just 62 percent can read and write it proficiently. Nearly two decades after independence, the data suggests there are deficiencies in the education system, where the Kazakh language is a compulsory subject throughout school and into university. Education specialists say factors hampering learning include antiquated methodology and a lack of student motivation.

Knowledge of Kazakh is highest among the fellow Turkic-speaking Uzbek and Uyghur minorities, and lowest among ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Germans. Only 6 percent of ethnic Russians – who comprise 24 percent of the population – can read and write Kazakh; a quarter of ethnic Russians say they understand it orally.

In contrast, knowledge of Russian in Kazakhstan is widespread, with 94 percent understanding it orally and 85 percent able to read and write it.

Kazakhstan’s leadership, and many academics, attribute this gap down to the Soviet legacy, back when using Russian was favored and speaking Kazakh was frowned upon. “The fact that in past, unkind times damage was dealt to the question of developing culture and the Kazakh language,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev told the Assembly of People (representatives of Kazakhstan’s ethnic groups) last month. His cautious phrasing was designed to demonstrate inclusiveness toward ethnic minorities, but he said the objective is “to achieve a situation in which all Kazakhstan’s citizens master the state language.”

Culture Minister Mukhtar Kul-Mukhammed, who oversees language policy, was less euphemistic as he presented the draft language program in July: “In Soviet times, and even sometimes now, communicating in Kazakh was considered to be a sign of backwardness, of ignorance of Russian. Now we should neutralize these negative stereotypes and shape the idea that knowing Kazakh is a sign of success, freedom, sophistication and professional advantage.”

Kul-Mukhammed does not mince words about the need for citizens to learn Kazakh. After 20 years of independence, “if [people] had shown an iota of interest in the state language they could have mastered it at least to the very lowest level,” he told a BNews.kz website online conference on November 9. “It is time to ask Kazakhstan’s citizens if they know the state language, if they respect the state language – the language of the people who gave this state its name.”

Kazakh-language advocates are frustrated that Russian dominates public life to accommodate non-Kazakh speakers, who also include some ethnic Kazakhs.

Katharina Buck, a doctoral candidate at the UK’s University of Bristol who researches national identity in Kazakhstan, says this “softly-softly approach to the language issue” might be changing. “Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs are increasingly voicing their concerns … [that] Kazakh culture and language are not protected or fostered enough beyond lip service,” she told EurasiaNet.org. “Kazakhstan’s [government] will have to listen to these voices, and recent developments indicate that it is doing so.”

These voices are becoming louder. “In Kazakhstan, the Kazakh language does not occupy its deserved place as a state language,” argued Mukhtar Tayzhan, president of the Bolatkhan Tayzhan Foundation. During a seminar in September, held at an Institute of Political Solutions (IPS), Tayzhan went on to call for the development of “a mechanism of compulsion” to enforce Kazakh learning.

Dos Kushim, leader of the Ult Tagdyry (Fate of the Nation) movement, agreed. “Regarding motivation, I think if the desire has not awoken in a person to learn Kazakh in 20 years, it will never happen,” he said. “The necessity should be created – created by law, if we are a law-based state.”

Some citizens are already turning to the law over language rights: In September, seven employees of a brewery near Almaty sued their supervisor for moral damages after she banned them from speaking Kazakh at work because “it drives me crazy.” They lost but are appealing.

Some ethnic minority group leaders warn that enforcing use of Kazakh in a country where many do not speak it could have disastrous consequences. “If we step on this path, we will reach the stage that the Russian population will start thinking about leaving Kazakhstan,” Yuriy Bunakov of the Russian Community of Kazakhstan movement said during the IPS seminar.

Russian speakers are also concerned about the possibility that Kazakhstan might switch writing Kazakh from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, an idea mooted by Nazarbayev in 2006, but now apparently stalled. Kul-Mukhammed revived the issue on November 9, remarking that he believes such a change is inevitable “sooner or later.”

The ingredients in this debate are explosive, and the administration favors the use of persuasion over coercion. Officials nevertheless are determined to get Kazakhstan citizens speaking Kazakh.
Editor's note:
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.

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