State Language ≠ Lingua Franca

Bus route sign in Kazakh and Russian

After nearly a month here, I, as a completely under-qualified layperson, have concluded that Almaty suffers from a language identity clash, one that I think may reflect larger linguistic issues bubbling under the surface throughout Kazakhstan.  In Almaty, once the capital of Kazakhstan, street signs and commercial billboards are most commonly seen in two languages, and hardly anyone speaks one sentence in pure Kazakh. More often than not, it’s Russian that seems to dominate, with a couple colloquial phrases in Kazakh thrown in for good measure. Then again, what is “pure Kazakh?” Better not to ask. This very issue caused a mild-mannered female student to go on a tirade during a guest lecture I attended a week ago. (The lecture was on the situation of the Oralman – ethnic Kazakhs returning to Kazakhstan from other countries to regain Kazakh citizenship.  They are often simultaneously teased for not speaking good enough Kazakh and complain that they speak Kazakh but many Kazakhs in Kazakhstan do not.)

The status of the Kazakh and Russian languages is defined in Article 7 of Kazakhstan’s Constitution. The state language of the Republic of Kazakhstan is Kazakh, however state institutions and local self-administrative bodies the Russian language shall be officially used on equal grounds along with the Kazak language. In Almaty, despite the preference for Kazakh at the official level, Russian appears to be the lingua franca. In light of the half a century or so the nation spent under Soviet rule and the dearth Kazakh books, as compared to Russian, I guess this makes sense.

In Almaty I attend Kazakhstan’s Institute of Management and Strategic Research (KIMEP), a wonderful gem of a university that gives all of its classes in English – except of course the foreign language classes, including my three hour-a-day Kazakh classes and thrice weekly 50 minute Russian lessons. I have sat in on classes taught by both local and international staff and low and behold that classes are absolutely in English. Officially the university’s languages are Kazakh and English, however beyond the classroom, I hear almost nothing but Russian, and surprisingly a lot (perhaps at least a third) of the student announcements I see posted by groups and clubs around campus are in Russian. The students generally socialize in Russian, and I have to communicate with the convenience store workers, gym employees and almost all of the other local employees in Russian (except of course the professors who speak fluent English). If there is a silver-lining perhaps it is that at least one woman working on the cafeteria line has figured out I speak Kazakh and seems to give me a slightly larger helping of food than the other students, always with a pleasant smile, when I order in Kazakh. This of course is a welcome reprieve, but if I make this “mistake” with the wrong lunch lady, which has been known to happen, I get an unhappy scowl. (If you’re a Seinfeld fan imagine the Soup Nazi…. Next!)

My wonderful host family often speaks to me in a mix of Kazakh and Russian (occasionally using my dictionaries to figure out words in Kazakh), yet when my host mom went upstairs to complain to our neighbors above us, who happen to be ethnic Russians, that water was leaking through the ceiling into our apartment, she came back down grumbling in the “purest” Kazakh I have ever heard her speak about our difficult Russian neighbors. This confused me, because of her seemingly strong preference for the Russian language prior to that moment. Whenever we watch the news together she is constantly marveling at how well all of the ethnic groups in the country get along. She will then proceed to remark that Russia has issues with extreme nationalism, particularly violent attacks on migrants from Central Asia, but Russians are very welcome in Kazakhstan and don’t encounter such issues here. From what I can tell this is pretty much true.

While it might sound like I am complaining about the linguistic cacophony here in Almaty, I actually feel extremely grateful to be experiencing it firsthand. All of this in fact relates quite directly to research that I have started working on while I am here in Kazakhstan. My topic is “The Legal Framework for Ethnic Stability in Kazakhstan.” Of course the two major ethnic groups in Kazakhstan are the Kazakhs and the Russians, and the State is raring full speed ahead with numerous language policies and initiatives related specifically to continued elevation of the Kazakh language above Russian. This has the strong potential to alienate Kazakhstan’s Russians and other minority groups who have relied on Russian to get around Kazakhstan for so long. (Nevermind that, from what I can tell from watching the national news, the vast majority of government officials are more comfortable speaking Russian than Kazakh.) I look forward to exploring this topic more deeply, particularly from the legal angle, and hope that I will be able to make some more eloquent remarks on it the future.

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