Мен қазақша жақсы көремін! Learning community languages in Kazakhstan

How do we encourage young people to speak their parents' language?
How do we encourage young people to speak their parents’ language?

I recently heard about the phenomenon of young Kazakhs who do not know the Kazakh language. With a quarter of the population Russian and Ukrainian, the Russian language seems to dominate, even over the two-thirds majority of ethnic Kazakhs. Whether for cultural or economic or even more complicated reasons, young Kazakhs seem to be turning their backs on the language of their ancestors.

An unlikely challenge to this state of affairs came from Rich D, a Nigerian hip-hop artist, who performs in the Kazakh language. Hear his tribute to the capital, Almaty.

In an interview on Kazakh TV (conducted in Russian) he said, “I am totally shocked that still people don’t speak it (Kazakh). This is one of my tasks, that I simply give to these people who do not hold on to their own language, that foreigners come here and respect this country and even try to speak this language. Why don’t you want to speak this language? Why don’t you respect this language?”

First, I’m personally impressed by this guy’s language abilities. I’ve never met a monolingual Nigerian, so he surely arrived in Kazakhstan with 2-3 languages. Then he picked up two more while in Kazakhstan.

Second, he pushed my ideas about learning community languages to another level. When I speak about learning community languages, I also speak about wanting to show the value of a language to the people who are losing it. Rich D turned the power dynamic on its head, though. I talk about myself coming from a position of power, as an upper-middle-class white American.

Rich D, though, is black from Africa. He does not bring the same power dynamic to the conversation as I do. One might assume that such a person would just focus on what he needs to survive. Maybe he is poor (honestly, I don’t know anything about his background) and does not have a lot of resources for learning “extra” things like another language.

Yet we are both trying to make the same point. Don’t lose your language! It’s valuable! It’s beautiful!

Recently I was speaking to the young man working the register at an electronics store. Miyaad hadashaa afka soomaaliga? “Do you speak Somali?” “Oh, yeah, I understand it,” he replied in English. “Why don’t you speak it?” I pushed. “So many stories from your parents, beautiful music and poetry. You don’t want to lose that!” As I was leaving, I added, “If I can learn it, you can, too. It’s even easier for you! Your parents can teach you!”

Rich D can function completely in Almaty using Russian. He does not need Kazakh. But it pains him to see people lose their native language, and he wants to show respect to the language. Me, too. I don’t like to see people lose such a vibrant language and an important connection with their past.

Will Rich D turn young Kazakhs to appreciate the value of their ancestral tongue? Hard to say, but I love the effort he exerts to show his respect for this language.

What ways do you show respect to others’ language? What ways do you participate in community languages?

Photo credit: babasteve via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

6 thoughts on “Мен қазақша жақсы көремін! Learning community languages in Kazakhstan

  1. I have an ongoing conversation with a classmate about “our languages”. In a random conversation in the first week, he asked about what I do outside of uni, and I said, “I’m studying for a diploma in my language.”
    And he was like, “*Your* language?” (Yeah, I’m white, this is a bit of a mind-blower).
    “Yeah, Scottish Gaelic. Well, you might say Gay-lick.”
    “You have a diploma for that? Like a proper university thing?”
    “Yeah, well, it’s an official language in Scotland now…”
    “Oh… I don’t think we have that for my language.”
    “What’s your language?”
    “Nyungar.” (This was spoken across most of southern WA)
    “Probably. That’s a pretty big language.” (A quick Google search has just told me that, no, you can’t actually study Nyungar at a university level) “Do you speak it?”
    “No. My grandma does, though. My cousin is fluent.”
    “Huh. Why don’t you?”
    “Never learnt it.”
    “I didn’t speak Gaelic until I was a teenager.”
    That was that for about a week, until the topic came up again. Aboriginal issues are very important to him – his grandparents were part of the Stolen Generation and all that – and Gaelic issues are very important to me, so it’s a recurring theme.
    “You know, you should learn *your* language. It’s cool when you’re able to speak your own language.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Never learnt it”-yet! 😉 Our exchange student’s mother started learning Basque in her 20s even though it’s her people’s language. She can’t speak great, but she understands. All three of her kids are fluent.


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