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.
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.