The status of Kazakh language or “Қазақша неге сөйлемейсің?”

At first glance, a taxi driver, a greengrocer and an old man may appear like having nothing in common. But to someone like me, all of these people fall under the category of completely unknown strangers whose hobby is asking questions and moralizing. “Қазақша неге сөйлемейсің? Нағыз қазақсың ба немесе шала қазақсың ба?” is one of their typical phrases. The thing is that being an ethnic Kazakh and at the same time a very poor language user, I am commonly referred to as shala-Kazakhs. As far as you can understand, language issues is one of the favorite conversation topics of taxi drivers, greengrocers and old men. I became interested in that topic too. Why can’t I speak Kazakh? Let’s try to answer this questions together!

Kazakhstan is not the only country in Central Asia which was colonized by Russian empire. However, it is the only conquered country where the titular nation was an ethnic minority which adopted Russian language as its own. The greatness of Russian language was universally celebrated. Through massive propaganda held in religious institutions, workplaces and schools Russian language became a sign of a high intelligence, better job perspectives, improved social status and prestige. It displaced Kazakh from many spheres, such as science, press and military and became the main predictor of social success. The most influential place was school where Russian was the dominant medium of instruction in schools and the tool controlling intellectual life (Fierman, 2006). Perceiving Russian as “elder brothers”, rural Kazakhs aspired to the cosmopolitan, urban way of life led by Russians and wishing the same for their children sent them to Russian schools. Kazakhs became russified. It causes no surprise native language, associated with poverty and backwardness, lost its value, prestige and cultural meaning.

Everything changed with independence. The significant efforts and resources have been invested to the restoration of mother tongue since 1991. The promotion of positive birth rate of Kazakh population, the repatriation of Kazakh diaspora to Russian-dominant northern and eastern regions, and even the relocation of capital from southern Almaty to northern Astana were unanimously reported as key attempts to place more emphasis on Kazakh language (Fierman, 2006; Kuzhabekova, 2003; Matuszkiewicz, 2010; Smagulova, 2006; 2008). The endeavors to enhance the status of the language could be met more frequently in the names of the streets and villages, in newspapers and Internet, on the billboards and road signs, on TV channels and radio waves.

Yet, not all of those attempts were faced enthusiastically. Even though there exists a general agreement on the softness of the policy in ethnicity with few incentives and sanctions (Fierman, 2006; Kuzhabekova, 2003; Smagulova, 2008), the reinforcement of Kazakh was perceived by non-Kazakh population as the coercive weakening of Russian language (Matuszkiewicz, 2010). This created the possibility of an unsafe situation which could result in manifestation of interethnic tension and social conflicts.

Coupled with that, for a large group of people including native Kazakhs, Russian remains the dominant language of communication in politics, economics, mass media, press and education. It is “de jure and de facto an official language of Kazakhstan” for them (Smagulova, 2008, p.454). The answer to “Қазақша неге сөйлемейсің?” is obvious. A substantial proportion of younger and elder generation does not speak Kazakh because their parents did not teach them; because they were born and grew up in Russian-speaking environment; because they attended Russian-medium schools; because the information and content they use is mostly available in Russian and English; or simply because they are afraid of blame and disapproval for their Russian accent.

Many people believe judgment, skepticism, arrogance and morals still work. In fact, they do not. Being Shala-Kazakhs is not a personal preference; it is the “heritage” of the past. That is not to say the society owes something to people with the limited knowledge of own mother tongue. It is that shala-Kazakh’s responsibility to raise the knowledge of own language by attending the courses, communicating with people and teaching own children to speak Kazakh. Mutual support and tolerance are becoming increasingly important for all both Kazakh and Russian-speaking population. Without rediscovery of our own roots we risk to lose or heritage and national identity.

As I hear the stones flying at me, I encourage you to look through this thought-provoking Voxpopuli article providing the opinions and beliefs of shala-Kazakhs and freely express your opinions about them and your perception of the Kazakh language status.


Fierman, W. (2006). Language and education in post‐Soviet Kazakhstan: Kazakh‐medium instruction in urban schools. The Russian Review65(1), 98-116.

Kuzhabekova A. (2003). Language policies in independent Kazakhstan: the Kazakh-Russian dilemma. Linguistic changes in post-communist Eastern Europe and Eurasia, 18(2), 161-184.

Matuszkiewicz, R. (2010). The language issue in Kazakhstan-institutionalizing new ethnic relations after Independence. Economic and Environmental Studies,10(2), 211-227.

Smagulova, J. (2006). KAZAKHSTAN: Language, identity and conflict 1.Innovation19(3-4), 303-320.

Smagulova, J. (2008). Language policies of kazakhization and their influence on language attitudes and use. International journal of bilingual education and bilingualism11(3-4), 440-475.


12 thoughts on “The status of Kazakh language or “Қазақша неге сөйлемейсің?”

  1. Thanks, Shynar, for raising such a charged question. I do really understand you, since I have the exact same problem; it occured so many times with me when the ordinary taxi ride turned into a hot polemyc of “Why Kazakh youngsters do not speak Kazakh in Kazakhstan?” and every time I felt guilty and ashamed. How did it happen? How come I don’t know my mother tongue? Actually, my parents speak Kazakh fluently, I was raised by my granda who speaks great literary Kazakhs language, though I still belong to “shala-kazakh” anonymous club. And after thinking about your question, I understood the reason “why”. This is all about the environment. Since I also studied in a Russian-medium school (where I had only 3-4 Kazakh classmates), spoke in Russian with my family, watched TV in Russian and read Russian classic literature, it is small wonder why I am an outsider in a Kazakh-speaking society.
    I liked your idea that “Many people believe judgment, skepticism, arrogance and morals still work. In fact, they do not”, however, unfortunately, it still exists far and wide, and even my good Kazakh-speaking friends can sometimes judge another Russian-speaking Kazakh, thereby unintentionally hurting my feelings. I tried learning kazakh on “” source, which seems quite an effective one, though still I need to overcome speaking barrier, which is the most important part of learning any language, but I don’t succeed.
    And can you share how do you study Kazakh? Maybe you have devised your own strategies/approaches of apprehending it successfully?
    Thanks a lot for a post, again. It is a really overriding issue which deserves more attention and discussion.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Shynar, thank you for the post. It is really intersting to know about the challenges most kazakhs face while trying to speak kazakh.
    As a kazakh-language speaker, I have asked my friends the same questions but not with the purpose to hurt or humiliate them, but to understand and help them. Because I have had one story that caused me to speak kazakh always and promote it everywhere.
    When I was in the states with my friends, who were russian speakers but kazakhs, the most shameful question we were asked was that why we were talking in russian when we were kazakhs. That question shaked me from the head to the toes. I dont why I reacted in that way, but it is what happened.
    I believe that in future everybody will speak kazakh and gradually increase the prestige of it. What I would like to say to people who are struggling to learn kazakh is that the best way to learn the language is through communication. Let’s talk. Feel free to practice kazakh with me if you want. And never think that you are saying something wrong or you have an accent. Everybody has something that is actually not so good to be proud of. It is life, we are always on the learning process.
    Thank you, )

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you, Shynar! Your post is as always very engaging and thought-provoking to me, though I am writing comment to you for the first time. Because the language issue really upsets me, a patriot of the Kazakh language, very much.
    You will probably accept me as one of those strangers who like moralizing. However, I really do not understand why Kazakhs do not speak the kazakh language. All of the reasons you gave and I have found through the article in Voxpopuli are quiet well-known. It is not your fault that your parents did not teach you; that you were born and grew up among Russians; your friends speak Russian and many millions of other excuses. But about the English language? Many shala-kazakhs speak English quiet well whereas they do not know Kazakh at all, and all of them live in Kazakhstan, where English is not used in daily life. Despite of this fact, people try and try again till they advance their English language skills. But when the turn comes to Kazakh, it is always something or someone is guilty: the government does not consider reforms and policies properly; people around may blame for Russian accent; language learning sites do not function properly and so on. What is offensive is that people do not try or give up easily. So, in my opinion, if there is will, there is EVERYTHING. And I believe that every single Kazakh can speak the Kazakh language and WILL in the future!!!
    Thanks again for creating an opportunity to express my feelings on the Kazakh language issues 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Good job Shynar!!! The fact that such a topic is being raised and necessity of speaking kazakh put forward is itself a small win. I think we need to stop feeling uneasy to talk about it, feeling that we somehow pressure or discriminate other ethnic groups, who say “что за национализм?”. Not to offend anybody but I agree with Karl Marx in saying “Не знать языка страны проживания может гость, идиот или оккупант, насаждающий свой язык!..”.
    To my Russian speaking kazakh friends (and not only) I would say not to be shy and speak and practice kazakh, even with mistakes, accent or inappropriate use of tense. We all speak several languages and know that practice makes perfect. Otherwise, everything you say is just an excuse.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Dear Shynarqic! It is always pleasure to read your articles! I admire your writing style, rich vocabulary range, sentense variety and your interesting topics! Being shala kazakh myself, I completely agree that judgement and morals does not work at all and sometmes even discourage to learn kazakh languge, making you feel shame for living in our country. If these people really care about kazakh language status why they do not volunteer to open the kazakh language centers or organize some kind of kazakh speaking club empowering their morals into action and giving shala kazaks opportunities to study their native language. Nowadays we are still lacking such cultural centers where we can learn kazakh: to find english speaking clubs or cources is much more easier then kazakh one. I support your idea that mutual support and tolerance is the better way to raise the status of kazakh language, then deviding into two opposite sides of kazakh speaking kazakh and shala kazakhs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Again, Zukhra, you are blaming someone else, but not yourself. If you are eager to learn the language, I would be extremely happy to help you.
      By the way, Shynar says right that we usually do have nothing in common with greengrocers, taxi drivers and so on. And speaking to them requires just our basic language knowledge as: “Мынау қанша тұрады?” (How much does it cost?) OR “Мұражайға дейін бес жүз теңге” (To museum 500tg), doesn’t it?
      You say about mutual support and tolerance, but what if I tell you that Kazakhstan celebrates its 24th independence this year. It is time for one to be born and become an individum. And till what time you suggest people around to be tolerant? Isn’t it worth to learn at least one phrase a day? I think it is not so difficult task. Moreover, you have friends around you to ask for help immediately if something is not clear. I am sorry if I hurt someone, but I think it is time to look at the Kazakh language issue seriously and at least try…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I am not blaming anyone if u didn’t mentioned. I said that this approach does not work and if people are really want kazakh language become spread they can contribute by doing something, not just talking about! And there is no any necessity to divide us on russian speaking and kazakh speaking kazakh; we are still one nation!


  6. Dear All,
    Having read all of your comments and concerns about our mother tongue, I felt happy and proud of you in ways how much you care about Kazakh language and you want to help other people to learn it. I agree with Seitbayev that any person who wants to learn Kazakh or any other languages should not feel uneasy or embarrassed while using and practising the target language. On the contrary, try to communicate and listen to the native speakers (me for example :)) at every single opportunity. Stop calling yourself (I am refering to Shynarchiq, Lyazzat and Zukharok) shala-Kazakh and start practising Kazakh instantly! Take advantage of Kazakh language course you are attending now!
    And if we speak about “mutual support and tolerance”, I would say that you can not find a better corner in the world (if not in Kazakhstan) where different landuages and ethnicities are supported and welcomed by society. So, do not wait for somebody to support you just start speaking and expressing your ideas in Kazakh!
    P.S. I am always here to help and support you friends!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Shynarchiq, this is a really hot topic. I like this blog. it was very well organized and the situation was delivered explicitly. A balanced explanation of the issue is noticed.

    I understand the concerns of both sides; though do not support the idea of division.
    Whenever this question is raised, it doesn’t find a good result or doesn’t come to one agreement.

    I feel sincere sorry for that there are such people judging others, moralizing; that they are pressing, humiliating; I understand that such things really demotivate people; that such things build a negative attitude and/or prejudice. But how it came that our elder generation started learning and speaking Russian?…

    I agree that nowadays such approach doesn’t work and I am glad for that. The status never becomes better by forcing people. No one should press the other to do something. I believe that no one should demand a quality that he, himself doesn’t possess; I am not perfect in Kazakh and I don’t demand it from others. And I don’t think those taxi-drivers, greengrocers are. And the person who has this perfection, I think, will be higher of this all; will be an example and show in his actions, not words. The point here is not in waiting for such person or actions, but in becoming better and improving yourself by yourself.

    P.S. For those who asked how to learn Kazakh, I recommend not listen to criticism of people, but listen and watch the news and TV programs in Kazakh; The way how they express or formulate the conversation would surprise you, as me (always).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Shynar as you know speaking Kazakh is also problem for me.
    My father always tells me “Dear daughter, learn Kazakh it is your future. Everything in the future will be in Kazakh.” My reply was “How will I speak Kazakhs, if you do not speak with me?” I understand that my father is right, but do not speak Kazakh. I remember when I was in the USA I met one Kyrgyz man. He saw my name on the name badge and asked me “Dariga? Are you Kazakh?”. I answered “Yes”. And he started asking me question in Kazakh. I was so happy to hear my native language in the USA and was ready to answer to all of his questions. But then I understood that I could not even say a word in Kazakh. We continued our conversation in English. I felt ashamed.
    In learning languages environment, in which people speak on this language is essential. However, personal aspiration is the most important factor in learning languages. I studied Kazakh at school, university but I still do not speak Kazakh. The easiest way is to blame my teachers, school and parents. But I do not exert a force on learning language. This is only my fault that I am shy to speak Kazakh only because others will laugh on my mistakes. And it depend on me, whether I will speak Kazakh or not.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Shynarchiq! I am writing again and sorry if i will sound offensive, but I cannot keep away from such a discussion.
    First of all I dare all of us to stop labeling ourselves as shala qazaq, nagyz qazaq or something! There should be no hint to the separation on the ground of language proficiency level. We are all qazaq, from Zhayiq to Tarbagatai, from Altai to Alatau. That’s it.

    Secondly, to be a really prosperous and strong country we need to raise the consciousness of ourselves as a nation. I’m not discriminating other nationalities, we are all brothers and sisters. And this is not mere words, just look around and you can see how friendly we are. No one can accuse us of chauvinism. This is my argument to those who say qazaqs put pressure on others. We need to stand firm for our national interests. Otherwise, we will not be as much respected as we want to both on local and international levels.

    Lastly, learning kazakh (as anything else) is the matter of intrinsic motivation. We say that blaming, moralizing can discourage, but what if employers set as a requirement – state language proficiency, as it is in every civilized and developed country?

    I dare you!


  10. I share your strong feelings about taxi drivers and other people who like moralizing those who do not speak Kazakh well. I always tell them that many shala-Kazakhs accomplished more than some people who know Kazakh perfectly. It does not matter what and how you say things but how you do them. I can say that I love my country and my language and I can work for the benefit of my country, but for me it is easier to communicate in Russian. However, I admit that it is such a shame and I do not refuse to learn my mother tongue. I think that many people will learn Kazakh only when they understand it for themselves and when it is right time for them. For me this time already came and I am learning it.


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