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 Review, 65(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.Innovation, 19(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 bilingualism, 11(3-4), 440-475.