Should everyone in Kazakhstan be required to learn Kazakh language: linguistic discourses in place


The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was met with great local enthusiasm on the part of Kazakh nationalists who perceived it as a great opportunity to promote Kazakh language and increase the prestige of Kazakh language within predominantly Russian-speaking population (Fierman, 2006).  In fact, from the beginning of Kazakhstan’s independence to present, the domains of Kazakh language has significantly expanded mainly due to the state’s considerable efforts to legitimize and institutionalize Kazakh language (Smagulova, 2008). However, people are still increasingly expressing their concerns regarding the superiority of Russian language in public life. That being said, extreme Kazakh-language advocates started to call for a mandatory knowledge of Kazakh language virtually by all citizens of Kazakhstan. It is highly evidenced in the print and social media, which are full of complaints that Kazakh language is undervalued and discredited. Thus, the point of departure of this blog post is different linguistic discourses in place constantly emerging in recent times.

Since the proclamation of Kazakhstan’s independence, the relationship between Kazakh and Russian languages has been highly complex. The ongoing debate is stimulated by the state’s desire to assert the supremacy of Kazakh language in Kazakhstan. In addition, the State programme for language development (MCRK, 2011) also aims to promote the state language as a key factor to strengthen national unity. Opinions on this particular issue vary greatly among people as evident in the following excerpts by Mukhtar Tayzhan, president of the Bolatkhan Tayzhan Foundation:

U nas v Kazahstane kazahskij jazyk ne zanimaet podobajushhee emu mesto gosudarstvennogo jazyka. Jeta situacija nikogda ne izmenitsja, poka my kardinal’nym obrazom ne pomenjaem gosudarstvennuju politiku v sfere jazyka. Rezul’taty obzora mezhdunarodnogo opyta pokazyvajut, chto v osnovnom metody v sfere jazyka ochen’ zhestko regulirujutsja gosudarstvom, primenjajutsja administrativnye resursy. Nashe pravitel’stvo chereschur gumanno v dannom voprose. Ja schitaju oshibochnym otsutstvie mehanizma prinuzhdenija perehoda na gosudarstvennyj jazyk. […]. Esli chelovek schitaet sebja patriotom Kazahstana, to on objazan znat’ kazahskij jazyk i na nem govorit’.

[In our Kazakhstan, Kazakh language does not occupy its supposed place as a state language. Unless we alter the language politics of the state, this situation will never change. The review of the international experience shows that the methods used in the field of language are strictly regulated by the government, administrative resources are used. Our government is far more humane in dealing with this issue. I believe that it is wrong not to have a compulsive mechanism of switching to a state language.[..]. If one person considers himself/herself to be a patriot of Kazakhstan, then he/she must know Kazakh language and speak it.] (emphasis added).

The word supposed suggests that Kazakh language is not where it should be: it still does not have a high prestige appropriate to its state language status. Further the use of the conjunction unless allow us to conclude that it is a conditional sentence. The author clearly implies that the current situation (condition) of Kazakh language is not good and we have to try to change it. The author next talks about the international experience as being the best experience to which we have to rely on and shows vivid contrast of the international experience and our government in dealing with the same issue, with former being strict, and latter finds itself being  far more humane.  Moreover, Tayzhan call for a creation and development of  compulsive mechanism that would enforce people to speak Kazakh language. Such a strong position is then confirmed by his definition of a patriot as someone who knows and speaks the language. As we can see, this is an example of an assimilationist type of discourse where Kazakh language is needed to promote national unity. This excerpt (1) echoes the discourse that all people who live in Kazakhstan should be able to speak a state language and if needed, measures should be taken to enforce the learning of Kazakh language.

While the language ideology of one nation-one language remains present, this discourse has been a subject to intense debate on the part of non-Kazakh speakers who complain that the predominance of Kazakh language might come at the expense of their constitutional rights. Therefore, the language belief of one nation-one language was met rather skeptically as reflected in the following response of Yuriy Bunakov who is the leader of the Russian Community of Kazakhstan.

Na segodnjashnij den’ okolo 50% naselenija Kazahstana vladejut gosudarstvennym jazykom. Razve mozhno v takih uslovijah perevodit’ deloproizvodstvo polnost’ju na kazahskij jazyk? [..].Esli stupit’ na takuju stezju, my dozhivem do togo, chto russkoe naselenie zadumaetsja ob ot#ezde iz Kazahstana, vsled za temi, kotorye uzhe uehali.

[For the present time being, approximately 50% of the populations have a good command of Kazakh language. But how we can talk about the transferring of the whole administration system to a state language in these conditions? If we step on this path, we will reach a point when the Russian population will start thinking about leaving Kazakhstan.] (emphasis added).

In this excerpt (2) we can see an illustration of how some people’s language belief that Kazakh language should be spoken by everyone is unfair in relation to ethnic minorities living in Kazakhstan. The leader of the ethnic minority group emphasizes that only 50% of people living in a state know the Kazakh language. Therefore, it is unsound to ask for the whole office administration processes and paperwork to be implemented in a state language. By the final sentence, we can see that the voices of ethnic minorities are becoming louder and they can easily leave a country if the situation goes on this way. Therefore, I would argue that the government  need to provide means for minority groups to study Kazakh language first and then argue whether  “deloproizvodstvo” (the administration system) should be carried out in a state language.

The president Nazarbayev has been more concerned with the possible ethnic conflicts that may arise from promoting Kazakh language as a sole state language and nation-building tool. He warns people against language discrimination and believes that no one should enforce the learning of Kazakh language, thus reminding us that we are bilingual country as shown here:

Gorjachie golovy, govorili, pust’ vse zagovorjat na odnom jazyke. Vse kazahi vladeli russkim jazykom i teper’ v odnochas’e vzjat’ i vsem govorit’: davaj.[..]. Ja im govoril: «Horosho, esli pered toboj postavit’ zadachu zavtra nachinat’ govorit’ na kitajskom, budesh’ govorit’? A pochemu pered nashimi ljud’mi takoj vopros nado stavit’? Ubezhdal, i narod ponimal jeto, podderzhal menja. Esli by my takie reshenija ne prinjali, to o stabil’nosti, kotoroj my gordimsja segodnja, mozhno bylo zabyt’.

[ Some hotheads were saying that everyone should speak one language.  All Kazakhs had a good proficiency in Russian language and it would have been senseless to say: “From now on we speak only one language. […]. I said to them: “What if you were forced to speak, say, Chinese by tomorrow. Would you manage? Then why our people should be posed such a question? I persuaded people, and they understood it and supported me. If we did not make these decisions, then we could forget about stability that we are proud of today.] (emphasis added).

The excerpt (3) illustrates President’s language policies that can be characterized as pluralist type of discourse. The president and the government opposes to take aggressive measures in its language legislations and laws. This excerpt can also be understood as President’s effort to maintain the loyalty of non-Kazakh speaking citizens by allowing them space to speak and develop their respective languages. Also, he underlines that keeping those two languages, Kazakh and Russian, is a way of maintaining stability in a country. And this stability is associated with nation’s pride.
            All in all, there are two permanent language beliefs about Kazakh language in Kazakhstan. There are extreme Kazakh nationalists who argue that Kazakh language should be spoken by everyone and blame the state for being nice and slow in regards to other non-Kazakh speaking population in its language policies.

However, the government is concerned more with social consequences that might be instigated by one nation-one state ideology. This ideology can be easily understood by Fierman’s (2006) statement that the direct connection of language and territory embedded in people’s minds was the legacy of Soviet times, adherent to the ideas of Stalin about what constitutes a nation.

In the view of these disagreements, the role of key stakeholders such as multilingual leaders, educators and researchers are crucial. Researches might direct their works towards learning about countries that have faced the same challenges as Kazakhstan did and suggest the ways of coping with them. Educators should be responsible for instilling the knowledge that we must embrace our linguistic diversity rather than reducing it. Multilingual leaders should think of ways of how to bring to a consensus these two sides. However, most importantly, we should have a structured analysis based on the results of the State Program for language development: this time not quantatively, but qualitatively in order to see the effectiveness of the program itself and whether it succeeded to achieve its aims or not.


State Programme for the Development and Functioning of Languages in the Republic of Kazakhstan. (2011).  Retrieved from /static/files/pr/ p3_eng.docx

Fierman, W. (2006). Language and Education in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan: Kazakh-Medium instruction in urban schools. The Russian Review, 65(1), 98-116.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Should everyone in Kazakhstan be required to learn Kazakh language: linguistic discourses in place

  1. Fascinating and informative post about language policy, with great examples of careful discourse analysis. (5/5) Well-written and easy to read.


  2. Every body in Kazakhstan should learn and speak both Russian and Kazakh, at least to understand distress call of other language speaker.


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