Peculiar view on the “mother tongue” in Kazakhstan

On the 21st day of next month world celebrates “Mother Language Day“. In the light of the intensive development of multilingualism around the country, the significance of the first language (L1) is special


few days ago during the classesone professor willing to identify language backgrounds of our cohort asked students to specify their first languageThe question that seemed to be obvious and easy to answer in the beginning became disputable at the end of an interrogationSurprisingly, the certain number of students were unable to determine their actual mother tongue or pointed out their first language from the perspective of their ethnicitiesThe point was thateven in case of extremely rare use of Kazakh language during their lifetime students were convinced that a native language should be identified on the basis of their national identitywhich literally contradicted the ordinary views on definition of a mother tongue and consequently left our professor perplexed on this matter at the end of classes.

To clarify, let’s revisit the definition of “the first language”; for instance, in Collins and Cambridge dictionaries it is referred to as a native language that has been learned first from a birth before studying a new language. Notably, there is no reference to a connection of national origin of an individual with his or her first exposed language. Then what makes our students call a language, in this case, Kazakh, which was hardly ever used and spoken in their families and during school and university life as their first language or mother tongue? The answer may be in the consideration of the value that Kazakhs attach to a meaning of the word “mother tongue” in Kazakh (“ana tili”), which is treated as a reflection of Kazakh nation’s identity, culture and historical heritage. Plenty of Kazakh prominent poets realized the significance of Kazakh language in nation’s identity and dedicated poems to the mother tongue full of patriotic love and pride. The history of the beginning of Kazakhstan’s formation as a republic, to my mind, is another important factor that affected the Kazakhstani people perception of the mother tongue. Specifically, in the 20s due to korenizatsiya (indigenization) policy, each of fifteen Soviet republics was designated as an autonomous republic with its titular language (Pavlenko, 2008). Hence, in spite of Russian being a lingua franca in Kazakh republic and the majority of the Russian-speaking population, the attainment of Kazakh language a titular status led to shaping a view of Kazakh language as part of gaining a national identity. Since then, word “mother tongue” in Kazakhstan implies a meaning of the language of own ethnicity and national origin. Years-long Kazakh language revival policy only reinforced acquired that conception. Here is an article of an Australian blogger Mabel Kwong, who shares a similar opinion on the concept of the mother tongue, but also she indicates its difference between “first language” from a perspective of an emergent bilingual.

For me “mother tongue” is a language in which my ideas and thoughts are formulated and through which I express my emotions explicitly. Thus, the idea of seeing a mother tongue as a part of nationality is obviously not something that I could agree with. What are your opinions on Kazakhs’ view on “mother tongue” conception?


Pavlenko, A. (2008). Multilingualism in Post-Soviet Countries: Language Revival, Language Removal, and Sociolinguistic Theory. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 11(3–4), 275–314.

2 thoughts on “Peculiar view on the “mother tongue” in Kazakhstan

  1. Dear Author,
    Your post definitely challenged my beliefs. On one hand, the word itself points out that that language is related to the mother (or parents). So, it is logical to think that your mother tongue is the language your parents spoke to you. On the other hand, your point is also understandable if you think and express yourself in any other language than the one your parents speak to you. That is how you perceive the world and respond to it.
    However, I believed the ethnicity and language were notions which shouldn’t be regarded separately. They say “If you want to destroy the nation, destroy its language”. Despite being patriotic, right now I am not trying to sound like those people who bring the national values everywhere they go; what I am trying to show how tightly nation/ethnicity is linked to language in my opinion.
    And now writing this comment and thinking about my interpretation of this notion, I think I will stay true to my beliefs. Although, self-perception is crucial and shouldn’t be ignored. So, I would rather believe my ethnicity language to be my mother tongue, then the language that I feel more comfortable to express myself would be my L1.
    I would like to thank you for writing on such interesting topic. I am looking forward to your next posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Zarka,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and well-researched post about mother tongue. You point the reader to a lot of new ideas and unique resources about the topic, which I am sure help broaden our understanding of the topic, and how complicatedly intertwined it is with ideas like identity, status, and nationalism. A couple cosmetic notes:
    1. Cite your image unless you made it yourself.
    2. Remove the formatting of text when you paste it into wordpress. You have some strange spacing here that is a bit distracting.



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