All posts by chsherbakov

Integration without humiliation?

The United States has been tarred from its very inception by the sin of racism.  Although progress has undoubtedly been made in reducing the injustices toward Black people , and expanding their rights, it seems that this progress has slowed down in the past few decades.  The great leap forward that was the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s has been followed by a long period of stagnation and even reversal of some of its most important achievements.

One such achievement – the desegregation of schools – or, rather, attempts to repeat this achievement today, is the subject of a two-part This American Life podcast series.  While it is impossible to argue with the authors of the programme that school integration is extremely beneficial and is indeed the way forward in building a more equitable and just society, there was something in the way they framed the issue that left me a bit uneasy about the whole thing.  And I am not sure how to resolve it.  But let me first briefly recap the podcast itself. Continue reading Integration without humiliation?


My favourite researcher


My favourite researcher, Noam Chomsky, is probably best known around the world as a stark critic of the US foreign policy, but his interests and intellectual influence go far beyond that.  A true polymath, Chomsky is an enormously important figure in linguistic, cognitive science, philosophy, social criticism, and political science.  It is not the breadth of his work, however, that inspires me most, but the meticulous analysis and intellectual courage that he brings to all his writing and public talks.  Continue reading My favourite researcher

Erlan Sagadiyev @ TEDxAlmaty on language education: A deconstruction

Erlan Sagadiyev, the current Minister of Education and Science, is a highly controversial figure in Kazakhstan’s politics.  Most of the heat around him is generated by the Kazakh nationalists who accuse him of systematic efforts to kill the Kazakh language, one of these efforts being the trilingual education policy.  Long before he became a minister, in 2013, Mr. Sagadiyev gave a TEDx talk in Almaty on language in education.  In this talk, he attempted to justify the trilingual policy, whose great challenges would befall him only three years later.  While at first sight Sagadiyev’s argument seems logical and persuasive, a closer look at his main claims reveals several flaws.  These flaws, I believe, are at the heart of the nationalists’ discontent with the policy, and the Minister’s weakness in defending it. Continue reading Erlan Sagadiyev @ TEDxAlmaty on language education: A deconstruction

Is form the new substance?

I have been thinking recently of the importance of packaging.  You go to the supermarket to buy, say, a detergent.  You look at the great variety of products in colourful boxes and, accordingly, the wide range of prices, and think: this is just a detergent, why make so many different kinds?  But on a closer inspection you find out that it is in fact one and the same product, made by the same company, almost certainly at the same factory in Turkey, with slightly varying smells, but sold under different brands, in highly distinctive packages, and for wildly diverging prices.  So what am I buying here?  The box with a brand name?  Continue reading Is form the new substance?

The perils of neoliberalism in education


  “Businessmen are the one group that distinguishes capitalism and the American way of life from the totalitarian statism that is swallowing the rest of the world… Businessmen are the symbol of a free society – the symbol of America.”

Ayn Rand, a novelist, playwright, philosopher, and a “founding mother” of neoliberalism


Are you sure, Ayn? Is this misogynist, racist, and insatiably greedy “dude” really the symbol of freedom who will save your country from totalitarianism?

Continue reading The perils of neoliberalism in education

The importance of metaphors

students as empty vessels
Image source:

I’ve always thought that metaphor is a literary device used by writers who want to decorate their fiction, and by people who struggle to explain a complex notion properly and have to resort to a simplified analogy with something familiar.  But recently, I’ve discovered that metaphors are a really serious thing indeed.  In fact, you can be concocting metaphors as a full-time job!  Metaphor designer, it turns out, is a legitimate profession.  And it’s not some frivolous occupation like Instagram promotion: it requires a degree in linguistics and advanced research skills. Continue reading The importance of metaphors

A question of discipline

Image credit: A. Kazhigaliyeva, A. Tazhiyeva, A. Chsherbakov.

The picture above illustrates the results of a survey my fellow students at NUGSE and I have conducted as part of our Linguistics class.  We asked the participants to give their free associations to a particular word in Russian, and then, a few days later, to the same word, but in Kazakh.  The word clouds show the associations given to the word education: the left one in Kazakh and the right in Russian.  Have you spotted the difference?  Clearly, the Russian associations are much more varied.  But, what is more interesting, if you look at the actual words, you will see that they reveal completely different views on the concept of education.  The one on the left focus on the institutional aspects: teacher and school, while the other one favours a personal development orientation expressed through more abstract terms: knowledge and learn.  The purpose of the exercise was to identify a Whorfian effect in Kazakh-Russian bilinguals.  It is unlikely that we have done that, but I think we have still found something interesting here. Continue reading A question of discipline

Can learning a language make you clairvoyant?

Photo credit: still from the film Arrival, (c) Paramount Pictures, 2016

In a recent Hollywood blockbuster called Arrival, a delegation of extra-terrestrial beings visit the earth with an unlikely mission (spoiler alert!): to endow humanity with the gift of their powerful language.  Unaware of this, the naturally suspicious American government calls on the services of a linguist in order to establish communication and find out the mysterious guests’ true intent.  Through meticulous fieldwork and cinematic ingenuity, the linguist slowly learns the language of the alien species and gains the ability to see the future.  The reason for this is that the aliens’ perception of time is not linear like ours: they see all events – past, present, and future – as one complete circle of life.  By learning the language, our linguist experiences a radical re-wiring of her brain and thus adopts the time-free view of reality.

A typically outlandish sci-fi plot, you would say, but wait!  As the real-life linguist who consulted the film crew suggests, there might be a grain of truth in this improbable story. Continue reading Can learning a language make you clairvoyant?