Look at a street sign, or a menu in Kazakhstan and you’ll see a jumble of mildly dyslexic looking letters from the Cyrillic alphabet. What you probably won’t notice is that they’re spelling everything out in two separate languages: Kazakh and Russian.
When Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991 less than half its population were ethnic Kazakhs. That was as a result of more than 150 years of russification – the moving in of slavs and other ethnic groups under Russian control. These groups spoke Russian with each other, and Russian became the language of commerce and government. Generations of Kazakhs let their own language tack a back seat. They spoke Russian to their children who grew up with it as their first and/or only language.
The return of Kazakh language
In the years that followed independence Russians left and Kazakhs regained the majority. In 1997 the government made Kazakh the official state language. That was partly about asserting an independent identity for Kazakhstan, and partly about redressing economic imbalance. Russians had gotten most of the best jobs. Switching the language of government – including its powerful state owned enterprises – gave Kazakhs a much better shot.
The problem was that many Kazakhs didn’t speak their ‘native’ language anymore, and no one else did. In 1997 only about 60% of the Kazakh population (meaning about 40% of the whole population) were fluent. Less than 1% of other ethnic groups were. This compared to Russian which was spoken by more than 95% of the whole population.
To its credit, the Kazakhstan government had a reasonably pragmatic response. They required all school students to learn Kazakh, but also promoted a wide range of dual language schools. They gradually phased in targets for what percentage of government documents would be in Kazakh. Many targets have been missed, but progress is being made.
Getting by with Russian, but not getting ahead
We spoke to young successful ethnic Kazakhs who speak Russian with their families and learned it in school. For the most part, lack of Kazakh is no barrier to everyday living. Most media is still in Russian (except for English pop music, at least). Government officials will default to Kazakh but all can switch to Russian (though they may look scornful when they do).
There is a question as to whether they should be investing time learning Kazakh to provide them with greater job opportunities. Most seem to favour learning foreign languages – English, French, Spanish, Korean – as they see bigger opportunities abroad. But they tend to accept that if they’re going to stay in Kazakhstan, learning the state language is a good idea. The question might be more pressing when they have kids. At the moment, the predominantly Russian language schools are better, but their graduates don’t end up fluent in the language of their government.