Tag Archives: Language

Kazakh language is making a comeback

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.

What we say in Chinese

Fear not, this will be a short post. We’ve very little Mandarin. But we like to think that, along with enthusiastic head shaking and nodding, it’s enough to get by.

  • Xie, xie – thank you. Probably the thing we say more than anything else. Occasionally I have been known to use this to mean ‘delicious’, ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry’ as well.
  • Xin xe lan – New Zealand. The answer to the question we are most commonly asked. Also a kind of quasi excuse in response to all the others. If folks are ranting at you, this one is your best bet.
  • Ji ge – That one. What we say when we’ve got a picture menu.
  • Yi ge / Liang ge – One of those / two of those. What we say when we’re picking things out in a shop, or eating street food.
  • Duo shao qian – How much is it?
  • Ting bu dong – I don’t understand. In case it wasn’t already incredibly obvious.

We’ve also a reasonable handle on the numbers, Fiona more than I. Luckily counting goes up in a very logical way. We’re also pretty good at hand signals for numbers. Interestingly they count one to five on fingers just like we would, but six through ten is symbols that wouldn’t be out of place in paper-scissors-rock. Given this, we’re just enormously grateful that they ended up with a base ten number system. We’re also super thankful that written numbers are almost always in roman script.

Pealing on our Mandarin skin

Still struggling with our massive comprehension gap relative to South America, we’ve been trying to learn a thing or two about Mandarin. And when I say we, I primarily mean Fiona, who remains my linguistic guide dog.

Here’s a little of what we’ve learned and observed.

  • Written mandarin is generally more efficient than English. If you look at a sign with both languages the mandarin characters will take up between a third and a half of the space of the English.
  • Mandarin also tends towards efficiency in spoken form, see Fiona’s “China compare New Zealand big” example.
  • However, to our despair, there aren’t words for yes and no. Instead you answer using the verb. Can you speak Chinese? Cannot.
  • When you say the number two you sound unavoidably like a pirate.
  • This one’s cribbed straight from our phrasebook, but it’s interesting. In revolutionary times the term comrade – tongzhi – was the standard term of address for men and women. It’s now seldom used in that way. Instead it’s used as a colloquial term for someone who is gay. It’s a kind of play on words because tongzhi literally means ‘of the same mindset’. The term has been adopted by the gay community in preference to the official term tong xing lian which literally means same sex love.
  • In English we might talk about a bunch of parsley and a punnet of strawberries. In mandarin these sorts of counting words vary among a wider range of things than produce. For example there are different counting words for: flat things, long things, drinking receptacle, people, trees, vehicles… Madness.

Argentinian Shpanish

Argentinian Spanish is to Spanish what Irish English is to English: thickly and endearingly accented with an unmatched musicality. And depending on the thickness of the accent it ranges from nice to listen to to marginally comprehensible.

In Argentina double ls and ys are pronounced like “sh”. Elsewhere they sound as “ya” or “ja”. The effect is a slightly slippery sound when Argentinians speak that could easily be misinterpreted as they trying to get everyone to settle down and be quiet: “sh, sh, sh…”.

True to the Italian heritage of many, if not most Argentinians, the accent has taken on the sing-song syncopated cadence of Italian. That’s the lyrical, musical bit.

Argentinians also do some funny stuff with grammar. Most Spanish speakers say for the informal form of you whereas Argentinians say vos. They also change the matching conjugation, maybe, we hypothesise, so the emphasis better matches that classic Italian cadence. These changes aren’t just slang, or informal, they’re also written in formal Argentinian Spanish. I can’t think of an example where there is such a significant and formal deviation in English. Americanised spelling pales in comparison.

Variation in Spanish

Much to my initial frustration when leaving Colombia, Spanish varies considerably more between regions than English. The vocab changes noticeably. It’s similar to how we say rubbish in New Zealand and in the US they tend to say trash but the variation is much more pronounced. And while Argentinian Spanish is probably the most marked accent differentiation, there are plenty of others too. What amounts is a language that is definitely mutually intelligible, but, to a learner, feels like a constantly changing and evolving thing.

Still, if I had to pick an accent to take on, it would totally be Argentinian – sho shamo Jose, vamos a la plasha.

Things we should steal from Spanish

  • Bombero the, much cooler, Spanish word for firefighter.
  • Diminutives. Spanish lets you add ita or ito to the end of a word to signify the thing is small. E.g. Llama was a gatito. Also used to make something more endearing. In Ecuador some things only cost three dolaritos. Closest equivalent in English is shortening something and adding ‘ie’ on the end eg. flatmate to flattie or sheep to sheepie. But the Spanish version sounds less trashy.
  • Saying things are lacking. The verb faltar, to lack, is commonly used for all sorts of things. When you want to know how long until you reach your destination you ask cuanto falta? how much is lacking? When you say you miss someone, or that you need something, you also use lacking.
  • Ya! This excellent word means something in between ready, already and now. As in “Profe ya!” – teacher I have finished my work and need some more!
  • Asking how did you sunrise? – Como amaneciste? – as a cross between good morning and how did you sleep.
  • Phonetic spelling. English spelling is atrocious.

Some explaining to do

If you know me, you’ll know that I’m an enthusiastic explainer. Actually, if you read this blog you might have gathered that too.

Not being able to do that in Spanish has been a source of some frustration. But I’ve now gone from being unable to explain complex things, to being able to explain them, poorly. What’s required is:

  • breaking things down into very small building block ideas
  • using a combination of the simplest and most complicated words – the simplest I probably know, the most complex are also the most likely to be basically the same as in English, but Spanishised

All nuance is basically lost and it’s probably pretty confusing but it’s an interesting exercise in distillation.


For example

One of the other volunteers was from the Basque country and fiercely nationalist. She even got a revolutionary phrase tattooed while in Santa Marta. Here’s the most literal translation I can muster of what I said to her in broken Spanish:

I think that the biggest problems are global problems. I am worried that if we worry about nationalist problems we will focus less on global problems. I worry that we will support ideas that help those very near to us, but not people very far away from us also.

My Spanish teacher was telling me that there’s a kind of rich Colombian political class that control political discourse. Many feel all parties effectively represent the interests of that class and are disenfranchised with democracy. I really wanted to rock out some median voter theory, but only got so far:

There’s a very famous theory in politics. It says that in a democracy the person who is elected should represent the interests of the person in the middle. Maybe there are two parts of society, a rich part and a poor part. Maybe these parts are equal in size. There is a candidate for each part. But there are also people in the middle that are neither poor or rich. If the poor vote for the poor candidate and the rich vote for the rich then the people in the middle decide.

After talking about Hanoi as one of my favourite cities in Spanish class I also got to explaining the Vietnam war. Pleasingly dmonios are a much played game in Colombia.

False friends

One of the challenges of learning any new language is false friends. You know, words that seem familiar to an English speaker, but are actually something completely different than what you think. They can get you in quite a pickle. Here are a selection and their actual meanings.

  • Molestar is the verb to annoy. You could draw a Venn diagram in which molesting is a subset of annoying, but molesting and annoying are not the same thing.
  • Constipación means a common cold. No other symptoms included.
  • Excitado means aroused. That’s a subset of excited, but not the same thing.
  • Embarazada is an adjective meaning pregnant. Not ordinarily something to be embarrassed about.
  • En absoluto means not at all. Absolutely not what you would think.
  • Éxito means success. If you’re running from a fire you’re looking for a salida.
  • Actualidad means nowadays or current events, actually.

The imperfect tense

My Spanish ability continues to grow unpredictably. I’m beginning to be comfortable with the imperfect tense. This is fitting because my use of Spanish has always been a celebration of the imperfect. Particular areas of imperfection include:

  • Where Spanish has several words and English one. For example Spanish has different verbs for ‘to be’ when the being is permanent and impermanent. Although as you’d expect there are exceptions to this rule of thumb.
  • Giving commands. Spanish has special constructions for imperatives which involve saying pretty well exactly the opposite of what you might expect.
  • Whether you spell things with a c or an s. They sound basically the same. This is also true of bs and vs.
  • Where French and Spanish don’t agree on what’s masculine and feminine.

It seems likely however that the imperfect will be overtaken by my newest acquisition – the Future Imperfect. Because well, it probably will be won’t it?

An historical explanation for Colombian accents

If you’re a beginner Spanish speaker, who’s just craning their ears for a recognisable word or two, there’ s not much to notice about Colombian accents. But if you’re more a connoisseur of the language, there are definite regional accents.

A lot of the variation can be explained by the history of settlement.

The coastal costeño accent is slushier, with final consonants omitted, and an emphasis on mumbling. It’s similar to the andalucian accent of southern Spainards. Colombus, and the explorers, colonists and slave traders that followed him, sailed from Andalucia. The coastal Colombians had the most ongoing contact with these travelers, and their accent continued to be influenced by this interaction.

Highland, or Andean Spanish, like the kind spoken in Bogota, is crisper. Many claim it’s the purest Spanish in the world and best to learn from. Bogotanos take pride in their more educated form of speech. They’re known for crisp articulation, and commonly use the formal you (usted) even when talking to their children.

History explains the highland accent too. Its close to the language used by Spanish colonists. But ongoing contact with Spain was more limited than on the coast, and the accent changed less over time. In fact, the Spanish spoken in Bogota today is closer to the Spanish spoken by the first colonists, than in Spain today. Our dictionary tells us that colonial speakers tend to be more conservative about structural change to language. Youse think that’s right, aye?

Folk from Medellin also have a variation in accent though you might need to be a linguistic scholar to describe it correctly. But their accent is considered closer to Spanish Spanish. Fiona picked this up from a sample of one Medellino on our rafting trip. Medellin was settled primarily by northern Spainards and Basques and a hint of their accent remains to this day.

A plausible application of this Colombian pattern at home might be to expect a Scottish accent in Dunedin. You’d be drawing a long bow to suggest the alevolar trill of Southland is evidence of this. A more amusing thought is how things might be different if people from Hamilton spoke Brummie.