Bilingualism in Kyrgyzstan

by Madeleine Reeves

In the summer of 1998, before finishing University, I taught English in a village in Kyrgyzstan’s northern Issyk-Kul region. I had been learning Russian since leaving school and relied on that language for communication. My host, Saltanat, taught me a few essential phrases in Kyrgyz to counter my feeling of being permanently overfed: Rahmat, toidum! (“Thanks, I’m full”) and Jok, ichpeim! (“No, I won’t drink”). Mostly, however, when I listened to Saltanat and her friends switching effortlessly between Kyrgyz and Russian I had the sensation of listening to a radio when someone is moving the dial: a fragment I understood amidst a lot that I didn’t. I returned to England with a ‘teach yourself Kyrgyz’ textbook in my luggage. The following year I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the politics of language reform in Kyrgyzstan, a decade after the 1989 language law promised to accord Kyrgyz greater status within the social and political life of the then-Kyrgyz SSR.

More than a decade later, the ‘language question’ in Kyrgyzstan remains intense as ever. Moreover, the kind of bilingualism demonstrated by Saltanat and her friends may be less common than it was a decade ago. Urban children who have not been exposed to Kyrgyz at home and who have not attended a Kyrgyz-medium kindergarten or school are often still likely to struggle to have a fluent conversation in Kyrgyz by the time they finish 11th grade. At the same time, in many rural regions, Russian is encountered and learned today as a ‘foreign language’, and the main exposure that children have to the language outside of timetabled Russian lessons is through television.

Some of the obstacles to sustaining bilingualism are well rehearsed in public debate.  Innovative methods for learning Kyrgyz are still lacking; school lessons often prioritise knowledge of literary forms over practical usage; and many young people who have not learned Kyrgyz in the home decide that learning a foreign language represents a better investment of time and energy than learning Kyrgyz. Meanwhile, there is a deficit of teachers skilled in teaching Russian, and demographic changes mean that outside Bishkek Russian is less often the language of children’s street play or everyday conversation than it was a decade ago.

Other challenges to bilingualism are more contentious. In a recent blog post journalist Bektour Iskander commented that as someone who grew up in a Russian-speaking environment, the greatest obstacle he faces to learning Kyrgyz is not the shortage of teaching materials but the hostility that he experiences from people who assume that, by dint of his ethnic affiliation, he should be able to speak Kyrgyz fluently. Iskander remarks that it is easier for foreigners to learn Kyrgyz than it is for ethnic Kyrgyz who grew up in Russian-speaking environments because nobody assumes that foreigners should be speaking Kyrgyz without an accent.

I don’t entirely agree with Iskander’s assessment—language-learning always entails a willingness to overcome the embarrassment of making mistakes, no matter who or where one is.  But his comments point to an important insight: that in Kyrgyzstan the Kyrgyz language is not just a medium of communication or the language of state.  It is also a powerful marker of identity and membership of a particular ethnic community.  In 2009, when Kyrgyzstan was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1989 language law, the posters celebrating the occasion made the link between survival of the language and survival of the ethnic community explicit: linguistic flourishing determines the fate of the el (“people”).

Such images aim to rouse feelings of care and respect for the state language.  But they also serve to identify the Kyrgyz language as primarily a marker of ethnic belonging rather than an inclusive language of citizenship. For those who do not identify as ethnically Kyrgyz it reinforces a sense that this is “their” language, not “mine”.  It also does little to counter the kind of hostility that Iskander describes towards those who identify as Kyrgyz but consider Russian to be their first language.

Chyngyz Aitmatov described Kyrgyz and Russian as his ‘two wings’, both of which were necessary for him to express himself.  In the early 2000s several initiatives sought to foster bilingualism amongst kindergarten children by teaching content in two languages. For all their success, such initiatives have sometimes been met with only a lukewarm response at an official level. Yet children are not only able to learn new languages far more effortlessly than adults; they are also untroubled by the political and symbolic agendas that adults attach to fluency in a given language. As one bilingual educator put it: when children are playing ball, they do not stop to negotiate in which language to play. Nor do children care whether they are making mistakes. In a context where language has come to carry so much symbolic weight; where speaking with errors can be read as a sign of loss of cultural identity or mankurtizm (in the case of Kyrgyz) or a lack of sophistication (in the case of Russian), this pragmatic attitude is a helpful reminder that what matters is less the accent with which one speaks, but whether and how one endeavours to communicate.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Madeleine Reeves is Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester.