By Brenden Wood, MA student in Slavic and East European Studies
When I told people that I was going to Kazakhstan this summer on a fellowship to study Russian, I got funny looks and funnier attempts at saying “Kazakhstan.” Most people would just take a gander at the spelling or think through the pronunciation, and instead ask why was I not going to Russia, since I was going to study Russian. I was never really sure how to respond. I had a hard time putting my finger on “why Kazakhstan to study Russian?”
Upon arriving, my question was soon answered by my host-mother, who said it was “because Kazakhs speak the best Russian.” I admit that I scoffed at this, and I’m sure that there are a few people north of Kazakhstan who would as well. Full of answers as always, she, with the help of her son, gave me a very interesting answer, one now that I do not dismiss as the mere words of a woman who is proud of her country.
Kazakhstan is a multilingual land. Generalization is never good, but I would hazard that almost all Kazakhs speak Kazakh and Russian, obviously with varying degrees of proficiency. That being said, Kazakhs typically spoke Kazakh with each other at home, although they often spoke on the streets in Kazakh as well. That isn’t to say that Kazakhs don’t speak Russian at home, but it seemed from my experience, along with what I gathered from others in my two months there, that most Kazakhs spoke Kazakh at home. However, there still remains a large population of ethnic Russians, and Kazakhs make up a relatively narrow majority in their own country, accounting for roughly 10 million of the 18 million citizens. Don’t forget the Soviet legacy either, where Russian was, and still is, the language of official and business communication. Knowledge of Russian, if you want mobility and opportunity, is essential, and is a bone of contention as Kazakhstan works to define itself in Central Asia and the post-Soviet space.
Not following where they were going, my host brother clarified for me quite well here. He said that since Russian is the language of official communication, Kazakhs speak Russian almost exclusively in formal settings, meaning that they speak less colloquially, using Russian primarily only in circumstances that demand proper grammar. Therefore, your average Kazakh speaks Russian correctly and articulately, better, my host family thought, than your average Russian.
This obviously is an opinion, but it nevertheless made me pause to think, and, I shall admit, that I don’t necessarily disagree. Granted I was only there for two months, living in Almaty, where official language is much more prevalent than in the countryside. They did not contend that Kazakhs produce better literature or art with the Russian language, and they spoke strictly from a communicative point of view: for a foreigner or a native speaker, Kazakhs are easier to understand. It was a thought provoking conversation, and one in which I am glad that I had the opportunity to engage. It made me think a little deeper about travelling to a country to study a foreign language that is a foreign language there, even though the people speak it as if it is their native tongue.