Sunday, February 16, 2014

Education and Language


After my Siberian adventures, I hopped on another train and ventured to to southern city of Shymkent, also known as the "Texas of Kazakhstan." Apparently, people from Shymkent have a certain character. The city is known for its heterogenous ethnic population and traditional Islamic, "Silk Road" character.  I spent three days there -- one of which included a day trip to Sayram, a small, primarily Uzbek-speaking aul, to visit a historic Muslim mausoleum. I walked around the city, lectured and visited some of the museums and of course, the bazaars. And I must say, that Shymkent merits its Texas reputation.

As a Fulbright scholar working in Baraholka, I have had the opportunity to interact with, and truly befriend, highly educated individuals as well as migrant workers who barely completed what would be the equivalent of an American high school. My exposure to such a diverse demographic of people has really opened up my eyes to the importance of literacy, language policy and education for the development of Central Asia's human capital. While most statistics note that Central Asian states possessed a 99% literacy rate at the time of Soviet collapse, which for the most part has been maintained, I am sad to note that this is not the case, and the literacy profile of the population throughout Central Asia is a lot more complicated than this number. Allow me to explain.

First, migrant workers from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan may speak Russian, but they were educated in their national languages of Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbek. These migrants are capable of reading and writing in Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek.  They are most comfortable expressing their thoughts in their national languages. In most cases, based on my interactions in the bazaar, many migrants can speak Russian fluently, but are unable to discuss complicated issues of economics, politics, and even religion. Because they learned Russian in the bazaar, they are unable to write according to the rules of grammar. Rather, they write based on phonetics, similar to the way children of Russian-migrants learn Russian at home through conversation ("heritage speakers") and have trouble spelling words in class. To illuminate, I will share some texts from my Tajik co-workers. Anyone who has lived in the FSU knows that texts an calls are the primary means of communication, while email is basically irrelevant. Many of them to flirt with me and say "krasavitza" (beauty), but at the end of the day it is harmless and they are just young men with hormones -- so that explains the content.

Tajik migrant: Ты куда сабираешса?
Accurate version:  Ты куда собираешься?

Tajik migrant: скучна
Accurate version: скучно

Tajik migrant: чесна
Accurate version: честно

Tajik migrant: чотокова сматрть кагда один дома это плоха, ты знаеш прикрасна
Accurate version: что такого телевизор смотреть когда один дома это плохо ты знаешь прекрасно

Tajik migrant: ты ишо спиш
Accurate version: ты еще спишь

Tajik migrant: красавитца пака
Accurate version: красавица пока

In another instance, a friend had used up all of his memory on his Russian-language phone and did not understand the message that said he needed to erase files to free up space. I explained this to him.

The education level of migrants is just part of the problem. Let's look at Kazakh language.

First, the methodology for teaching Kazakh is still in its early stages of development. Second, people who speak Kazakh as their first language usually speak a dialect of Kazakh that does not conform to proper grammar. For learners of Kazakh, this makes it very difficult to find an outlet to practice conversation.

Third, while there has been a recent increase in Kazakh-language novels, textbooks, and media outlets, as well as Kazakh translations of Western work, much of what is available in Kazakh is ideologically driven. For example, a lot of newspapers and sites written by ethnic Kazakhs advocate eliminating all together Russian language. And many new monuments and museums feature exhibits exclusively in Kazakh. During the restoration of the War Memorial and Panfilov Park, many Kazakh nationalists wanted to erase the Russian-language text and write only Kazakh text. Fortunately, the Russian text remained. The exclusive use of Kazakh in universities and popular culture means that a certain group of the population will be exposed to the ideas expressed in Kazakh. In other words, this is not just about language policy, this is about fostering the psychological, intellectual, spiritual, political and economical development of Kazakhstan's labor force -- and ultimately the future of Kazakhstani society. By building an Abay Museum in Karaganda that features panels in Kazakh-language only, you are excluding all Russian-speakers from learning about Abay. And by translating Pushkin to Kazakh, you are depriving Kazakh speakers of appreciating his beautiful prose, while denying them the opportunity to read the hundreds of academic articles, archives and books in Russian. Those who don't speak Russian cannot communicate with their counterparts in neighboring Former Soviet states. And within Kazakhstan, people who do not speak the same language cannot engage in a healthy, transparent, and data-rich debate on national policies -- they cannot negotiate, compromise and reconcile different views on policy issues from infrastructure to determining the curriculum in primary schools. Finally, the development of Kazakh and Russian language schools automatically divides the next generation of Kazakhs into specific socio-linguistic, and sometimes economic, cohorts.

In Shymkent, I heard a lot more Kazakh than I did in other cities and certainly members of my age cohort have all but dismissed the Russian language. In fact, one of the docents at the history museum did not speak Russian -- she could not even tell me that the lightbulb needed to be replaced.  When I was in Sayram looking for a monument, I asked someone for directions, and she could not speak Russian at all. When I asked if she spoke Russian, she responded in Russian that she could understand it, but then reverted back to Uzbek. Even on a basic level -- we could not communicate.

I understand the desire to promote Kazakh language, but from the perspective of economic growth and socio-political development, Russian language must remain relevant. Students must be educated in Russian. There is not enough work in Kazakh language, and those who write in Kazakh largely lack a Western-education and critical-thinking, analytical skills necessary to foster the intellectual development of Kazakhstan's students.

And when it comes to English, that is another story. From my experience substitute teaching and talking to other language teachers, one of the major issues is methodology. I taught a class where students used a Russian-language history textbook. Their homework was to make a table, in English, that organized the leaders, dates and locations of historical events. So the students spent most of their time translating the chapter and transferring information into a table. Then when it came time to discuss the material in class, in English, none of them knew it. And another issue is testing. In the states, we have diagnostic testing to determine placement. Here, after you finish a course, it is assumed you know the material and you advance to the next level, regardless of whether or not you actually mastered the previous course.

If there is one thing I have learned from my time here, it is that education and language policies have been severely overlooked throughout Central Asia. Even in Kazakhstan, which has some really talented, well-educated and brilliant, individuals, there is a dire need to strengthen the education system in order to prepare a population that can read, write, think and articulately express complex ideas in Russian and in Kazakh.

While this is a critical post that highlights some issues in contemporary Kazakhstan and Central Asia, I must assert that I am neither mean-spirited nor anti-Kazakh. Rather, I very much love this country, its rich culture and truly wonderful people: I am concerned for its future development. I see literacy and education as major issues that undermine the ability of Kazakhstan's workforce and institutions to realize the country's growth potential. This post is also relevant to the education systems of neighboring Central Asian states.

As always, I welcome feedback. I hope everyone stays warm!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Train Travels to Siberia


After returning from Bishkek, I spent a few weeks in Almaty before heading out on another two-week journey. As a Fulbright scholar, I have the privilege and opportunity to visit "American Corners" in different cities, give lectures and interact with local students. So the past two weeks I spent traveling on an "American Corners Lecture Circuit," of sorts, to Karaganda, Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk) and Ust-Kamenogorsk (also called Oskemen). See map below.

I was excited to see the northern parts of the country, which was historically more "Russianized" than the south. I would advise future travelers, however, to not go in the winter. The consistently low temperatures of -20 to -40 celsius, combined with the violent steppe winds, makes walking outdoors for more than ten minutes virtually impossible. The cold penetrates your bones. It is really quite brutal.

But I can't complain about the cold, because I had the opportunity to meet some fabulous people on the train and in my travels!

First, in Karaganda, I was fortunate to stay with the retired parents of my friend who lives in Almaty. I was so excited to spend three days with local pensioners. From my previous home stays, I find that pensioners are so fun, fascinating and engaging -- they are living history books.  The apa (Kazakh for "mother") was originally from Aktube and moved to Karaganda when she enrolled in university while the ata (Kazakh for "father") was born and raised in Karaganda. Interestingly, he came from a wealthy Kazakh family. During Stalin's reign, his father was labeled an enemy of the state, imprisoned and sent off to a labor camp. Listening to apa  and ata's stories on life in Karaganda during the early Soviet period, and later on, was so insightful and humbling. They told me about the famine of the Kazakh people int he 1920s and during STalin's time, as well as the Karlag.

Karaganda was the home to the Karlag, one of the Gulag labor camps. Many Jews, Armenians, Chechens, Tatars, Kazakhs and other intellectuals, including Dostoyevsky, were sent to the Karlag. After Karlag closed, Karaganda inherited a diverse, yet talented workforce. The head of the Medical Institute was a Russian Jew. In fact, during the Soviet Union, Karaganda's Medical Institute was so well respected that you could graduate from there and be directly placed in an institute in Israel. Karaganda also had a leather and coat factory, as well as metalworks. While Russian was naturally the lingua franca, there were three Kazakh language schools, according to apa and ata. Today, it remains an industry town, albeit changed greatly by the breakup. 

They also told me about how people got along during the USSR -- they would leave their shoes near the front doorstep to the building. Because everyone had the same goods, no one stole things. Yet after the breakup, when different gangs emerged, so did theft. But good-neighborliness did not! People would line up with their pots and collect soup for their families in the aftermath of collapse, when supply chains failed to function.  

I must say a big thank you Apa, Ata and my friend for their gracious, Kazakh hospitality, and for sharing their oral histories with me. I feel so humbled and honored.

After Karaganda, I took the train to Semey. It would have taken 9 hours to cab, but given the uncertain winter road conditions, I opted for the 28-hour train ride. It turns out this was a "commuter" train in that it stopped at mining and industrial towns peppered along the steppe. Many people on the train -- all of three wagons -- worked in Kazakhmys or other mining companies. They were going for their 15 or 20-day rotations in the field, before returning home for 15 or 10 days of rest (they call it a 15/15 or 20/10 schedule).

While I expected a barren, snow-covered steppe, I was surprised by the worn-down, Soviet, and half-built buildings I saw along the route. Northern Kazakhstan historically received a lot of Soviet investment, but it appears, at least from the train, that the infrastructure was not maintained. Many towns were either deserted or not given adequate funds.

With that said, my train ride was quite lovely. I shared the cabin with a lead engineer, miner, and a local businesswoman who owns two stores in Karaganda. She imports European and Chinese clothes, so it was interesting to talk about trade in Kazakhstan. We had a "traditional" train experience where everyone shares their food and socializes. As the token American on almost every train I've taken here, I always have the same conversation for the first twenty minutes. They ask why I'm here, where I learned Russian, etc. But beyond that, it was interesting to hear their personal and professional anecdotes. 
The list of stops on the "commuter train" between Karaganda and Semey.

Pictures from the train

Also from the train...

Semey was bitter cold, but I enjoyed the city. I unfortunately did not get to go to Kurchatov, but managed to visit some of the monuments to the victims of nuclear testing.

I must note that while I heard a lot less Kazakh language in the north, Kazakh language is more and more popular among people in my age cohort, or younger. The "post-Soviet breakup" logic that the north is linguistically Russianized is no longer true. In Karaganda, I spoke with a group of students at Karaganda STate University (KarGU), who were pursuing their economics studies in Kazakh. There was a separate group of students in the same grade who were pursuing economics in Russian. The widening language gap that penetrates different generations within cities, deeply concerns me, as language barriers will become barriers to entry for jobs in the future. Moreover, a limited knowledge of Russian or Kazakh, or of both languages, will complicate communication between municipalities and will thwart the development of the national education system, as students lack the linguistic skills necessary to engage in critical reading, thinking and writing. While this is just my opinion, I certainly think it is something to think about...

In -20 C at a memorial for victims of nuclear testing in Semey.

On my train from Semey to Ust-Kamenogorsk, I had the pleasure of meeting the national team for "Fire Sport." I sat down on the train at 7:30 AM, which was coming from Astana, and already had two people in the cabin -- the coach and one of the athletes. When one of the athletes woke up, we chatted. A few hours later, we were joined by the entire team. Now, isn't this every girl's dream -- a train cabin filled of perfectly-toned, athletic fireman? Haha, but really.

The National "Fire Sport" Team of Kazakhstan.

And I know many of you are wondering what exactly is fire sport. Well, here is a little Youtube video...

A quick train picture! This one taken while approaching the Russian border! The Semey - Ust-Kamenogorsk train follows the old Soviet route and goes through Russia, so we had to stop and the border leaving and re-entering Kazakhstan for passport checks and so dogs could sniff for narcotics. 

A scene of Karaganda. Notice how the streets are empty. It is so cold.

Train pictures...

Steppe and pollution

In Ust-Kamenogorsk, I was excited to see my buddy and fellow Fulbrighter, who is a biologist researching snow leopards. I was also impressed with the Pushkin Library, which is the only one in Kazakhstan with an open-stacks, self-check out system!!! I've spent a lot of time in Soviet, closed-stack libraries with no electronic catalogues, so this was so, so impressive! Well done, Pushkin Library! I also spent some time to visit some of the more industrial areas of town (see photo below).

The Ulba Metallurgical Complex!!!! I paid a taxi to drive around the complex just so I could see it. I spent basically all of my senior year researching the denuclearization of Kazakhstan, particularly Project Sapphire. In 1994, Project Sapphire was a top-secret operation to remove 600 kilograms of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) from the Ulba facility to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. While I was not able to get into the facility, which continues to process uranium and produce pellets for Russian enrichment facilities, just seeing it was a thrill.

More pictures from the train...

Alas, the Siberian journey ended with a 28 hour trip on the train from Ust to Almaty. I slept, but had a lovely chat with a hairdresser, hockey player and college student, in my cabin.  As I write this, I am preparing to leave for Shymkent -- the last city on the lecture circuit. I'm so excited to go to Shymkent, a very traditional Kazakh city that some call "the Texas of Kazakhstan." Either way, it is in the south and is "warm" (weather looks to be around 15 F). 

Take care!