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!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Dena! I am so interested in your blog. I have been invited by the DAMU Fund and USAID to travel to Kazakhstan to present at the Astana Forum in May.

    I too am super interested in women entrepreneurship empowerment and training. I was a US Small Business Administration Women's Business Center Director for years serving and training women and disadvantaged populations in starting and growing businesses. Now, I own an entrepreneurship training company and speak and teach all over.

    I would love to visit you and have a tour when I am in town. I would love to hear more about your perspective on the small and micro business climate before my conference. I am planning travels now. I was not planning on visiting Almata, just Astana, but will seek your travel advice.

    All the best on your Fulbright adventure!

    Tiffany McVeety in Seattle, WA