It has been 10 years since Kazakhstan adopted a law that enshrined Kazakh as the state language, and required all citizens to learn it. A decade later, major challenges continue to hamper efforts to encourage non-Kazakh speakers to learn the language.
Nowhere are the challenges more acute than in areas where ethnic Kazakhs are heavily outnumbered by other groups. The Karaganda Region in central Kazakhstan where in some towns only one in 10 people are ethnic Kazakhs offers a vivid illustration of the difficulties of promoting Kazakh-language learning. Officials are taking a low-key approach toward implementation, striving to reassure non-Kazakh speakers and avoid confrontation.
"It should all be done using the method of convincing people," Bakhytkali Musabekov, head of the regional directorate for the development of languages, told EurasiaNet. "It can't be done by force."
The use of Kazakh in day-to-day government business, both in oral and written communications, was supposed to be phased in. The Karaganda Region has missed its target date for eliminating the use of Russian, and currently only 40 percent of the region's official paperwork is produced in Kazakh.
While no new deadline has been set for full implementation, the directorate is piloting different techniques for teaching Kazakh to civil servants. Many are now attending intensive courses using methodology based on teaching English and Turkish as foreign languages. In addition, the directorate is about to unveil a Kazakh-language center that will initially focus on training officials. Later on, it is expected to open to the general public.
Many of the difficulties encountered in this multi-ethnic region where Slavs outnumber Kazakhs are common throughout the country. In 1991, when the country gained independence, ethnic Kazakhs constituted a minority of the country's inhabitants, and, due to decades of Russification, many had a limited grasp of the titular language.
The Soviet system radically altered the ethnic balance in some parts of Kazakhstan, including Karaganda. The area became the new home for members of ethnic groups including Chechens, Meskhetian Turks and Crimean Tatars -- deported en masse by former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Many former prisoners of the KarLag labor camp also opted to remain in the Karaganda area upon release, rather that return to their native region within the Soviet Union. In addition, when industrialization gained steam during the 1950s and 60s, a large number of Slavs moved to the Karaganda Region to work in the developing mining and metallurgy sectors.
Since Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, the number of ethnic Kazakhs in Karaganda has risen from 17 percent to 43 percent, due in large part to the outward migration of non-Kazakhs, and a change of the regional borders. Around half of the ethnic Kazakhs in the area do not have full command of Kazakh, Musabekov estimates, since many adopted Russian as their first language during the Soviet era. Some ethnic Kazakhs have no knowledge of Kazakh whatsoever. Among non-Kazakhs, only 1 percent is believed to be fluent in Kazakh and another 2 percent or so can speak and understand a little of the titular tongue, Musabekov suggests.
Although by law free Kazakh classes should be available for all, at present instruction is being offered only to civil servants. "It's a big problem," Ksenia Makhotina, a local activist for the unregistered Alga! Party told EurasiaNet. "This generation [of Russian speakers] is not competitive."
Although all schoolchildren and university students, including those on Russian-language programs, receive Kazakh language instruction, many complete their education without being able to use the language effectively. Barriers to learning include poor teaching and low-quality teaching materials, Makhotina said. Lack of motivation is also a factor; as many students are keener to put their efforts into learning English or other foreign languages.
Officials at Karaganda's Education Department acknowledge that there are problems, but insist that they are being addressed. "If before there really were some shortcomings, now very serious attention is being paid to learning Kazakh," Svetlana Chzhao, the official in charge of the city's general and secondary education, told EurasiaNet.
Demand for Kazakh-language education is increasing due to migration to the city from rural areas, where Kazakh is spoken more widely. "We have large migration from villages, and there is demand to open more and more Kazakh-instruction classes," Chzhao said. "In the future we will be building more and more Kazakh-instruction schools."
Spending on language instruction is on the rise. The regional budget for developing languages has more than quadrupled this year compared to 2005 totals, reaching nearly US $700,000. The language directorate's budget has increased nearly tenfold since 2005, reaching some $300,000.
In the city of Karaganda, where just under one-third of the population is ethnic Kazakh, roughly 25 percent of pupils are receiving a general secondary education in Kazakh. Just under half of the 80 secondary schools offer Kazakh-language lessons. Nine schools are Kazakh-language schools, 42 are Russian-language schools, and the remainder offer teaching in both languages.
Kazakh-language teaching is gradually being introduced into all Russian-language schools, the Education Department says, but there are no plans to close Russian-language schools. "In the Soviet Union there was discrimination against Kazakh," said Chzhao. "Now there is a revival of Kazakh, but Russian is functioning alongside it. There is no discrimination."
Makhotina disagrees, viewing language policy as aimed at increasing representation of ethnic Kazakhs in official bodies at the expense of Slavs. "Policy seems to be especially constructed around removing Russian-speakers from state structures," she said. "I think for the authorities it is advantageous if [Russian speakers] do not know [Kazakh]."
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.