Ulan Djumashev dropped another sugar cube into his tea and looked around the café, a popular meeting spot for Bishkek’s educated elite.
“See everyone here? I’d say 95 percent of them are Kyrgyz,” he said, looking out at the mod clientele seated in plush armchairs, tapping at laptops and tucking into hamburgers. “And what language are they speaking? Russian.”
Djumashev is one of the initiators behind “We Want Kyrgyz Language in Google Translate” [www.enetil.kg], an ambitious grassroots effort to do exactly what the name says: add Kyrgyzstan’s state language to the 58 tongues made mutually comprehensible by Google’s powerful online translation tool. Adding the language could help render the Internet accessible to Kyrgyz-speakers, as well as offering non-Kyrgyz access to vibrant local blogs and media. According to recent surveys, 81 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 5.5 million citizens never use the Internet. Those who do rely heavily on Russian, with 99 percent of respondents in a recent national survey using the language to access information online, as opposed to 22 percent for Kyrgyz.
Yet the project initiators’ stated goal of increasing Kyrgyz language use raises uncomfortable questions in a country where Russian is an official language. Just getting Kyrgyz into the service presents a significant challenge. Google Translate works by what is called “statistical machine translation,” meaning that rather than “teaching” the program the rules of a language, matching texts from English and another language are fed into an algorithm that deduces how to handle similar phrases. For a pair of languages like English and French, where millions of mutual electronic texts are available, Google’s software does all the work. But for Kyrgyz, for which few translations with English are available in electronic format, someone has to provide the translated pairs.
So in an imaginative twist, the organizers have turned to crowdsourcing, asking volunteers to translate and upload texts into an online database. The goal is to gather a million pairs of phrases, each one roughly corresponding to a sentence, from diverse genres such as biology, mathematics, literature, and history. As of early-December, the organizers have about 25,000 pairs. Reaching a million could easily take until the end of 2012, Djumashev told EurasiaNet.org.
A management specialist from the northern region of Talas, Djumashev grew up speaking Kyrgyz at home but uses Russian in school and at university. As a result, his Russian is often stronger. Djumashev described the Google Translate project as part of an “infrastructure” to support teaching Kyrgyz to a new generation, so it doesn’t “grow up a little bit non-Kyrgyz.”
Djumashev says he is no nationalist, and scorns efforts to force people to speak Kyrgyz “under duress.” His passion for the language represents what he describes as a movement towards “Kyrgyzification” among Kyrgyz intelligentsia. “Learning the language helps me to understand my own identity and my own ethnos better,” he said. “All nationalities have their own identity. I want to understand better what makes us different from other nationalities.”
Yet for the generation born after the Soviet Union, especially those who grow up outside Bishkek, the decline of Russian in public life could be costly. Hundreds of thousands of young Kyrgyz migrate to Russia for work each year. Those without Russian skills often work the most menial jobs, such as construction. “If the next generation doesn’t speak Russian as well, they will have a hard time getting service-level jobs [in Russia], which are better paid and less dangerous,” Djumashev acknowledged.
Among the approximately 40 young professionals who gathered at another fashionable café recently to hear a presentation on the project, finding work or managing multiple languages would hardly seem to be a problem. In attendance were employees of international development organizations, foreign embassies, a European bank, and the Canadian-operated Kumtor gold mine.
The presentation alternated between Kyrgyz and Russian, although almost all in attendance were ethnic Kyrgyz. “I could tell many of them would be able to understand me better in Russian,” Djumashev confided afterwards.
Tilek Mamutov, a Kyrgyz engineer working for Google in Dublin, appeared in a video clip to deliver a message to the gathering. He spoke Kyrgyz haltingly, as if from a memorized text. When the video ended, Djumashev smiled and said, in Russian, “See? It’s good when a Kyrgyz tries to speak Kyrgyz!”
After the presentation, the senior secretary of the government’s National Commission on the State Language, Cholpon Tumenbaeva, spoke enthusiastically about Google Translate Kyrgyz. “Its contribution will start with schoolchildren and end with the common people, who want to enrich their horizons, or language, or knowledge,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
She argued that Russian would survive even as Kyrgyz increased its influence.
“Literature, television, mass media are all sufficiently in Russian, not just the Internet,” Tumenbaeva said, though she confessed to some embarrassment at the state of her Russian.
“I used to speak Russian well, but probably my work has affected it. We only speak Kyrgyz at work,” she said, searching for words. “You know, work and your environment have a big effect.”