Kazakhstan: Controversy Over State Language Promotion

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

In early August 2011, the Ministry of Culture of Kazakhstan developed [ru] a draft law to introduce some amendments into the state's language policy. It was quickly labeled by many observers as a move to further reduce the scope of use of the Russian language, which enjoys equal status with the Kazakh language, according to the Constitution.

The new move was supposed to make all interactions that citizens have with the government bodies to be in Kazakh, as well as all internal documentation of the state structures. All visual and business-related information (adverts, signs, price lists, forms etc.) was also meant to be provided solely in Kazakh. The changes were set to be introduced in 2013.

The gradual move to the state-language documentation has been taking place in Kazakhstan for several years, but most often comes to the situations when people are using Kazakh translations (at times, very poorly made) to observe the formality, but use Russian to keep the things going. Arkhard writes [ru]:

I've just fancied how our citizens break their neck to translate an application into Kazakh, then the officials have hard time translating it back into Russian. As a result, it would be difficult to understand what whas meant initially, and it is going to be more time-consuming as well.

Alpamis_batyr objects [ru]:

[…] You should finally realize that you live in Kazakhstan, the country whose name derives from the state-forming ethnicity, i.e. Kazakhs. You thus show your disrespect to the language, and culture, and history of the nation. Just kill your laziness and wake up a desire to learn and accept the Kazakhness.

User Russky (a Russian) leaves a comment to the news article [ru]:

Everybody – with no exception – should study Kazakh, but it should not turn into conflicts, when one side yells “You have no choice but to learn”, and the other shouts “No way” (although even saying that they understand that it would really be better to know the Kazakh language). […] All citizens will get to know it sooner or later, but it is necessary to create universally affordable language courses.

Jelsomino agrees that before you require people to use the language, you should give them a chance to study it [ru]:

I am a Russian-speaking Kazakh, studied in the Russian-language high school (in Soviet times there was no other option with only two Kazakh schools in Almaty, the former capital and the largest city of Kazakhstan)… Russian language was everywhere – on the street, on a TV, routinely. Kazakh language was taught very badly in schools, because nobody really used it in urban environment. Now the times are changing, rural population us urbanizing, many Russian-speaking people left the country. So, what shall the generations of Soviet descent do? Right, we must study Kazakh. But how? Courses are largely unaffordable, textbooks are of low quality, multimedia CDs only start to appear, but they are expensive too… I can speak simple Kazakh in everyday life, but if officials require me to communicate with them only in Kazakh, I would consider it that the government turned its back on me.

Basilio suggests pondering on another possible consequence [ru]:

Such radical measures will once again lead to major brain-drain, as qualified specialists who don't know the state language – but do possess expertise – would flee the country. Remember the 1990s, when almost every fifth non-Kazakh family (Germans, Ukrainians, Russians) emigrated to the “historic motherlands” […]

Megakhuimyak offers a look from a different perspective – why such an initiative appeared as all [ru]:

I will not speak about the draft law's contradiction to the constitution (who cares about it – our parliament is notoriously known for being able to change the constitution in half of an hour). The more interesting question is why. When the presidential administration found that the Kazakh-language newspapers (subject to control by the Minister of Culture) publish anti-president appeals, the Ministry was squeezed, and its mandate of controlling the media was given to the Ministry of Communications. After the extremist outbreak in Western Kazkahstan, it turned out that the Ministry failed to succeed I this direction too – and the Committee for Religions was taken out of the Ministry… Thus, the minister of culture found himself deprived of both Realpolitik leverages – media and religions. Now all he's got is culture, NGOs and language. That hurts – and the Ministry decided to take on a new agenda at the expense of state language issue.

The ado did not pass unnoticed. Controversial draft law was pretty quickly repelled by the Ministry – officials did not insist too earnestly on the initiative, but indicated that they were not very pleased with the tone of public debate. The passions calmed down, but the problem persists.

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

Thumbnail image of Kazakh flag by Flickr user sly06 (CC BY 2.0).

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