The Study of Kazakh and Russian Among College Students in Kazakhstan: Divergent Views of the Linguistic Future

The citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan rightly regard themselves as among the first to assault the monolith of the Soviet Government: in December of 1986, the Zheltoqsan uprisings over the sacking of the Kazakh chair of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR, Dinmukhamed Qunaev, and his replacement by an ethnic Russian, Gennadij Kolbin, were the first violent crack in the edifice of Soviet power in the late 1980s. That the enactment of the language law of 1989 was among the first major undertakings of Nursultan Nazarbaev signaled both a further policy shift from monolithic russification, and a symbolic gesture measure of self-determination for the ethnic Kazakhs of the Kazakh SSR (Williams, 1997, makes a clear case for the linkage between nationalism, self-identification, and language policy). In 1995, Kazakh was declared the government language, and accorded the role of the language of national integration. Russian was declared the language of political integration, and given official status (see Kopylenko, 1999, for an attempt to delineate these functions). The current Kazakhstan 2030 plan calls for all citizens to be (at least) trilingual by 2030—in Kazakh, Russian, and one foreign language. The basic question for the researcher in Kazakhstan in 1999, ten years after the passage of the language law, and eight years after the fall of the USSR and the somewhat reluctant independence of Kazakhstan, is: have these (and other) measures had any appreciable affect on language choice and language use in Kazakhstan? More specifically, what is the extent of language shift? What are the factors motivating first, second, and foreign language choice among Kazakhstanis? What attitudes and aspirations are held, regarding languages? The proposed paper will assay these questions through the examination of biographical, demographic, attitudinal, and behavioral data collected from 857 Kazakhstani college students at seven institutions of higher learning in Kazakhstan. The field work was conducted during the Spring Semester of 1999. Among the notable results are that 67% of Kazakhstani college students claim some knowledge of English; that, while 98% of the ethnic Kazakh population claims Kazakh as its rodnoj jazyk, only 60% claims it as its mother tongue, and less than 35% claim better mastery of Kazakh than of Russian; that self-assessments of foreign language proficiency are higher among those students whose mother tongue is Russian than any other group; that measures of language shift—including the language in which prospective children of the respondents might be raised, the language used at work, and the language used at home—tend to indicate further russification of the Kazakh population, especially among technical majors and students raised in urban settings.