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Monday, December 7, 2015

Trilingual Tissues

Yep, that's snow outside my kitchen window!
When I went to the little store in the dormitory the other day to buy tissues, I was more concerned with having something softer than paper towels to blow my poor nose into than I was with the design on the box.  But when I brought it home and took a look at it, I thought it was interesting.  The design on the box has cartoon hippos showing us how to say certain words (basket, flower, butterfly, and ball) in Kazakh, Russian, and English.

I've always had some trouble wrapping my mind around language use in Kazakhstan.  Both Kazakh and Russian are widely spoken, but since I don't speak either one, I get only occasional insights into when each of them are used.  I know that the government is working hard to increase usage of Kazakh.  It also seems that some parts of the country prefer one language over another.  When I traveled to southern Kazakhstan last spring, I was interested to hear from some of the Russian speakers I traveled with that some of the locals seemed to have trouble conversing with them in Russian.

Scott and I are taking a semester of unpaid leave in the spring, and one of my classes threw a lovely going-away party for me last week.  The language situation in Kazakhstan was one of the topics we chatted about during the party.  I asked them if they thought that the use of Kazakh was growing in Kazakhstan, and they thought it was.  They told me that Kazakh pretty much disappeared as a language of instruction in most of the schools for a long time, and that the textbooks were in Russian.  They said that even now, most films and literature are in Russian, so it was useful to maintain Russian skills.  One student pointed out that it was also useful to have a way to communicate with people from other former Soviet republics.

One thing that I found particularly interesting is that the students said that while they often mixed Kazakh and Russian together when they talked, there were certain words that they always said in Russian.  One student said that she had a four-year-old nephew who was saying those words in Kazakh because he heard them on a Kazakh cartoon show.  So, it seems that Kazakhstan's language use is evolving over time.

Interestingly, one of my students also asked me if it was true that Americans speak Spanish as well as Kazakhstanis speak Russian.  I had to reply that although Spanish is a popular language to study there, foreign language education in many parts of the US is very weak and many Americans did not think learning a second language was very important.

I do think American attitudes toward foreign language education are changing.  I know some communities are starting foreign language classes in elementary school, and I know preschool foreign language immersion programs have become popular in some areas.  But I will be surprised (and thrilled) the day I find an American equivalent of the trilingual tissue box I found in Kazakhstan.

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