Efforts under way to overcome language problems

The prevalence of practicality over national pride constituted the main impetus for a recent government decision to reinstate Russian as Kyrgyzstan's second official language.

Despite its status as the official language, many urban Kyrgyz citizens, as well as the vast majority of ethnically non-Kyrgyz citizens, were unable to speak Kyrgyz, resulting in serious repercussions for the country's 4.5 million inhabitants. Signed into law on 24 December by President Askar Akayev, the move is expected to promote greater integration among all the ethnic groups in this mountainous Central Asian state.

"There was no limitation on the development of the Kyrgyz language during the Soviet period, yet, in order to ensure a good career, people had to master Russian perfectly," Kutmanbek Biyaliev, head of the Kyrgyz language department at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University in the capital, Bishkek, told IRIN. "This is why the majority of the Kyrgyz nation, particularly the educated part, stopped learning Kyrgyz, and focused on learning Russian," he said.

While Kyrgyz - which belongs to the Turkic group of languages - was adopted as the official state language in 1989 by the then Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic (KSSR), Russian remained the favoured language, given its status under Soviet rule.

Russian had by then replaced Kyrgyz in most areas of official communication and work, including administration, science, media and education. The apparent aim was to melt all nationalities into one nation with a single common language - Russian. As a result, Kyrgyz was used at home, and exclusively by ethnic Kyrgyz, most of them in rural areas.

Such circumstances present a host of linguistic challenges to Kyrgyzstan today, the most important being education. Unlike other Soviet republics, which set aside a few hours of school-time for their local languages, the KSSR excluded Kyrgyz from the curriculum, so several generations of Kyrgyz citizens, grew up without a knowledge of their country's native language.

Umut Kultaeva, director of the Institute of State Language and Culture, told IRIN that in Bishkek, there was only one school where all subjects were taught through the medium of the Kyrgyz language. The first classes in the language only emerged after it was afforded its official status language, he said.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, when the country gained its independence, Kyrgyz was promoted as a priority in the building of the new nation. The government developed a number of state programmes to encourage its use by society, culminating in the establishment of the National Commission on the Kyrgyz Language.

Although they seemed promising at the time, the initiatives failed to bring about a wider application of the language. "The main problem in the wider use of Kyrgyz is the lack of finances," Biyaliev said. While colossal funds had earlier been spent on teaching and promoting the use of Russian, the government now lacked sufficient funds to promote the Kyrgyz language.

According to a report by the programme for the development of the state language of Kyrgyzstan, funds collected were not spent properly, nor were programmes being implemented effectively now. "Kyrgyz is not taught in an attractive way," Biyaliev explained - a problem compounded by an acute shortage of reliable textbooks and dictionaries, and the fact that there are very few qualified teachers.

A non-governmental organisation working to break down the barriers between Kyrgyz- and Russian-speaking communities is the Swiss-based Cimera. "To communicate in a language is the only way to master that language," its bilingual education project head, Britta Korth, told IRIN. The group had started to introduce this project in nursery schools, where children could easily master several languages if given the opportunity, she explained. "We use the method of full immersion in one language, without translation, with the help of cards and body language."

The rejection of the local language by many citizens belonging to ethnicities other than Kyrgyz is explained by the fact that it was imposed upon them politically. Although the country's legislature amended the constitution in March 1996 to make Russian an official language alongside Kyrgyz in territories and places where Russian-speaking citizens predominate, a catastrophic brain drain from the new state of both ethnic Russians and urban Kyrgyz had already begun.

While ethnic Russians accounted for 22 percent of the population at the time of independence in 1991, there are less than half that number in the country today. Moreover, the outflow is continuing, sweeping away with it much-needed specialists and educated professionals.

However, for many Kyrgyz, the decision to return to a bilingual system of communication was welcome news. Asel Aytmatova, an ethnic Kyrgyz English teacher who is unable to speak her native language, told IRIN: "When Kyrgyz became the state language, my first feeling was fear. I could lose my job, and felt frustrated and began hating it instead of studying it. Now I feel comfortable as I can use Russian until I am able to speak Kyrgyz."

Her attitude is indicative of the growing support for this new initiative by Kyrgyzstan's other ethnic groups, including its Russian, Uzbek, Ukrainian and German communities. According to Korth, bilingualism is the only real solution to the country's linguistic problem. "The language of the native population must be the state language, yet the interests of ethnic minorities must be addressed," she said, adding that bilingualism would also help avert ethnic conflicts.