Although Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and Kazakh is the state language, the second official language is Russian. The majority of the population still speak Russian and most places you find yourself, you will be understood if you know some Russian.
Luckily, having a Russian degree I haven’t had the usual worries foreigners have when coming to a new place. I have lived in this country before and I speak the Russian language.
Though that is not to say that there aren’t words I don’t know. For example, a word that I am having to use again and again, and that I didn’t know before, is “Master” (not connected to Dr Who!) I have to call the “master” to fix my shower, unblock my sink, sort out the electrics, fix a car. The “master” who came to fix the shower ended up mounting it on four bricks and made it impossible to get into it without a set of steps! It would seem that the term is not quite fitting and they are more often a “Jack of all trades”.
When I lived in Almaty there was only one occasion when I found myself in a situation where I needed Kazakh. I had travelled with some friends to a city in the south of the country called Shymkent, near the Uzbekh border.
We were staying in a home-stay in the country side and when we arrived at the old, wooden cottage we were not only surprised to find no running water but also to realise that our hosts spoke only Kazakh.
Later on that evening, after a couple of “little waters” (otherwise known as vodka) the husband started to remember some of his German from his army days, so being a teacher of the language, I was finally able to converse with them. Other than this occasion it always seemed fine to use Russian. However, after independence from Russia, the government in Kazakhstan, wishing to create a national identity, has introduced laws to promote the use of the country’s own language.
If people have actually heard of Kazakhstan, the first question is what language do they speak there? I would have said Russian and then Kazakh while I was in Almaty but since moving to Astana, I would have to say it was the other way around. It was one of the first things I noticed upon arriving here. Signs are mainly in Kazakh, street names, public transport, street advertisements. When I walked down the street, people passing by me were not chatting away in a language I could understand. I decided to start learning the language straight away.
The next question people ask, is whether Russian and Kazakh are similar? Russian is the most widely spoken member of the Slavic language family, including Czech, Slovak, Polish and Bulgarian. Kazakh, on the other hand, is a member of the Turkic language family, making the grammar and the vocabulary completely different.
There are many places in the city which offer Kazakh lessons, but I eventually found a local Kazakh teacher to give me private lessons. I realised from the start that the differences in the languages were a lot greater than I had expected. The words grew and grew depending who was doing what and where, and the sounds were really different to the other languages I spoke.
After a few lessons, in which the teacher just fired questions at me in this brand new language, which sounded like a number of different sounds strung together, I was able to pick out separate words and in the last few weeks I can actually answer in very slow, stutters. I am not hoping for miracles, but as the winter sets in, I hoping to be able to negotiate the prices of taxis a little quicker.