Language decolonization: Hebrew and Welsh lessons for Kazakhstan

Language, or the entitlement to its use, plays a pivotal role in the process of decolonization. In the context of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, language emerged as a primary catalyst. Language is also considered as the reason for Russian politicians to consistently criticize Kazakhstan for “Russophobia.” This criticism is often tied to initiatives like the adoption of the Latin alphabet and the implementation of “language patrols”, which request the use of the Kazakh language in various sectors. These critiques subtly allude to a linguistic-vassal relationship.

Within Kazakhstan, language has become a prominent source of societal conflict. Periodic language-related scandals arise, and it has evolved into a key element in the rhetoric of politicians promoting a national-patriotic agenda. Conversations about bolstering the status of the state language (Kazakh) are intensifying, marked by increasingly contentious debates.

Meanwhile, the primary issue is evident: none of the government administrators in the decades of Independence have successfully addressed the managerial challenge of how to effectively teach the Kazakh language to both schoolchildren and adults. Perhaps, resolving this challenge could both enhance the status of the state language and reduce surrounding language-related issues.

In this material, delves into Kazakhstan’s language policy, examining international practices, expert viewpoints, and seeking effective approaches to address the language issue. An unexpected finding suggests that Kazakhstan should study the unique efforts in revitalizing the Hebrew, Welsh and Malay languages, while also being cautious to avoid errors and violations of international law.

Your ruin lies in my tongue

Language, as is known, has long outgrown its definition on Wikipedia about a sign system. It has evolved into a tool for decolonization, inciting conflicts as a divisive “banner” that polarizes society. Additionally, it serves as a phenomenal political instrument, a distinctive marker, and even a glaring element associated with corruption.

Several nations incorporate language as a component of their soft power strategy. Language courses, essay competitions, films, and music make certain countries more attractive on the international stage. Conversely, for some, the “right to use language” (calling to mind the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler and contemporary Russia, in particular) has served as a pretext for invading neighboring countries.

In Soviet-era Kazakhstan, the dominant language was Russian, serving as a marker of intelligence. Proficiency in the Russian language provided greater access to educational and career prospects for individuals from the Soviet periphery. Conversely, a lack of proficiency often resulted in, at the very least, everyday discrimination, particularly in urban areas.

Language decolonization: Hebrew and Welsh lessons for Kazakhstan
Sign in Russian: Russian language unites everyone (Image: Midjourney)

During that era, the Kazakh language faded into the background due to vigorous Russification and a series of radical reforms. Notably, the Kazakh alphabet underwent two changes — transitioning from Arabic to Latin in 1929 and then from Latin to Cyrillic in 1940. In 1955, the mandatory study of the Kazakh language in schools where instruction was in Russian was eliminated. Although the subject was reinstated for Kazakh students in Russian-language schools in 1957, this requirement was not uniformly enforced everywhere.

Language decolonization: Hebrew and Welsh lessons for Kazakhstan
Boy on the left: “Do you speak Russian?”; Boy on the right: “You do.” (Image: Midjourney)

As a result, over several generations of Kazakhstani citizens emerged with Russian as their primary language, and with limited or no proficiency in Kazakh. The disparaging term “shala-Kazakh” originated (translated from Kazakh, where “shala” means half-hearted or incomplete). This label was used to describe ethnic Kazakhs who lacked proficiency in the Kazakh language, were not fully fluent, and were unfamiliar with or did not adhere to Kazakh traditions.

The consequences of Soviet policies continue to shape Kazakhstan’s reality. Despite the collapse of the Union, the acquisition of independence, and the bolstering of national self-awareness, the status of language proficiency in the country has seen minimal improvement. Over the course of 32 years, the state has struggled to address the challenge of effectively teaching the Kazakh language to both children and adults. Even though the Kazakh language holds the status of the state language according to the country’s Constitution, Russian still prevails in many domains.

Language decolonization: Hebrew and Welsh lessons for Kazakhstan
The girl asks in Kazakh: “Do you know Kazakh?”, the boy answers in Russian: “Kazakh? Ehm… a little bit.” (Image: Midjourney)

The reported statistics regarding proficiency in the Kazakh language, cited in government documents at approximately 80-90%, are inherently dubious. Typically, these figures are not derived from extensive testing but rather from surveys where individuals self-evaluate their language proficiency. The questions in such studies are frequently not sufficiently detailed, and an individual’s perception of their language competence can be subjective, either positively or negatively.

The language issue is now actively discussed in both society and the media, particularly heightened by Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. This event has led many to perceive the Russian language as either the “language of the aggressor” or a sort of colonial marker. In response, there is a growing awareness among Kazakhstanis about the need to preserve national identity and foster the development of the state language.

At the same time, heightened sensitivity and internal polarization contribute to escalating tensions on the language issue. Societal conflicts related to language frequently give rise to scandals. Amidst these emotional discussions, a critical question often goes unaddressed: what allocations were made in the respective budgets over the past three decades, and why have the administrators overseeing language policy not faced consequences?

Considering the overall language situation in the country, there is a significant temptation to identify culprits. This includes those who do not learn the language, those who criticize them for it, individuals who inefficiently allocate government funds for language policy, and those who exploit the language issue to propagate hate speech and foster aggressive xenophobia.

Nevertheless, it might be more crucial for everyone to focus on addressing the “quest”: how to foster the development of the Kazakh language. Is there effective international expertise on resolving such challenges? When we speak of “language development,” our primary concern is teaching the language to a large number of the population, including adults, to a proficiency level suitable for communication, education, professional interactions, and the consumption of media, cinema, and literature.

It is strategically important for Kazakhstan to retain proficiency in the Russian language. However, not because the language could be a pretext for the northern neighbor’s invasion. Like many others, the Russian language plays a crucial role, serving not only as a means of communication within the country and with other nations but primarily as one of the six UN languages and an intermediary language for a huge amount of information in literature, science, and culture.

International Expertise

Teaching a large number of people a language, particularly adults, is a challenging and costly endeavor. The same applies to children receiving education in some other language. The example of Kazakhstan confirms this reality, as there are relatively few successful instances in the widespread practice where students in Russian-language schools could proficiently speak Kazakh, or adults completing language courses suddenly exhibited fluency.

In a segment of the State Concept for the Development of Language Policy in Kazakhstan for 2023-2029, there is a proposal to draw upon international expertise, including that of post-Soviet countries and Malaysia. This section will examine these examples, along with the expertise of other nations and regions that have effectively revitalized their national or minority languages.

Language decolonization: Hebrew and Welsh lessons for Kazakhstan
Countries discussed in this section, clockwise starting from the top: Latvia, Malaysia, Israel and Wales. Blue-colored territory — Kazakhstan

However, it is important to highlight that when it comes to transferring language experience, one should exercise even greater caution than when adopting other norms and practices:

“The language issue is always very multi-component, and we must exercise great caution when making comparisons. It’s crucial never to assert, ‘Look, this is the situation here; now, if we replicate it, we will succeed!’ Numerous factors come into play, not solely related to the number of language speakers or the overall linguistic landscape of a country. Attitudes, hierarchy, prestige, and the memory of discrimination are equally significant. All these national elements exert a profound influence on language,” states Vlada Baranova, a sociolinguist at the Nordost-Institut at the University of Hamburg, specializing in migration research, and language activist.

Hence, it is crucial to exercise caution when correlating and supplementing international expertise with an examination of regional specifics, according to the expert’s perspective. At the same time, drawing upon global experience enables one to “not reinvent the wheel” and discern patterns that statistically tend to result in either failures or successes more frequently.

One of the most effective approaches to language revitalization involves generating positive motivation for learning the national language. Extrinsic positive motivation arises when proficiency in a language offers substantial advantages or access to resources. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is frequently linked to cultural identity and the desire to be a part of a specific group.

Israeli Nest

Hebrew stands as an exemplary case of successfully restoring a language simultaneously with the revitalization of national identity. According to the official version, Hebrew was considered a dormant language from the 3rd to the 19th centuries — utilized for reading sacred texts but not for spoken communication. Presently, according to Ethnologue — a comprehensive and authoritative reference on world languages — Hebrew’s status is assessed as “prosperous.” The key to this success lies in the revival of the Jewish people’s national identity, initially within the Jewish community in Palestine and subsequently beyond its borders.

Politicians, educators, and linguists have made a considerable effort to bridge the gap between the language of texts and the spoken language in daily life. The adoption of Hebrew became a symbol for the Jewish people to reclaim their identity. The most significant strides were made in schools where teaching was conducted exclusively in Hebrew. Children engaged in communication in the revived language with both their peers and teachers, subsequently introducing Hebrew into their parents’ households and passing it on to the next generation.

Language decolonization: Hebrew and Welsh lessons for Kazakhstan
Image: Midjourney

This language revitalization approach is termed creating a “language nest,” where an environment is crafted for children from a very early age, wherein all adults communicate with them in the target language. Typically, these environments are educational institutions, such as preschools and schools. Language nests have proven effective in revitalizing numerous contemporary minority languages, spanning from Karelian in the north to Maori in New Zealand.

Renaissance of the Welsh Language

The Welsh language in Great Britain serves as another example of successful language revitalization initiatives. According to the annual population survey spanning from 2010 to 2023, the count of Welsh speakers escalated from 731,000 to 906,800. Notably, children and teenagers constitute the age groups with the highest proficiency in Welsh.

The state of the Welsh language remains challenging and could change for the worse at any moment due to the strong influence of English in popular culture and the growing number of immigrants from England. Nevertheless, the efforts of the local government and activists are producing positive results. Similar to the case of Hebrew, interest in Welsh coincided with the rise of Welsh national consciousness and the establishment of political parties advocating for national interests.

A significant step in restoring the status of the Welsh language was the Welsh Language Act in 1998, which established parity between the Welsh and English languages in Wales. Additionally, the Language Act adopted in 2012 designated Welsh as the state language, making it the sole national language with such a status, alongside English, throughout the United Kingdom at that time.

Legislative support has encouraged businesses and public organizations to use Welsh more extensively, while the establishment of Welsh-only media, coupled with government investments in them, has notably expanded the language’s audience.

Malaysia — Quest for Identity in the Postcolonial Era

The reference to Malaysia in the Concept for the Development of the Kazakh Language for 2023-2029 is intriguing and may be more relevant as an example of successfully implementing a language policy to bolster the state language. However, in reality, this process did not unfold seamlessly.

Malaysia is a nation characterized by its multiethnic and multilingual composition, with Malays, ethnic Chinese, and ethnic Indians comprising the three major ethnic groups. Furthermore, representatives of the latter two groups, in addition to Malay, communicate in various dialects and languages from China and India.

The English language has been a significant factor in Malaysia’s linguistic landscape. Although it lost its position after the collapse of the British Empire, it regained relevance in the era of globalization. English continued to hold sway among members of the Malaysian elite of various nationalities, and official documentation was also carried out in this language.

Proficiency in English granted access to political and economic opportunities, yet only a limited number of Malaysians had the chance to enroll in English-language schools. Additionally, the colonial government did not implement any measures to unify the language of communication. Consequently, the Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian communities residing in the country were divided not only in terms of social status and religions (with Islam being the traditional religion of Malaysians) but also languages.

Following independence from Britain in 1957, the government implemented various measures to ensure support for the Malaysian population and the Malay language, officially recognizing it as the sole language in the country.

With the rise of the national movement and state support, Malay emerged as the primary language of instruction in schools, and an exam in it became a prerequisite for obtaining a certificate. Financial support for schools using other languages gradually stopped, and English transitioned to being taught as a separate subject.

A standardized explanatory dictionary and grammar for Malay were developed. In higher education, university programs in Malay were established, along with quotas and scholarships for the Malaysian population. These initiatives collectively had a positive influence on the status of the Malay language.

At the same time, Malaysia’s national language policy had negative outcomes. In 1969, Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, witnessed violent protests and clashes between representatives of the Malaysian and Chinese populations. The escalation of interethnic and political tensions, partly fueled by protectionist laws concerning the Malay language, played a significant role in triggering the conflict.

Regrettably, this issue is a common challenge faced by multinational states in the post-colonial era, and it is crucial to consider it when shaping language policy. As highlighted by Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, while upholding an official language is a valid objective for any state, “this goal should not be pursued at the expense of the rights of speakers of other languages, especially those belonging to national minorities, nor should any measures taken to that end exacerbate existing cleavage.”

Legislating on the use of languages should meet a real need in society, such as improving the proficiency of students in the official language, easing relations with the administration for persons belonging to national minorities, improving their access to the labour market or ensuring that people speaking minority languages can preserve their language and culture and be full members of society. Regrettably, reality paints a different picture. All too often, laws and policies are introduced with a “zero-sum” mindset emphasising the importance of one ethnic and linguistic identity at the expense of others, and are motivated by nationalistic, ethnocentric or populist ideologies, or simply by a calculating self-interest in electoral times.

Dunja Mijatović

According to Mijatović, it is more effective to stimulate the implementation of laws than penalizing non-compliance. The latter is frequently counterproductive, fostering additional polarization in society and increasing the marginalization of minorities. A balanced and pragmatic approach to language policy is advisable, emphasizing incentives for learning and using the language rather than relying on coercion.

Another contentious outcome of the Malaysian government’s national language policy was the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965. This split resulted, in part, from disagreements over the legislation on the sole state language. Singapore’s economy heavily relied on foreign investment, prompting the Singaporean government to prioritize multilingualism to facilitate open communication with foreign partners.

It is interesting that, despite being part of a multinational and multilingual state like the rest of Malaysia, Singapore has adopted a distinct approach to languages. The Republic recognizes four languages as official (English, Malay, Chinese (Putonghua), and Tamil). English has emerged as the language for interethnic communication, serving as a “neutral” language. This not only prevents any particular national group from gaining advantages but also provides opportunities for the population to learn and engage freely with the global community.

Latvian Unification

The Concept for the Development of Language Policy includes the Baltic countries as successful examples. However, it is important to highlight that, despite the shared historical experience of colonization during the USSR, the contemporary linguistic landscape in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia is far from uniform. This is influenced by the size of individual language groups and the extent of ethnic diversity in the overall population.

For instance, the language matter triggered more tension in Latvia and Estonia, primarily due to the substantial Russian-speaking population, in contrast to Lithuania. At the same time, Lithuania, especially in the capital region, is characterized by multiculturalism, with a significant presence of Poles, Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians residing in Vilnius.

The case of Latvia is noteworthy, particularly due to a recent reform in the education law stipulating Latvian as the language of instruction in all schools. According to a 2022 study conducted by the Central Statistical Office, 64.3% of Latvia’s population identified Latvian as their native language, while 37.7% reported Russian. Additionally, 1.7% indicated Ukrainian as their native language, 1.2% — Belarusian, and 1.3% — Latgalian. Moreover, since 1992, Latvian has been designated as the sole state language, with other languages considered as foreign.

In the spring of 2018, the Latvian Seimas endorsed a law on the gradual transition of schools for national minorities to the Latvian language, spanning from 2019 to 2025. As reported by Delfi, the law includes specific provisions for material assistance to teachers and additional hours for professional retraining.

Acknowledging the challenges that students are likely to encounter with the implementation of the new program, the Latvian Minister of Education and Science Kārlis Šadurskis assured that the assessment of students’ work in Latvian would be lenient initially, “if there are shortcomings not in the material itself, but in the form of the statement, grammatical errors.”

Purists might argue against tolerating illiteracy and the “corruption” of the language. However, it is precisely this tolerant approach toward an imperfect language — assuming it can be effectively implemented — that proves most advantageous in long-term prospects.

Sociolinguist Vlada Baranova notes that it is natural for state language policy to emphasize standardization. However, overly strict requirements for language norms, particularly a dismissive attitude toward those who haven’t fully mastered these norms, can be distressing and unpleasant for a considerable number of citizens. Negative motivation, such as aggressive attempts to enforce specific language norms, along with shaming and interventions by “language patrols,” proves to be entirely ineffective. On the contrary, such actions elicit reciprocal irritation and fuel resistance to the very idea of learning and using a language. On the contrary, such actions cause reciprocal irritation and rejection of the very idea of learning and using a language.

Upon its adoption, the Latvian education law sparked considerable controversy within the country and drew the attention of the Commissioner of the European Council of Human Rights. The complete transition of all educational institutions to the state language raised concerns about limiting the rights of linguistic minorities.

The European Commission for Democracy through Law expressed criticism of the intention to transfer all pre-school institutions to Latvian. The Commission urged the country’s government to reconsider its approach and “ensure that individuals belonging to national minorities maintain the opportunity to learn their languages, which is essential for the protection and development of minority identities, as well as preserving linguistic diversity in Latvian society.”

As demonstrated in the examples above, any modifications in language policy are bound to be challenging for a segment of society. This does not imply that change is impossible, but rather underscores the significance of gradual adjustments, attentiveness, and respect for the needs of all participants in the process. A soft approach is essential:

“Almost never will the entire population of a large community, such as a republic or a very extensive region, unanimously endorse changes [in language policy]. Therefore, [when implementing language changes,] it is crucial to consider the interests of all groups to the greatest extent possible and approach the issue with care,” emphasizes Vlada Baranova.

She adds that the timing and stages of such gradual changes must be clearly outlined in laws. For instance, if we are discussing exams on proficiency in the state language, specific deadlines for completion should be established, along with conditions under which individuals can be exempt from the process.

For instance, to obtain a Latvian residence permit, Russians residing in the country are required to take a Latvian exam by 2025. It is specified that individuals under 15 and over 75 years of age are exempt from the exam. Additionally, those who have acquired basic, secondary, or higher education in the Latvian language or have successfully completed a Latvian language exam at an educational institution are exempt, along with individuals unable to take the exam due to medical reasons.

Sulushash Kerimkulova, an Associate Professor at the Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education and an expert in the field of multilingual education, suggests that Kazakhstanis should appreciate their bilingualism. She believes that the key to addressing the challenge of teaching the Kazakh language lies in altering the language teaching methodology, particularly in Russian-language schools. Kerimkulova advocates for teaching Kazakh as a second/foreign language in these schools, where the approach differs from teaching Kazakh as a native language. However, she notes that government officials today might not be ready to embrace such an idea, as they interpret the concept of a “second language” literally and perceive it as a potential decrease in status.

This implies a transition from traditional methods that emphasize grammar, rules, and vocabulary to a communicative approach. In this approach, there is a greater emphasis on teaching conversational skills, and grammar is integrated and taught within a contextual framework. The primary goal is to remove students’ fear of making mistakes in speech, thus aiding in overcoming barriers to conversation. As an illustration, the professor references the English teaching methodology, which not only concentrates on developing the four language skills (speaking, reading, writing, and listening) but also incorporates a tiered system based on language proficiency levels.

To accomplish all these objectives, Sulushash Kerimkulova emphasizes the need to alter the mindset of Kazakh language school teachers. Many of them resist embracing innovative teaching methods and prefer adhering to traditional approaches.

Language Management

Language decolonization: Hebrew and Welsh lessons for Kazakhstan
Image: DALL-E 2

Since gaining independence, the state has implemented various programs with the objective of fostering the development of the Kazakh language. Among these, a key initiative is the State Program for the Functioning and Development of Languages. Over the years, three similar documents were adopted, covering the periods from 1998 to 2000, from 2001 to 2010, and from 2011 to 2019. In 2019, the government, with slight modifications to the name, introduced a program for the implementation of language policy for the period 2020-2025.

To implement the program for 2020-2025, 16.9 billion tenge was allocated from the state budget. However, on October 16, 2023, the Concept for the Development of Language Policy for 2023-2029 was endorsed, leading to the expiration of the program for the implementation of language policy. The reason behind this shift remains unclear.

It is interesting that there are no significant differences between the two documents — the goals and objectives are the same. However, given the recent adoption of the new Concept, we decided to analyze the key points of the program for 2020-2025 and determine whether the planned objectives were successfully implemented in the three and a half years. As it turns out, the primary goals outlined in the document were either not accomplished, or the impact of their achievement is dubious.

As an illustration, the policy regarding the transition of the Kazakh language to the Latin alphabet “wanders” across various programs. The concept was initially introduced by the first President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2012. According to his proposal, a unified alphabet was expected to be adopted by the end of 2017. Subsequently, starting from 2018, there was a requirement to initiate the training of specialists in teaching the Latin script and develop educational materials for secondary schools.

As it turned out, the set deadlines were overly optimistic. To date, the final standard for the alphabet has not been approved. However, according to the language development program for 2020-2025, it was expected that by 2023, 20% of the population would be proficient in using the Latin alphabet in communication.

When implementing the transition to the Latin alphabet, it would be reasonable to consider the somewhat challenging experience of another Central Asian country — Uzbekistan. The decision to adopt the Latin alphabet was made in 1993, shortly after gaining independence, and the final version of the alphabet was approved in 1995. Nevertheless, the process encountered several issues, and even after nearly three decades, the full transition to the Latin alphabet has not been accomplished.

Even though the Latin script is now taught in education in Uzbekistan, the Cyrillic alphabet continues to be widely used in media and office-related tasks. This poses significant challenges for several generations of young individuals who have not been familiarized with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Philologist, linguist, and editor-in-chief of Steppe&World publishing house, Nazgul Kozhabek, suggests that Kazakhstan may encounter a scenario similar to Uzbekistan. While the transition to the Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language can expedite intellectualization and information technology processes, acquiring the language may prove more challenging, particularly for adults. Additionally, individuals already proficient in Kazakh will need to relearn spelling, potentially impeding the overall progress of language development.

Sulushash Kerimkulova expresses a similar viewpoint, suggesting that the adoption of the Latin alphabet might hinder the progress of the Kazakh language, akin to the situations in 1929 and 1940. The vast body of literature composed in Cyrillic could become inaccessible to generations educated in Latin unless a comprehensive translation of the entire literary corpus is made available.

Another initiative that is mentioned in the last three language development programs is the “Kaztest” system, an analogue of the IELTS and TOEFL exams, designed to assess proficiency in the Kazakh language. In the program for 2020-2025, these exams were implemented in public service, to utilize “Kaztest” to evaluate Kazakh language proficiency when hiring.

However, while the previous program stated that the test was to be applied to all government agency employees, the new Concept for the Development of Language Policy for 2023-2029 has limited its scope to applicants for the personnel reserve of the administrative civil service of Corps A. In any case, according to Nazgul Kozhabek, this test serves as a mere formality — individuals who achieve the required number of points still struggle to speak or write documents in Kazakh. In essence, the test does not contribute to language development.

Another crucial objective outlined in all programs is to increase the amount of content in the Kazakh language, whether online materials or books and textbooks for schools and libraries. In the new Concept for 2023-2029, the state enthusiastically reports achieving substantial indicators in this area. It is stated that the proportion of Kazakh-language content in state media reached 83% in 2022. However, according to the same document, 65.7% of the population resorts to Russian when seeking information on the Internet.

As for books and textbooks, the new Concept indicates that during the 2021-2022 academic year, school libraries were enriched with 2.5 million copies of Kazakh and world literature, with 51% of this quantity in Kazakh. Moreover, republican, regional, and state libraries acquired 506 thousand copies, with 95% of them in the Kazakh language.

The same copies were uploaded in electronic form to the Kazakhstan electronic library database. The “100 New Textbooks” project is also referenced, wherein textbooks from leading global universities across various subjects are translated into Kazakh.

Nevertheless, as highlighted by Zhuldyz Smagulova, a sociolinguist and candidate of philological sciences, professor at the Faculty of Education and Humanities at KIMEP University, during her TEDxAstana conference presentation, the translation of foreign language educational literature used to not meet quality requirements, and today in universities there is still lack of materials in the Kazakh language. But the core issue — the absence of an intellectual, scientific, and creative class capable of reproducing and producing knowledge in the Kazakh language. The linguist asserts that the primary objective should be achieving cultural independence, which is only possible when the Kazakh language genuinely becomes the language of academia.

Efforts to address the language development issue also involve leveraging digitalization. On government websites, a list of IT projects  “aimed at expanding the use of the Kazakh language” can be found. Among them are sites like “,” “,” “,” “,” “,” “,” “,” “,” and “”

In reality, only three of the mentioned projects focus on the study of the Kazakh language: “,” “,” and “” According to Similarweb, all three have relatively low traffic, ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 visits per month. Additionally, the first two exhibit a notably high bounce rate (70-80%), suggesting that many users leave the pages almost immediately.

Sociologist Serik Beissembayev believes that the educational tools funded by the state, such as educational resources, books, websites, and applications, do not meet quality expectations due to a corruption component that hinders healthy competition.

“Several companies consistently win tenders and produce textbooks, eliminating the chance for competition. Why not give other public and private organizations the opportunity to compete and foster diversity in educational resources?” queries Beissembayev.

Sulushash Kerimkulova points out that despite numerous reforms in the language field, their practical implementation is minimal. Reforms lack mechanisms, clear instructions, goals, and resource calculations, and they tend to change with the turnover of leadership in the responsible department: “Each new minister introduces their ideas, leaving previous reforms behind. Schools and teachers are compelled to adapt each time without proper guidance.”

As an illustration, Kerimkulova points to the former Minister of Education Yerlan Sagadiyev, who, upon assuming office in early 2016, prioritized the shift to trilingual education in Kazakh schools. The vision was for all schools to adopt a similar model where subjects would be taught in Kazakh, Russian, and English. The reform aimed to utilize English for the instruction of natural sciences like chemistry, physics, biology, and computer science. However, the reform overlooked the insufficient “capacity,” primarily in terms of human resources, required for its successful implementation. Consequently, despite substantial funding, the desired outcomes could not be realized.

Social media expert Zhalgas Yertay agrees that the impact of programs financed with public funds has been limited. He identifies the primary cause for this situation in the state system’s inclination towards agitation. Yertay asserts that the government is the sole institution hindering the development of the state language as it lacks sufficient interest in this endeavor. According to him, maintaining the status quo holds greater importance for the government than embracing innovations.

Language decolonization: Hebrew and Welsh lessons for Kazakhstan
Image: Midjourney

According to the expert, under such circumstances, the advancement of the Kazakh language is impossible. He argues that the language’s organic reinforcement primarily results from demographic shifts. Societal enthusiasm for the language, he suggests, is fostered predominantly through initiatives originating from within the society.

Serik Beyssembayev agrees with this viewpoint. He asserts that projects like “Batyl Bol” and the publishing house Steppe&World, despite lacking substantial funding, have achieved some success and can serve as inspiring examples. “Supporting civil initiatives through grants and assistance in project implementation could be much more beneficial,” the sociologist suggests.

Sociolinguist Vlada Baranova believes that, in theory, state and grassroots language initiatives can not only coexist but also successfully complement each other, as they address different levels.

It makes no sense to overly detail laws for matters evolving rapidly and pertaining to daily life, as they are readily captured by new initiatives. Ideally, there should be an interaction where the state supports grassroots initiatives, and conversely, [government bodies] adopt successful, swift solutions from these initiatives.

Vlada Baranova

Baranova suggests that official language policy, in terms of methods, can gain valuable insights from language activists and grassroots initiatives. These groups often possess a deeper understanding of their environment, know their needs well, are more agile, and operate with fewer constraints from conventions.

Bibarys Seitak, the linguist and leader of the “Kazak bubble” project, emphasizes the importance of providing financial support to grassroots initiatives for language development. According to him, projects cannot rely solely on enthusiasm and require financial backing to thrive.


Drawing from international expertise and expert insights, the following conclusions can be derived regarding the development of the Kazakh language:

  1. Language policy should avoid adopting a “zero-sum game” approach. It is feasible to enhance the status of the state language without constraining the learning and usage of other languages, including those of national minorities. This not only fosters interethnic harmony but also helps preserve human capital.
  2. Positive motivation is a key factor in language acquisition. Coercion, shaming, “language patrols,” and similar measures are ineffective, as they not only violate human rights but also serve to demotivate individuals in language learning. These recommendations align with the Council of Europe on Human Rights, drawing from the experiences of numerous countries.
  3. Drawing from the experiences of Malaysia and Latvia, language reforms should be introduced gradually and cautiously, with open communication with the population to prevent social tension. Proposed reforms, such as new methods, training manuals, and courses, should undergo expert analysis before implementation, including pre-testing through focus groups involving stakeholders. Additionally, the development of an incentive system, emphasizing positive motivation, is crucial for the success of these reforms.
  4. It is worth considering a revision of the methods used to teach the Kazakh language in schools, especially in Russian-speaking schools, where graduates often enter the job market with limited or no knowledge of Kazakh. One approach could involve emphasizing the development of communication skills by integrating grammar into context. Drawing inspiration from successful practices in teaching English as a foreign language, as well as the examples of Hebrew and Welsh mentioned in this material, could be beneficial.
  5. State programs mention “Kaztest,” modeled after IELTS and TOEFL. A logical and likely more effective solution in this context is the establishment of state language centers, similar to the British Council, Alliance Française, Korean Education Centers, and Confucius Institutes. These centers not only use advanced teaching methods but also incorporate cultural components, which are crucial for language acquisition. Such centers would be particularly beneficial for adults who have completed their formal education but desire to learn spoken Kazakh through a systematic approach. This doesn’t replace the need for individual tutors or private language schools and could operate at various proficiency levels. For instance, the state, utilizing allocated funds for language development, could make Kazakh language learning more accessible to a broader population by offering tuition discounts and organizing free conversation clubs at these centers.
  6. Grassroots initiatives aimed at language development should have the opportunity to receive support from the state when needed, whether in the form of funds, tax preferences, or other means. Crucially, it is essential to permit the existence of such initiatives and refrain from hindering their activities. This principle also extends to Kazakh-language initiatives in the realms of media and culture.

The language issue is consistently sensitive and intricate, particularly for multinational countries in the post-colonial era. Effectively addressing it necessitates careful action, striking a balance between the diverse demands of various groups. The restoration of national identity and cultural independence calls for citizens to unite under a single language, which, in certain instances, may involve unavoidable positive discrimination. Simultaneously, to foster harmonious and equitable relations among all members of society, it is crucial to uphold tolerance and respect the rights of linguistic and ethnic minorities.

This article was published with the support of “Russian Language News Exchange”