Thursday, August 30, 2018

Central Asian Countries Turning Away from Russian Even as a Second Language, Borodina Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – Since the end of Soviet times when Russian was the second language of most people in Central Asia, the countries of that region have turned away from it not only for their own populations at large but even as a lingua franca for elites, a linguistic shift reflecting aspirations for a larger geopolitical one, Alina Borodina says.

            The Russian specialist on linguistics points out that after 1991, the countries of Central Asia made the development of their own national languages a key element in the formation of independent statehood, a process that reduced the importance of Russian in schools (

                Most of the countries in that region also sought to reduce Russian in higher educational institutions as well, but they ran into two problems: On the one hand, many of these languages did not have the necessary terminology in many fields leading to crude borrowings. And on the other, many instructors did not speak the national languages well enough to be effective.

                As result, up to now, Russian has remained dominant in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan at the post-secondary-school level, while in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Borodina says, while in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it has been losing that status with the result that the higher educational institutions there have suffered a loss of quality and of attractiveness for students. 

            Only 20 percent of school graduates go on to higher schools in Tajikistan, and only nine percent do so in Uzbekistan, according to the World Bank, but in Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, these figures are 40 and 49 percent respectively.

            But “even the countries most open for Russian information influence – Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – provide clear cases of the marginalization of Russian,” the linguistics expert says. There, according to local experts, instructors using Russian no longer know it well enough to do a good job.

            The results are what one would expect and as Italian specialist Gabrizio Vielmini predicted a decade ago, Borodina continues. “With the loss of Russian is directly connected the degradation of Central Asian societies, the spread of primitive Islamism, and the drift of Central Asia in a direction opposed to any European principles.”

            To counter these problems, the Russian scholar says, the countries of Central Asia have sought to promote a new lingua franca other than Russian from among other world languages, choices that reflect “not simply linguistic sympathies but geopolitical preferences” – and a choice increasingly to look other than at Russia.

            At present, Borodina observes, “if Tajikistan in cultural and linguistic terms has turned its face to Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have turned half way away … and Uzbekistan has turned its back,” choosing English rather than Russian as its new lingua franca.

            The position of Russian continues largely by inertia, she says, while those of English, Chinese and Turkish are being pushed hard by their chief bearers abroad.  Russian has real advantages that these countries are finding it hard to dislodge, but despite much talk, Russia isn’t doing what it could for its language and the cultural world that language cements in place.

            Perhaps its most important strength, Borodina continues, is the utility of Russian for Central Asians who want to work in Russia as gastarbeiters. Those who know the language find their prospects better, with the Kyrgyz who have the best Russia at present doing far better and earning more than other nationalities with fewer linguistic skills.

                The influx of Central Asian migrants to Russia thus is an important geopolitical resource, and Moscow should do more to advertise that fact as a means of retaining or recovering the place of Russian in the countries of Central Asia, she concludes.

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