Language policy in Central Asia

The lan­guage poli­cies of the Cen­tral Asian republics since their inde­pen­dence have need­ed to respond to lin­guis­tic com­plex­i­ties that emerged dur­ing the peri­od of coloni­sa­tion by Rus­sia. These issues include the devel­op­ment of local lan­guages as lan­guages of admin­is­tra­tion and edu­ca­tion, the eth­no­lin­guis­tic pro­file of the region, the impact of the Russ­ian lan­guage on local lan­guage ecolo­gies, and the impact of Eng­lish as a lan­guage of globalisation.

At the time of their coloni­sa­tion by Rus­sia in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies, Cen­tral Asia was pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mus­lim in reli­gion and lin­guis­ti­cal­ly Tur­kic, with the excep­tion of Per­sian-speak­ing Tajik­istan. These lan­guages were writ­ten in the Ara­bic script, where they were writ­ten at all, and edu­ca­tion was pro­vid­ed by Islam­ic schools, which taught Ara­bic, main­ly for the pur­pos­es for Qu’ranic recita­tion. Fol­low­ing the Russ­ian annex­a­tion, apart from immi­gra­tion of Russ­ian speak­ers into the region, there was lim­it­ed inter­ven­tion into the local lan­guage ecolo­gies until 1864 when the Tsarist gov­ern­ment enact­ed an edu­ca­tion statute requir­ing all teach­ing to be con­duct­ed in Russ­ian. How­ev­er, access to such edu­ca­tion was lim­it­ed andlit­er­a­cy rates in Russ­ian were around 1% by the time of the 1917 Revolution.

Chil­dren wear­ing tra­di­tion­al clothes in Cen­tral Asia, pos­si­bly in Kaza­khstan Source — Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia Cen­ter for Russ­ian, East Euro­pean, and Eurasian Studies

Fol­low­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion, the Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment even­tu­al­ly estab­lished five republics in Cen­tral Asia based a pol­i­cy of estab­lish­ing nation­al eth­no­lin­guis­tic groups. Although each repub­lic was assigned to a tit­u­lar nation­al­i­ty, this masked a much more com­plex dis­tri­b­u­tion of eth­nic groups in the region. While the tit­u­lar nation­al­i­ty was the major­i­ty in each repub­lic, there were siz­able minori­ties of oth­er eth­nic groups in each repub­lic. More­over, each tit­u­lar eth­nic group was spread over more than one republic.

In the new republics, tit­u­lar lan­guages were giv­en a role as offi­cial lan­guages and lan­guages of edu­ca­tion along­side Russ­ian. As the local lan­guages had not been used for such func­tions under the Empire, and lit­er­a­cy lev­els were low, ear­ly lan­guage pol­i­cy focused on the devel­op­ment of lit­er­a­cy and this went along with devel­op­ment of writ­ing sys­tems for the lan­guages. Script devel­op­ment under­went changes dur­ing the Sovi­et peri­od, begin­ning with pro­pos­als to devel­op writ­ing in Ara­bic script, fol­lowed by a phase of devel­op­ment of Latin scripts, and final­ly the entrench­ment of the Cyril­lic script. These changes were main­ly dri­ven by polit­i­cal and iden­ti­ty relat­ed con­sid­er­a­tions; Ara­bic being asso­ci­at­ed with Islam­ic reli­gious iden­ti­ty and with his­tor­i­cal lit­er­ate prac­tice, Latin script link­ing to pan-Tur­kic iden­ti­ty, espe­cial­ly after the adop­tion of the Latin script by the Turk­ish repub­lic in the 1920s, and Cyril­lic being asso­ci­at­ed with a social­ist and Sovi­et iden­ti­ty and sep­a­ra­tion from eth­nic and lin­guis­tic groups out­side the Sovi­et Union. These fre­quent changes had neg­a­tive con­se­quences for lit­er­a­cy devel­op­ment as lit­er­ate peo­ple were required to relearn lit­er­a­cy skills with each change.

After the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union, the republics declared inde­pen­dence in 1991. They con­tin­ued their inher­it­ed eth­no-nation­al­ist iden­ti­ties and adopt­ed poli­cies to pro­mote the sta­tus of the tit­u­lar eth­nic group and its lan­guage as a mark­er of nation­al iden­ti­ty. In the Sovi­et peri­od, the tit­u­lar lan­guages of the republics were co-offi­cial along­side Russ­ian, although usu­al­ly­with an infe­ri­or sta­tus. Just pri­or to inde­pen­dence, all republics sought to change this bal­ance and declared the tit­u­lar lan­guage to be the offi­cial lan­guage, with Russ­ian giv­en sec­ondary sta­tus as an intereth­nic lin­gua fran­ca. Sim­i­lar poli­cies con­tin­ued after inde­pen­dence, although in Kaza­khstan both lan­guages were givenequal sta­tus, while Turk­menistan and Uzbek­istan adopt­ed mono­lin­gual poli­cies with no for­mal role for Russ­ian. In all republics how­ev­er, Russ­ian was well entrenched with large Russ­ian speak­ing minori­ties in all coun­tries and Russ­ian con­tin­ued to play an impor­tant role on their soci­olin­guis­tic profile.

Script reform has been an issue in all coun­triesand is basi­cal­ly a polit­i­cal issue relat­ed to estab­lish­ing a new iden­ti­ty and reject­ing the impo­si­tions of the Sovi­et peri­od. In Uzbek­istan and Tajik­istan, the Ara­bic script was con­sid­ered but was not adopt­ed, Tajik­istan has con­tin­ued­to use Cyril­lic, and Uzbek­istan is mov­ing to Latin script. Script reform has not yet been ful­ly imple­ment­ed, with the adop­tion of Latin script being most com­plete in Turkmenistan.

In edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy, there has been a con­cern in lan­guage edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy to strength­en the posi­tion of the tit­u­lar lan­guages. The­yare the nor­mal medi­um of instruc­tion in schools, although the pol­i­cy on medi­um of instruc­tion varies across the coun­tries, with Russ­ian and some eth­nic lan­guages being recog­nisedin most republics. Uzbek­istan and Tajik­istan have adopt­ed high­ly mul­ti­lin­gual approach­es. Uzbek­istan recog­nis­es a right to use any eth­nic lan­guage in education,althoughcurrently only Kaza­kh, Kyr­gyz, Russ­ian, Tajik and Turk­men have been approved as medi­ums of instruc­tion, with Karakalpak being used in the autonomous Karakalpak­stan­Re­pub­lic. Tajik­istan also allows eth­nic lan­guages to be used in school­ing but guar­an­tees only the use of Tajik, Russ­ian and Uzbek, with Kyr­gyz and Turk­men per­mit­ted in areas with large num­bers of speak­ers. Kaza­khstan has both Kaza­kh and Russ­ian medi­um schools. Only in Turk­menistan is the tit­u­lar lan­guage the sole medi­um of instruc­tion in gov­ern­ment schools and oth­er lan­guages are explic­it­ly exclud­ed. All poli­cies, except for in Turkmenistan’s, have thus respond­ed to some degree to the inter­nal eth­no­lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty of the coun­tries. Learn­ing the tit­u­lar lan­guage is, how­ev­er, required regard­less of the medi­um of instruc­tion in schools as a sub­ject for all stu­dents. Edu­ca­tion poli­cies also require the learn­ing of addi­tion­al lan­guages beyond the nation­al lan­guage and moth­er tongues; Russ­ian is required from pri­ma­ry school lev­el, except in Turk­menistan where pol­i­cy regard­ing Russ­ian has been ambigu­ous, andEng­lish is also a required sub­ject in all coun­tries begin­ning in pri­ma­ry school. This means that most sys­tems have a trilin­gual pol­i­cy with the tit­u­lar lan­guage, Russ­ian and English. 

Further reading

Lid­di­coat, A. J. (2019). Lan­guage-in-edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy in the Cen­tral Asian republics of Kyr­gyzs­tan, Tajik­istan, Turk­menistan, and Uzbek­istan. In A. Kirk­patrick & A. J. Lid­di­coat (Eds.), The Rout­ledge inter­na­tion­al hand­book of lan­guage edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy in Asia (pp. 452–470). New York: Routledge.

Regan, T. (2019). Lan­guage plan­ning and lan­guage pol­i­cy in Kaza­khstan. In A. Kirk­patrick & A. J. Lid­di­coat (Eds.), The Rout­ledge inter­na­tion­al hand­book of lan­guage edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy in Asia (pp. 442–451). New York: Routledge.

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