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.