My grandmother had an overflowing shelf on her bedside table filled with notebooks. She would stop talking mid-sentence or wake up in the night, taken by a fit of inspiration, and reach for one of the notebooks, rushing to jot down the lines of verse that came to her.
My grandmother was taught Russian in a Russian school, and faced racism and discrimination for speaking Kazakh. She spent her childhood having Kazakh forcibly removed from every fibre of her being. Despite this, she still wrote in Kazakh.
Language is a power of culture, passed down from generation to generation: it is transmitted through the soft words of a child, the sound advice given by a mother, and the words of praise a father reserves only for the most impressive accomplishments. Did my grandmother spend the rest of her life trying to reconnect with the culture that was severed from her? Was writing poetic verse in Kazakh an attempt at communicating the inexplicable feeling of being disconnected from her culture and heritage?
It is not a coincidence that processes of colonization often — if not always — involve the dogmatic and systematic erasure of the colonized peoples’ language, replacing it with the colonizer’s ‘superior’ tongue.
It’s difficult to describe what language is. Ironically, I can’t seem to find the language to do so. Language is, first and foremost, a method of communication. But it is also intrinsically the expression of culture, belief, and identity. How do you reconcile with the knowledge that your language is not your language? That the connection of a common language, that thread which ran through your bloodline for generations, has been whittled down and severed?
As a Russian-speaking Kazakh woman, I face my identity’s duality — or perhaps triality — daily. Even in my home country, I feel like an immigrant — out of place, not quite part of Kazakh culture, ousted from a secret club to which others are privy. Language is a necessary means by which culture is communicated, and when that is taken away, it becomes much harder to reconcile with one’s identity.
Language and colonization
Language does not exist independently from the communities that use it, so it must be integrated into these communities to survive. When you remove someone’s connection to their language, you ultimately sever their connection to their ancestors and heritage.
It is not a coincidence that processes of colonization often — if not always — involve attempts at the dogmatic and systematic erasure of the colonized peoples’ language, replacing it with the colonizer’s ‘superior’ tongue. The ideal colonized ‘other’ becomes assimilated and educated into the culture of the colonizing ‘superior.’ This is how colonial powers often use language as a tool of colonization: if you can control a person’s speech, you can control their perceptions and, therefore, their life.
My father tells me he was discouraged from learning his own language, as he was told knowing Russian would provide him with greater opportunities. This perspective was often perpetuated by older generations who, having undergone the colonial trauma of the Soviet Union, view assimilation as the only way of life, or at the very least, as the only way to a good life.
In light of the Russia-Ukraine war, as it brought forward harboured resentment for Russian colonial occupation, many former Soviet states have started their own internal conversations surrounding the necessity and the legacy of Russian still being spoken in these countries.
On one hand, it serves as a language in common between 14 different nations who underwent certain similar experiences under Soviet rule. In historical context, it makes even more sense why Russian as a lingua franca remains prevalent in legal, educational, and everyday use in Kazakhstan, even afforded an official status as per the Constitution. During collectivization — the process of land being taken away from people colonized by the Soviet Union to facilitate a socialist system of agriculture — many minoritized populations from around the Soviet Union who were deemed ‘non-socialist enemies,’ such as Ukrainians, North Koreans, Uyghurs, and some Russians, were deported to Kazakhstan under political and criminal convictions.
Giving Russian the role of a cross-cultural, universal language for these groups makes it nearly impossible to remove from a country like Kazakhstan, which still boasts many minoritized populations who are deeply loyal to Kazakhstan after having spent generations there, but also rely on Russian as an intermediary language.
On the other hand, I feel like the language’s continued usage seems to perpetuate an idea of the Russian ‘older brother,’ whose role was to educate and lead all the other — ‘lesser’ — nations of the Soviet Union into a better future: the ultimate Soviet goal of a communist utopia. Using Russian directly plays into the superiority ascribed to it by the colonizer. There has existed a long-standing view of Russian as the superior ‘intellectual’ language in former Soviet states, an idea which is often perpetuated in these countries through their policies.
In Kazakhstan, this attitude has historically manifested in the country’s educational system. In 2006, Juldyz Smagulova — a researcher of Kazakh and the current dean of college of humanities and education at KIMEP University in Almaty — discussed the history of Kazakh language education over the latter half of the twentieth century in Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science. She wrote about how, during much of this period, Russian-speaking schools generally received more government funding, were located closer to urban centres, and could present their students with more educational opportunities. This might have led some to send their children to a school with more funding and opportunities where learning Kazakh was less of a priority.
Language is more than communication
I still remember the first time I felt the impact of being a Russian-speaking Kazakh. I was seven years old. I gently touched a metal playground bench, checking to see if it was bearable to sit on or whether I’d receive burns across the back of my legs. The sun shined high above me, and the scorching heat and dust made breathing harder. I sat down, strawberry ice cream cone in hand, and resolutely looked around the empty playground. I was always a lonely child.
The buildings looked down at me mockingly, brick and concrete remnants of a colonized present.
A girl around my age ran up to me. I noticed two others lurking behind her, further down the street. She said something to me, gesturing at my ice cream. I strained to listen but could not make out a word she said, her speech made more difficult to understand by her rolling Rs and harsh Ks.
“What did you say?” I tried asking her in Kazakh, suddenly aware of how foreign my words sounded on my lips.
She looked at me quizzically at first, and then a flash of disgust appeared on her face as she said something incomprehensible to me, spat on the ground, and ran away giggling. I did not understand her final words any better than her first, but her vitriol made tears well up in my eyes. I threw my ice cream down, watching ants swarm toward it.
I got up and ran home, calling the intercom: “Mama!” As I turned around, I noticed the girls were still there, staring at me, their laughs reverberating against the multi-story apartment buildings typical of a post-Soviet world.
The buildings looked down at me mockingly, brick and concrete remnants of a colonized present.
If you speak another language, you’ll likely agree that many words and phrases are impossible to translate accurately between languages. The translation process inherently asks the translator to sacrifice some aspects of the original in favour of the translated. This sacrifice can feel like it’s adding to a legacy of culture lost and forgotten, when every idea is retold in someone else’s language, seen through the eyes of someone only able to conceptualize your culture in translation.
Because we have the ability to understand and enact language, as humans, our thoughts are shaped by it. Some psychological studies find that responses from bilingual and multilingual people to questions and environments change based on the language they use. Losing a language can mean losing a part of yourself that you’ll never know existed. The absence of a shared language with my ancestors creates a disjointedness in which I cannot express my innermost human desires due to a lack of a true connection to the words.
I lived in Kazakhstan for 16 years, yet I personally grew up learning English before my own language. Neither of my parents ever spoke Kazakh, a product of the time they grew up in, and while I learned it in school, I felt like I was not taught it well. To my perception, iIt didn’t seem to me that be my teachers’ priority was to teach me something I did not know, through no fault of my own. Instead, I felt like they shamed me for a perceived fault in my character, in my family’s character, for not knowing our national language.
I now wonder whether that shaming from teachers and peers is achieving the opposite of the collective goal of preserving culture and language. If you wish people to be interested in reconnecting with their culture and part of themselves, is shaming and shunning them in any way encouraging?
I know that I felt resentment for many years — the response to this feeling of rejection from my culture was rejecting my culture back. I started believing I was above it since I was not welcome. I began to buy into my perceived superiority of speaking perfect Russian and English, viewing it as more important knowledge than my own native language and not understanding that sowing division between people is a prerequisite for cultural eradication.
My grandmother published a poetry book, and her poems were often dedicated to loved ones or to the land she grew up on. I always admired her ability to express herself so beautifully in a language which she, by all accounts, should not have known. Her poetry exists as a manifestation of resistance, how intrinsic language is to emotion, and how it can never be fully eradicated. In the end, she reserved her most gentle and soft words to be expressed in her native language.
When I was younger, she would attempt to teach me Kazakh, but it never interested me much. Now, living in Canada, after my grandmother passed away, I feel even more disconnected from myself. I regret not learning our native language from her when I had the chance, and I regret that I might spend the rest of my life speaking in broken sentences and improper verb tenses.
There are some words in Kazakh that I use daily, though. These are mostly terms of endearment, which are what I associate the language with. ‘Zhanym’ is a word commonly heard around my small apartment, always directed at my cat in a baby voice. It can be translated as just meaning “my soul,” but that would be an extreme oversimplification and a disservice to the importance of the word. Some things simply cannot be translated. It is ironic how I feel most comfortable expressing emotion in my native language, even though it is one I barely know — and, well, doesn’t that speak to something? I feel like there’s an intrinsic, subconscious connection with my language, where my real self still remembers an ancestral bond.
I feel that it’s impossible to move through life completely oblivious to your native language — whatever that may mean to you — as it sows the seeds for community and cultural transmission. In Kazakhstan, it is now quite popular to reject speaking Russian, opting to learn the native language instead. Over the past few years, an increasing number of Kazakh adults who are less familiar with the language have started taking language classes, and people are finding joy and community in discovering and nurturing this part of themselves. People are opting to once again embrace the Kazakh language and identity and reconnect with a part of themselves.
I believe any diaspora feeling disconnected from themselves and their culture should attempt to learn their language. The only way to move away from a colonial past and feel at peace with ourselves is to find a connection to the most human part of ourselves: the words that connect us with the generations before us like an invisible string.