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Why Kyrgyz is difficult to learn

2012 March 8
by learnkyrgyz
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What's standing between you and fluency in a new language?

A good friend an an amazing blogger, Bektour of, published an insightful post today on his struggles with the Kyrgyz language.

I am sure many readers will be able to relate to at least some of the difficulties described. While the original post is in Russian, you will find excerpts from it in English below.

Bektour writes:

I decided to learn Kyrgyz. For the first time in my life I realised, with such urgency and clarity, that I want to start speaking Kyrgyz. Also, to understand it, to write in it, and so on.

I still insist that no one should be obliged to learn Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, but for me, specifically, at this point of my life, this is something I want.

He goes on to describe his reasons for learning the language. Learning Kyrgyz would make his life easier, Bektour reasons. His main motivation, however, is to improve the sharing of information in Kyrgyz—Bektour is a vocal advocate of translating Internet resources, such as the Google interface, into the language that is widely spoken in Kyrgyzstan but enjoys very limited presence online.

The biggest difficulty in acquiring the language, Bektour discovered, was the means of acquisition. Granted, Bektour is semi-permanently based in Bishkek (he’s a frequent traveller), which should ensure unimpeded access to all kinds of Kyrgyz language learning resources: books, TV and radio programmes, and, most importantly, native speakers.

Things aren’t so easy, however. Here’s what he discovered:

Alas, the current situation is such that the Kyrgyz language can be freely and easily acquired only by one group of people—those who were born and raised in Kyrgyz-speaking families.

For many language learners, an “immersion experience”, i.e. spending time in an environment where the language is spoken, is the ultimate aspiration (and frequently the ultimate excuse for failing to master the language). But being born into a family of native speakers of your target language as a precondition for language learning, that’s going a bit too far, isn’t it?

Bektour explains:

The issue is not the quality (or lack thereof) of Kyrgyz language instruction in schools. And neither is the abundance or the dearth of literature published in Kyrgyz. All these are secondary factors.

The issue is that if you can be clearly identified as a native resident of Kyrgyzstan—and you speak Kyrgyz with an accent—then you and your attempts to start speaking Kyrgyz are met with ridicule at best—and with aggression at worst.

He gives plentiful examples, from his own experience growing up, how damaging mockery of one’s attempts to master a new language can be to one’s self-esteem—and to one’s persistence in learning the language. The following parallel is a particularly good illustration of this:

Now imagine you’re learning English, for example. You go to London for language practice. You start trying to speak English, and everyone howls with laughter when you do. Are you going to learn it? Oh no, I really doubt that.

Those of us who are “foreigners” (meaning, we can’t be easily identified as people born in Kyrgyzstan) are much better off. In fact, we are likely to be encouraged and praised by the locals for our attempts, however measly, to speak Kyrgyz. On the other hand,

If you are an ethnic Kyrgyz who doesn’t speak Kyrgyz and you decide to go to a Kyrgyz-speaking village for complete language immersion, then people are going to laugh at you—at best. And at worst, you’ll get a good whack on the head.

Bektour’s post raises many important issues pertaining to race, ethnicity, and the post-Soviet language debate. But what are the implications for language learners who do not hail from Kyrgyzstan and want to learn the language?

The key takeaway point would be that non-Russian-speakers who are learning Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan are at a definite advantage. They can easily enlist the support of native Kyrgyz speakers, and this can be invaluable in language learning.

Those of us who are not clearly identifiable as “foreigners” in Kyrgyzstan (individuals from other former Soviet countries, who can easily pass for Kyrgyzstan-born Russian speakers) have a bigger challenge of being discouraged from learning the language both by Kyrgyz and non-Kyrgyz speakers. For one, when I was in Kyrgyzstan, I was frequently asked “why the hell” was I attempting to learn the language.

This slight disadvantage, however, comes nowhere near the enormous obstacles faced by those ethic Kyrgyz individuals who are attempting to master the language as adults. For Bektour, the way forward is clear:

One day I will learn to speak Kyrgyz anyway, because it’s not my habit to give up on my goals.

I guess the first thing I’ll have to learn is the phrases to shut up all the idiots who’re going to laugh at my accent.

That’s my kind of approach!

What about you? What challenges have you encountered while learning Kyrgyz—or another foreign language? Please share them in the comments.

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Photo by Giuseppe Bognanni

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