Archive for March, 2008

Kazakh Proverbs: Orality and Literacy (Part II)

Yesterday I needed more information from an American friend of mine about Kazakh proverbs.  He is an expert on this subject after having lived in Kazakhstan for 12 years and knowing the Kazakh language.  Apparently there is a popular TV show in Kazakhstan where there are 3-4 contestants in their later teens who compete on national TV concerning their knowledge of Kazakh proverbs.  With a crowd of about 60-70 in the audience, they also participate when the contestants are stumped over a question.  Someone in the audience may know the answer and then they award the points to their favorite contestant.  I asked if it was something like “American Idol” or “So You Think You can Dance?” with America’s “cult following.”  No, it is much more complex than that since Kazakh grade school children are expected to memorize Kazakh proverbs and which they are tested on.

Supposedly there are known Proverbs Masters and they specialize in knowing Kazakh proverbs that have been handed down orally for generations.  A book titled “1001 Proverbs” is meant for young Kazakh teens to grasp and know.  The Kazakhs claim that you can only truly understand their proverbs if you know the Kazakh language in depth.  Of course, that is true for any culture which has their own set of proverbs, some proverbs just do not adequately translate into English without knowing the cultural context.

The other night on the stage of the Kazakh language competition were about 15 teenagers honored for their knowledge of Kazakh proverbs and cultural traditions.  They were given the title “Aminat” which means “entrusted with something that is precious.”  They have the high responsibility of carrying on the rich traditions of Kazakh proverbs and traditions which is a “national treasure” and central to the Kazakh culture.

My friend also told me about a book by Walter Ong that is a classic dealing with oral traditions and the written text, titled Orality and Literacy. I had run across this book before when I had gathered my ESL students’ proverbs from many other countries while teaching in the Washington D.C. area.  I had particularly noticed something interesting about my ESL students who came from all over the world when they complied with my little assignment of writing out three proverbs from their culture with an English explanation.  Those who were the closest to their culture (i.e. had the worst English skills in terms of speaking or writing) had some of the BEST proverbs.  However, those who were more fluent in English had moved away from their cultural mores and were embracing the idioms and sayings known to English speakers.  They had become more “literate” in English while moving away from their own oral traditions.

Tomorrow I will write not only about oral traditions and literacy but also about “post-literacy.”  As ESL/EFL teachers nowadays, we are dealing with post-literacy while trying to stay the course with keeping up with computer literacy. Computer literacy is a whole ‘nother subject to write on later!!!

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Dueling in Kazakh Proverbs (Part I)

8 speakersdueling proverbsHow does one fit a western styled form of higher education into a land once very proud of their nomadic traditions? The oral tradition continues to reign supreme in the land of Kazakhstan.  The other night at the Kazakh contest I attended, I was struck with the last part of the competition where eight contestants, who were non-native speakers of Kazakh, had to best each other in knowing many Kazakh proverbs and sayings and not repeat what the others had earlier recited.  Therefore, they had to sound off in rapid succession words in Kazakh and pass off the microphone to the next contestant.  If there was a three second pause, the speaker was disqualified.  Two girls after about 4-5 rounds were eliminated which left six remaining who were paired off with their own mikes.  They looked like they were faced off in a gun duel as they continued to fire away their proverbs and sayings in Kazakh, never repeating a proverb that had already been spoken.

  I did not understand a word but hearing the audience appreciation for certain ones, I could tell which contestants felt confident in knowing their Kazakh proverbs.  The one unfortunate girl who was tone deaf with her singing rendition for the song and dance part of the competition continued to nail her proverbs with confident fluency to the great satisfaction of the audience. As it turned out, this Russian looking girl either got first or second place in the whole competition, while she dominated Nicolay, the Ukrainian, who ultimately won the grand champion prize. (see the photo of their “duel”) Another girl got either first or second prize with her very authentic Kazakh dance.  This event set me to thinking about how are we able to have a university whose professors pride themselves in writing and publishing in western publications of journals or books and yet assimilate to the Kazakh culture that prides itself in their ancient oral traditions?  Something has to give.  My eyes have been opened to several inconsistencies of the university where administrators turn a blind eye to plagiarism because they are perpetrators themselves of stealing intellectual property.  That’s a whole ‘nother topic for a later blog.  Let’s see, how does the rest of the world view Kazakhstan? 

First of all, many westerners don’t know where it is located since it is situated at “the ends of the earth” next to the “Middle Kingdom” or China.  China has a tradition of upholding the writing traditions and hearkening back to Confucian sayings, what Confucius wrote down for the Chinese moral codes.  Kazakhstan has their own moral codes preserved in the spoken and memorized proverbs which have been handed down orally generation after generation.  However, just because modern day China believes in the written word doesn’t mean they are NOT guilty of plagiarism.  They are big time criminals of not attributing to the original source in English when it comes to fitting in to the western word.  I believe that is because of the ills of communism which plagued the former Soviet Union and continues to do so.  (to be continued in tomorrow’s blog)

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Amazingly Authentic, Almost April in Almaty!!!

red ribbon cuttingElaineKen w prez and wifefamily picnicfamily in Hall8 contestants

 Alliteration Abounds in Almaty with my blogging about the end of a superb March day that would only happen in April if in Minnesota.  Many events came together yesterday to make it a very authentically Central Asian day.  First, I met the MBA students I will work with for the next two months, next I met up with my husband for lunch outside before I went grocery shopping for a picnic later with an American family of six.  Then, we had a going-away party at the Language Center for Elaine, then the new building dedication where I finally met the president of our university.  My friends and I had a picnic on the ground before we entered the Great Hall to witness the Kazakh Contest of eight non-native speakers of Kazakh compete in their introducing themselves, singing or dancing and besting each other in reciting proverbs or sayings. 

Amazingly a Ukrainian beat out the other seven contestants and had the best audience appeal, as well.  Maybe it is not so amazing that Nicolay, a good looking young man with Ukrainian roots won.  He would understand about nationalism and the importance of learning the Kazakh language in Kazakhstan because Ukraine is struggling with some of the same issues.

As I was walking home from the evening contest, a tragedy could have happened before my very eyes.  I saw presumably a father who held a soccer ball yelling at two little boys who were quickly running away from him near a highly trafficked street.  It seemed he was telling them to stop but I wasn’t sure.  I could have body blocked the two 5 or 6 year old boys but I didn’t know the context of why they weren’t paying attention to the shouting man.  Maybe he wasn’t their father.  What I also couldn’t understand was why he wasn’t running after them to the busy street. 

Then I saw the reason, there was a little toddler girl walking about 10 meters behind him.  The young father didn’t want to carry her AND the ball while trying to catch up to his fleet footed sons.  I stayed with the little girl as she was picking up cigarette butts to put them in her mouth.  I did what any mother would do, I took them out of her mouth and exclaimed “Bad” in Russian.  I tried to engage her in conversation with my abysmal grasp of her language and asked to hold her hand.  She resisted which I thought a good thing since I was a stranger after all.  Maybe her mother tongue was Kazakh, in any case, I was acting as her “mother protector” while the father-sons chase went on.

Simultaneous to this, I heard car brakes and honks as the little boys had almost managed to cross the busy street of four lanes unhindered.  The father was still shouting after them as they were going to their car which he had unlocked with his remote.  I’m only guessing because I was intent on keeping my eye on the little girl so SHE wouldn’t be running after her daddy.  Once the boys were safely on the other side, the relieved father came back to where I was standing next to his daughter.  I think he was thanking me in Kazakh while I was apologizing to him in Russian.  He was all smiles for me even though he must have felt shaken that one of the boys could have been hit by an oncoming car.  I’m convinced that once the four family members were all in the confines of their car, that the father would give his two charges a good talking to about road safety.  I can only guess the mother must have been on some night out while he was left with three children to tend to.  Logically the father took the little family to the big soccer field to kick around a ball with them.  Whew! A memorable time of fun ended on happy note afterall. 

It truly was an amazingly authentic, almost April day in Almaty yesterday.

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Strides Forward with Technology: Tribute to Elaine!!!

Yesterday was an amazing day of seeing over 30 English teachers actively engaged with learning how to use research databases at the computer lab.  Elaine and I had worked out a handout, with a step-by-step plan, which was excruciating to do as we anticipated terms or steps that might be confusing to the teachers.  We had not counted on a question like, “How do you scroll down?” but there were a few of those.  Elaine knows what it is like to be computer phobic so we were the right combination of a team to get our message across.  Our message: “The English teachers MUST learn how to successfully use research databases before the students do, otherwise the students will zoom past and catch on and leave their teachers behind.” 

How exciting to see the teachers e-mail articles to themselves such as the one on their instructions titled “New Linguistic Order” by Fishman (from their Source textbook, Unit 7) or to see them type in “English as a Foreign Language.” Also, depending on the specific databases that were utilized, such as “MasterFile Premier” or “Academic Search Premier” they would get varying results with getting 17 articles with the former or 101 with the latter added. 

Also, we had them experiment with typing in the first search field “Language” and the second keyword of whatever language they were interested in, such as “Russian” (90 articles) or Kazakh and Uzbek (only 3 each).  Our French instructor put in “French” and I’m not sure how many articles popped up for him.  With only 22 computers and over 30 teachers in the room, some had to double up with two teachers to one computer terminal.  For me to move up and down the congested rows with many chairs and engaged teachers was all part of the fun.  ALL of them wanted to learn and they were not embarrassed to ask for help.  We were shorthanded with those who could help those who had questions concerning each quirky little step to take next.  

Hopefully the English teachers will practice this skill on their own and do the EBSCOhost at home (if they have a computer connection there) and ProQuest and J-Stor at work.  Our university certainly has a lot of perks and if the English teachers become confident enough in doing this keyword searching of the electronic journals, they too should have their own writing classes go to the computer lab to encourage their students to use the research databases. I believe a good time was had by all.  At the end of the one hour session, our Director gave a beautiful Kazakh present to Elaine for all her hard work these past two months.  She will be missed by many teachers since she is one spunky, little lady who has worked hard as a teacher/learner for the last 47 years.  We can make an impact wherever we are placed if we are authentic and honest about our strengths and limitations.  Elaine has proven that pretension with a title, such as her Ph.D., does not help the institution but instead Elaine’s willingness to serve and be humble about what she doesn’t know goes very far.  Thank you Dr. Elaine!!!  Tears are being shed as I write this tribute to her.

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LONG way to go with modern technology!!!

Last night we had an American guest over who knows much about Kazakhstan, maybe too much.  She was having one of those “bad days” where she was wondering about her sanity of even living here in this country anymore after nine years.  Her Russian is very good and she can navigate quite easily among the people she works with as a teacher trainer in Kazakhstan.  I want to visit her in May to see what life is like outside of Almaty.  She assures me that it is very different but she is enjoying it in southern Central Asia. After a dinner of chicken fajitas, fruit salad and a cabbage salad, we went to my laptop where I showed her what we will be doing today with the English teachers in the computer lab at the library.  I showed her a Powerpoint I had of the powerful tools of EBSCOhost, JStor, and ProQuest among many others.  These electronic research databases have been paid for by our university and housed at our state-of-the-art library.  It would be even better if our library could access “Emerald” which is what I’m also familiar with while teaching in Kyiv, but these three will do for now.  Emerald is more expensive to subscribe to.

 I explained to Helen that Elaine, my American teaching colleague, insists that we take each step of the keyword search down to the very last detail. (Grueling work to get each step just right so as not to confuse) Since I’ve used e-journals so much with my American and Ukrainian students the last six years, I don’t even understand what could be the most confounding thing if you are computer phobic.  Elaine, who is in her 70s, knows what can be discouraging if you don’t hit the right “submit” or “continue” key and if you don’t scroll down or up to see other information that needs to be dealt with on the computer screen. I told Helen how Elaine and I are preparing for this “Teacher/Researcher” workshop today in the library’s computer lab and that it is both exciting and frustrating simultaneously.  Exciting because I showed Helen how powerful a tool EBSCOhost is by accessing it on my home computer.  She earned her masters degree from the U.S. before she lived in Kazakhstan.  She knows, as I do when I received my MA degree in 1990, how tedious it used to be to look up journal articles in the stacks of libraries and then go to the copy machine to photocopy whatever article you wanted for your research, page by page.  Since the “Information Explosion” happened on most all American campuses about eight years ago, the days of stacks and photocopiers are a thing of the twentieth century.  Helen’s eyes nearly popped out when she saw the articles that fit with her research interests (after we did some very basic keyword searches) were directly mailed to her e-mail account in pdf format.  Voila!!!

 Today could be very frustrating if the English teachers don’t show up at the library to fill the 22 chairs in front of the computer terminals or they don’t understand the importance of learning these powerful tools in the library for the benefit of their students.  Next week, I will be giving two more “Teacher/Researcher” workshops on how to take a problem-solution essay step by step using the journal articles they have accessed and then developing a thesis statement and outline for their 1,000 word essay.  If the teachers don’t want to write or don’t know how to write an essay, how can they teach writing to their students?Here’s the frustrating part, I told Helen about my TOEFL iBT class where I teach reading and writing skills every Tuesday evening to prepare them for the TOEFL exam.  My Kazakh students responses revealed something shocking about the mentality towards writing in this country.  I had given the usual timed writing of 30 minutes to my 8 students who hope to study abroad in a university setting.  They have paid LOTS of money for this 8 week course.  The question was:  It can be difficult to learn a new language.  What do you think are the most difficult aspects of learning a new language?  Give reasons and examples to support your response.  How did they respond giving about 3-4 points for each of their outlines?  Three or four said that vocabulary was difficult, the same number predictably wrote grammar was hard to learn, another three said speaking.  NOT ONE WROTE that writing was the most difficult aspect of learning a new language.  However, one person did write that “righting” was not easy to master.  I guess spelling should have been mentioned. 8)

 I commiserated with Helen about how the importance of writing is lost on this Kazakh culture but it is true in the U.S. as well.  Not many young people are reading books anymore, just playing computer games or watching movies hours on end.  What are we to do about the brain drain concerning true scholarship?  For now, I have to prepare the Kazakh teachers to instill in their students a desire to be curious and look things up on the computer via the peer-reviewed journal articles and NOT use Wiki-pedia (I hate that site) or Google or anything else that is on the Internet.  Too many “academic” research papers are being handed in that are taken directly from the Internet without showing sources, without proper attribution or citation.

Let’s hope we can all make it through the next several weeks.  I would feel most gratified if the teachers have the same reaction that Helen did last night when she saw how easy it is to access this information from scholarly journals.  The next bit is to read the articles, digest and then write in the prescribed way to exhibit an intelligent response to what others are saying on the same subject.  Oh, there’s a LONG ways to go with modern technology!!!

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Backside of Kazakhstan

red cable carKazakh coatThese photos from Sunday’s excursion up to Koke Tobe will be the last for a while.  What a wonderful time of sun and relaxation before this heavy duty week back to work.  Even much more pressures are in store for all of us next week.  I’ll get into that later.  For now, you are looking at the backside of Kazakhstan.  Admittedly yesterday’s blog photos were not so flattering.  Next time I want to walk up to Koke Tobe like I used to do 15 years ago and then I will see some really ostentatious mansions that weren’t there that long ago.  Neither were all the tall skyscrapers that we saw from our vantage point looking west. Times are a’changing for Kazakhstan, hopefully they won’t look so backwards from the rest of the world’s perspective in the years to come.  The Kazakhs need to learn how to write their OWN stories (in English and Kazakh) but that is another discussion for a future blog.

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Nothing Homogenous about Almaty’s yards

carstrucks and motorcycleside of hillweeping willowtrucks and dogfamily photo shootgaragesbackyardsalleyway

Going to the top of Koke Tobe (Blue Hill) on a cable car ride Sunday gave us a birdseye view of what Almaty backyards look like before the trees leaf out and cover up all the “interesting” stuff.  In these nine photos, can you find the weeping willow tree, the dog and the motorcylist, the garages, the family photo shoot, the lot full of damaged cars, the laundry drying on the line, garden plots?  Everyday routines played out in Almaty backyards on a beautiful spring day, it was something to behold.

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Happy Easter and Koke Tobe Cable Car

afternoon teapark benchBeatlesmtn backdropin cable carbeginning of Koke Tobe

Yesterday was an absolutely perfect day for our Easter celebration at church but better yet after a cable car ride to the top of (Koke Tobe) Blue Hill mountain.  For six months I have wanted to compare what I remembered it from 15 years ago when I was a TEFL Peace Corps trainer.  Often we, as trainers, would leave our training site to walk the serpentine, dusty road to get to the top.  The cable car was not functioning back then and everything was in very sad disrepair.  However, yesterday it was a delight to see the young girls dancing, the children’s playground, the zoo and many happy people milling about. 

The Narooz festive air crackled with different kinds of folk music along with contemporary western music.  Funny to see the Beatles statues which Ken sat next to all the while claiming he had taught them everything they knew.  I had heard at the Narooz party I attended the other day that there was a Kazakh group who patterned their singing and songs after the Beatles, consequently they were outlawed in the Soviet Union.  That, of course, only increased their popularity and so they were a simultaneous phenomenon in Kazakhstan while the Beatles were making headlines internationally.  I need to find out more about this group who popularized Kazakh music set to the beat of the Beatles.  Help me out, native speakers of Kazakh, please.

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“Naroozing” at Nazym’s place

woman on horse billboardNarooz billboardNarooz and museumsamavorNazym and Elainemy boss and me

Narooz, is a Persian holiday, as I understand it and not strictly Muslim but it has that element to it too.  It is the LAST of the New Year’s celebrations starting with our western one on January 1 and then there is the Chinese new year in the middle and all the other celebrations which bring in the new year according to all the different cultural traditions.  Let’s just say Narooz is as eclectic as Kazakhstan is, from the toasting that had a certain protocol of each guest giving a short speech with well wishing. First we had sampled the camel’s milk and mare’s milk (koomis) then the singing of a Kazakh song to a funny joke told by Zaira, to the very end gift giving by the hostess Nazym.  We were hosted by Nazym and her husband who had newly remonted (remodeled) their spacious flat.  Nazym’s sister-in-law had helped with the preparation of the many dishes, Greek salad, soup with potato and egg, deep fat fried bread, horse meat and finally monti (lamb’s meat in a dumpling).  Vegetarians would have had a tough time at this lavishly spread out table. 

We ended with sweets that were homemade and delicious and of course the obligatory tea from the samavor at the end of the table by the host and hostess.  Going out into the street there were happy celebrants walking everywhere with the festive mood in high gear by the sound of the music.  A good time was had by all except my dear Ken who was slaving away in his office so that he might celebrate our Easter celebration in good form today.  Happy Narooz and Happy Easter!!!

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Overlap of Holidays and Disappointed Friend

I was very sorry that I disappointed an Iranian friend of mine yesterday.  I had stopped by A.Z.’s optical shop on Wednesday however she was not there to confirm what we had discussed earlier, a lunch at her home at noon on Friday.  She wanted Ken and me to join her to celebrate the Persian holiday of Narooz and I’m sure she created a very lavish spread.  Since A.Z was sick and I hadn’t heard any more about the specifics of how to find her place, I thought the lunch date was off.  Unfortunately, I should have tried harder to locate her phone number or at least e-mailed her to see about it but my excuse was that I didn’t have her new, temporary phone number on my list.  (No doubt her phone number is floating around my desk on some little scrap of paper.)  

Meanwhile, A.Z. was having the same trouble trying to locate me by phone since I was at work.  We had scheduled for noon on Friday but it was the phone call on my cell phone an hour later that made me realize I had really disappointed my friend.  Her English isn’t that good but she certainly knew how to convey her sadness in our phone conversation.  I explained that I could not extract myself from all the work on my desk to go to her place at 1:00, it was too late.  If I had figured out how to get to her place I would have to leave again for another social engagement that started at my American friend’s place at 4:00 p.m.

Ken and I had been looking forward to participating in a Seder meal across town.  Once we joined up, we were stuck in traffic for over a half hour but it sure beat the committee meeting that Ken was supposed to be at on yesterday’s beautiful spring day.  Today is a beauty of a day and I’m scheduled yet again to join some fellow teachers at a Kazakh woman’s place for another big meal celebrating Narooz.  Tomorrow is our Easter Sunday so this has been one weekend filled with holidays overlapping each other.  Fortunately we have Monday off, not for our Easter but because Narooz is such a HUGE holiday in Kazakhstan.

I will have to try to make it up to my friend A.Z. somehow before she leaves for Canada in less than a month.  I also have to get better organized on putting people’s phone numbers on my permanent list no matter how temporary they might be.  Essentially we are all so very transitory on this planet and we need to treat each other with kindness especially when cultures and holidays overlap.

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