Archive for February 14, 2011

What I Learn from my Kazakh Students (Part II)

Instead of writing about westerner’s post-modern thinking I’ll continue on the theme I started the other day about professions in Kazakhstan. Today we covered two more professions that were important to this student who came into my office to practice speaking his English.  He has a unique position here at the university and I really appreciated his insights from an “insider” Kazakh point of view.

First of all, he believes that the most popular profession in Kazakhstan is construction work. I think all residents in Astana and most in Almaty would have to agree, there continues to be buildings going up everywhere.  “Building Cranes” are the national bird in Kazakhstan but sadly the same cannot be said in the desperate villages.  Many of the workers come from Russia or rural Kazakhstan where the Turkish companies employ labor for  cheap.  The Turks are the ones who get the contracts to get things built and quickly.  In some cases, too quickly.

Apparently there are not enough engineers to help explain how some things should be built to fit the climate and land of Astana.  For instance, there are very few underground parking lots for cars simply because it is too expensive to create, the water table is too high in Astana.  Some of these companies might also build a wall in a building where the pipes are fitted but hidden behind those walls one cannot see that these pipes are not connected to anything, going nowhere.

Sewage issues abound if not done according to code.  Mistakes due to lack of expertise by the builders or lack of engineers continue to abound.  That is a reality here and sometimes buildings start cracking even before they are a year old.  I’ve been told earlier of one apartment complex across the river in the old part of Astana that is structurally unsound and has had to be abandoned.

The second occupation we talked on was about education.  What chances do people from the villages in Kazakhstan have if they are not given proper education to excel in something?  The vicious circle perpetuates itself because education in the village, which used to be highly prized during the Soviet Union, is no longer considered prestigious.  Teachers used to have incentives to stay in the villages to teach, they were given preferential treatment during the Soviet period, but now that is no longer true.  It’s very difficult for a Kazakh pedagogically trained teacher to return to the rural areas.  Especially true if they have been trained with the latest of technology.  But if there is no Internet and no connection to the outside world exists in the villages, there is a MAJOR disconnect.  Times have changed from the former Soviet days.

This person who came to my English lesson today didn’t realize that I was the one doing the learning. I learned what he knows is a sad reality where his middle-aged parents live in Kazakhstan.  His mother is a doctor for village clinics in her area, his father is an electrician.  Their neighbors and most of the village are pensioners and eke out a living in what they term “Natural life.”  They may breed cattle, sheep and horses to sell as livestock and have some gardens to tend.  But their lives are like ancient times with no running water and a few have a pump to get their water into their homes.

As a teacher of English, this is where it got very interesting to me when my student told me his grandmother used to know Kazakh in the Latin alphabet.  He told me that it is very difficult on his current keyboard on the computer to switch over to the Cyrillic and then to add 10 more letters from the numbers in the top row with the letters that are needed in Kazakh.  All this done with the shift key for upper case.

Put another way, the English language has 26 letters, the Russian Cyrillic has about 33 letters and the Kazakh has 42 letters.  He showed me on a keyboard I have with both Latin letters and Russian letters how he and others have to hunt and peck and shift with caps on and off in order to write a document in Kazakh. It’s very cumbersome.

He claimed that Turkey and Turkmenistan use the Latin letters, then why can’t the Kazakh teachers who are currently teaching Kazakh do the same?  They are forced to switch back and forth with shift keys to write with 42 letters making the learning of writing in the Kazakh language tedious or clearly very tiresome.  No wonder the Kazakh teachers don’t use modern technology when they teach in their Kazakh lessons, it is too difficult.

Why, oh why, when the Kazakh administrators in the Ministry of Education put the three languages (Russian, Kazakh and English) as mandatory languages for Kazakhstan into law several years ago that it would change back to Latin letters?  Apparently some “scientists” said it would be too difficult.

However, what you have now is a HUGE separation between learning of English with technology and learning through the Internet the language of Kazakh. It’s NOT happening.  Further compounding the problem of students learning how to write well in Kazakh.  It is just easier to speak and listen as it is an oral culture.

I was surprised to learn that there are so many synonyms for the same words in Kazakh. Being a very old but rich language they borrow words from the Arab language, from Russian and Turkish.  I asked if there were any Chinese words in the mix, he said “no.” There was much more that my student taught me today about his own culture all the while he was speaking in English without too many mistakes.  He just needs confidence by more practice because he does have the ability and the vocabulary.

Tomorrow we will hopefully listen to an American teacher who has lived in Kazakhstan for about a decade and has mastered speaking the Kazakh language.  Tonight I’ll meet with someone else who has lived here in Kazakhstan for 20 years and knows Kazakh. It is not impossible to learn, even the five words that I know and use liberally pleases or impresses my different taxi drivers and occasional Kazakh person I meet.

(to be continued)

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