American Guest Speaker who knows the Kazakh Language

The hour passed far too quickly with my ten teachers who are my students as they listened to our guest speaker who is an American teacher at our university in Astana.  He knows how to speak in Kazakh and he used it to make strong points. How rare to our listening ears because most expats will choose to learn and speak Russian.

The first issue was raised about how to motivate those students who are not highly motivated to learn and thus have low test scores in English.  Chad suggested that any good thing done by a younger student, the teacher can put a bean in a cup and by the end of the week, whoever has the most beans wins a prize.  Something they can see, it is tangible and they are encouraged to do good work, a kind of competition. This works well for primary grades.

Chad also uses YouTube clips that show real conversation using the same questions over and over again from different people with different accents. Kind of like journalist (I thought of Jay Leno and “man on the street” journalism), catching people with questions, such as “how are you?” or “where are you from?” and then watch and listen to how each person responds to the same question.  There may be 20 or 30 people who respond, but if students get the hang of easy questions and answers, they can move on to the next level. Chad told the teachers they can download these YouTube clips on to a flash drive and later use in the classroom if there is no Internet access.

We talked about how immersion is the best way to learn a language, especially with Study Abroad or Work and Travel programs.  Chad and his wife when they first arrived to Kazakhstan in 1998, they lived with a host family in Semipalatinsk. They didn’t know any Kazakh and their Kazakh family didn’t know much English.  In order to survive, they HAD to learn Kazakh.

Not much chance of immersion here in Kazakhstan where university students outside of the “English only” classroom usually speak Russian to each other.  Chad said these students need to do pair work so they are forced to talk to each other in English, they are accountable to each other.  Chad recommends to his own students to pick a night during the weekend or at lunchtime for an hour where his students find friends and all they do is talk in English, force themselves to only speak in English.  He holds them to account for these activities.

One seasoned teacher for 10 years who hails from the south of Kazakhstan mentioned that she gets her students to be creative in their answers.  She does not want the stock, textbook answers but something that is extraordinary and way off the page.  She’ll tell her students, “Imagine you go to New York, what would you see and experience?  Imagine going into a time machine.” This forces her students to expand their vocabulary and to express themselves in vivid terms.

Children are naturals at being imaginative.  Chad’s son had to remind his dad that it was easy for kids to think creatively, somehow by adulthood we have that beaten out of us.  As teachers, we need to capitalize on this strength with young people. This Kazakh teacher from the south has her students get out of their seats to do pair work.  In fact, she then walks around the classroom to listen in on their conversations to make sure they are speaking in English.  Chad uses another technique where the other person after doing pair work reports to the rest of the class what they heard their partner say in English.

One student admitted that she used to be afraid to talk to a foreigner in Kokshetau, even though she was a teacher of English.  This is because she had memorized so much of the correct formulations of grammar but never had a chance to practically use it with a native speaker. She has no problem to talk to anyone, because she is confident now but before she knew all the rules, she had never put it into application.  People need to practice, students need to apply what they learn in the grammar lessons by speaking to each other in English.

Chad advised, “Better to know a little and use a lot rather than know a lot and use little if you are going to communicate.” [Hey, I do that in spades with my taxi drivers and other people I encounter in Astana, communication is important and not knowing all the correct grammatical constructions. Somehow I get by, meanwhile, my husband just shakes his head in disbelief. Either because he despairs that I’m butchering the language or he knows how to say it correctly but marvels that I get my point across.]

Someone said that if you don’t know Kazakh very well, other Kazakhs are very critical of you as a Kazakh and put you down as a “Shala Kazakh,” meaning “ Kazakh in name only.”  Chad said that Kazakhs should not shame other Kazakhs.  As a foreigner, he got nothing but encouragement for learning Kazakh because it impresses them that Americans want to learn Kazakh.

It is not their fault if Kazakhs don’t know the Kazakh language because they were taught under the Soviet system that awarded those who learned Russian and NOT Kazakh.  He noticed that people in Semipalatinsk, if they do know a little bit of Kazak, they will not use it.  Whereas here in Astana, people feel more free to use what they know, even if they don’t know it very well.

(to be continued)

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    One more thing I want to add is that Kazakh people are not the only nation who suffer language problems after the crash of the USSR. All of the countries, fifteen, which were the part of the Soviet Union have the same problem. They are not to be blamed, they just had to follow “the regime” and be obedient. But the consequences are hurting till nowadays!

  2. 2

    kazakhnomad said,

    I’m not sure all the other countries have THREE languages to learn like Kazakhstan mandates by their laws. I think Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania kicked out all Russian speakers and are back to their own language. Central Asia is different because the Russian language has infiltrated into the lives of people much longer even during the tsarist reign. It would be an interesting research study to find out what is current laws in each of the former republics and what languages they are embracing. I think Kazakhstan is unique because they are putting all three languages on equal footing in theory and in pedagogy. In reality, students may want to learn English and know either Russian or Kazakh but to expect all three from government workers and teachers and students is very, very difficult to pull off!!! Thanks for your comment!


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