It's probably time to write about why I began learning Kazakh instead of Russian. It's also probably time I wrote about why I'm doing Peace Corps, but I'll leave that one alone for now. I had received very mixed messages about whether we'd be learning Kazakh, Russian, or both, and it wasn't until about the third day in Kazakhstan (a bit late, if you ask me) that this was finally cleared up for me. For the 42 of us trainees, there would be six spots for people who were not married couples and who did not already know Russian (this was a requirement which our training staff mistakenly thought would prevent lazy trainees, but hopefully they've got it right by now and are simply letting Russian speakers choose which language they want to study.) The spots for Kazakh trainees roughly corresponded to work sites where most people spoke Kazakh most of the time. Someone read us a short essay written by a Kazakh-speaking volunteer, saying that she was glad she'd learned Kazakh. Then, they told us to sign up for one of the two language groups. Vastly overestimating my intellectual abilities (there's no reason I can't learn Kazakh and Russian!), seeing that the Kazakh sign-up sheet was not filling quickly, and thinking that it just seemed very polite to learn Kazakh while in Kazakhstan, I wrote down my name. But these are the reasons I whipped up after I made the decision; I decided to learn Kazakh for inexplicable reasons. I just wanted to.
After I signed up, it turned out to be a great group of people, and when I wasn't writhing in self-loathing, lessons were a lot of fun. We ate a lot of ice cream during our lesson breaks. I felt like I needed it. So, that's what got me started, and by now I'm deep into it, since Kazakh is one of my two effective means of communication. I also grunt and point.
I'm not always glad I did it, because I apparently have very few and very slow brain cells for foreign languages, and I am expending them on the language which a large percentage of Kazakhstanis don't know. There's a lot of political/social stuff that goes on here, involving language, too, but I can't pretend to have untangled it. I often hear people saying to each other "We're Kazakh; speak Kazakh with me," although not all Kazakhs know Kazakh. I asked the Kazakh Kodak guy if he spoke Kazakh when I was having some film developed and he didn't even understand the question. Which is not cool. I can't understand how people who've lived here their whole lives don't know "Do you speak Kazakh?" But my point is that reclaiming the language could easily turn toward exclusivity instead of restoration. So, if non-Kazakhs start to learn Kazakh, since after all it is a national language, they could start to curb that tendency. I'm not the only one who thinks so - there are well-publicised programs that are teaching Kazakh to Russian speakers.
But I am glad I did it because it really has opened Kazakhstan to me. The people I'm with most often really do speak Kazakh most of the time. I can somewhat understand peripheral conversations; I don't have to wait for someone to remember to interpret everything for me. I'm glad because when my students write notes to each other in class, I can take them home and read them, and when they speak to each other, I know whether it's about English or someone's birthday party. And my dear young seventh graders are always talking to me in Kazakh as if I were fluent. People are more favorably disposed towards me. My host mother once escorted me to the public bathhouse and told all the women: "This is my daughter. She speaks only Kazakh," and then the bathhouse ladies were very nice to me and told everyone who tried to speak to me in Russian to switch to Kazakh. Which is nice, because it's surprisingly hard to get people to switch to Kazakh on my own. In the Almaty bazaar, a Russian-speaker offered me the best price, so I asked someone who spoke Kazakh to help interpret. He found it very amusing, so amusing that he completely went off the topic of the purchase and asked me about my educational background and marital and financial status while I was asking him if the sweater was washable. So, politically correct helplessness builds relationships.
But the above are merely side effects. My host sister told me that even people who think in Kazakh have to learn English through Russian, since that's what all the textbooks are written in, and in speaking Kazakh, I'm bringing it a bit closer to them. At 5pm on a bad day in October, I'd started giving my first lesson to the eighth graders, bless them, and the word "hunter" popped up. They didn't know it, so I wrote the Kazakh translation on the board. They broke into applause. Which made teaching from 5 - 6:45 not so bad after all.
I am experiencing Kazakhstan with a greater sense of its history and tradition. Here is an entirely new set of figures of speech, of symbols (a white and black rope means honesty; "black words" are wise words, "Nazgul" means "tender flower," not "horrible LOTR monster-thing"), a different way of thinking. This is the Kazakhstan that goes back way beyond the USSR. The culture here must have been altered a whole lot from what it was, and I get more glimpses of it because I speak Kazakh. While I'm no longer in a deep village site, I've had the advantage of living in two fairly traditional families. It's not everyone who buys half a horse and has a meat party these days. My host family has a second one coming up on Saturday. And people don't play Russian songs on the dombra. I love dombra music.
And now that all of this has been said, I have started studying Russian with a tutor, since it is necessary for communicating with photo boy, taxi drivers who scold me in Russian for wearing too light a coat, babushkas who ask me very nicely which bus I'm taking and if number 12 has come by (I think that's what they're asking), and for shopgirls who don't understand grunting and pointing and the word "snickers." Also, I am very interested in Russian, which comes with a culture and a lot of good literature attached. And as far as I can see, Russian will be more useful in my post-PC life.
I'm seven months into it now, and I get N's and H's, P's and R's mixed up all the time.