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Kazakhstan’s $664 m Linguistic Reform Sees New Projects Come Online

By Nazrin Gadimova November 23, 2018

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With the aim to promote the president’s initiative to the public, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Sport and Culture arranged a mass dictation on November 14. More than two million Kazakhstanis took part in what was the first dictation in the Latin script. / Vladislav Vodnev / Sputnik

Since President Nursultan Nazarbayev launched major linguistic reforms in Kazakhstan last year, officials are eager to replace the Cyrillic script, currently used to write Kazakh, with a Latin alphabet instead.

Yerbol Tleshov, who heads the country’s Coordination and Methodological Center for the Development of Languages, said Tuesday that pilot projects have been launched in 52 universities throughout the country to test the changes. Training and promoting the newly-adopted Kazakh alphabet, which was introduced in February, is the aim of the projects.

“Pilot projects were also launched in some schools and colleges in Astana. Children were taught to write and read in Latin script. Everything went well, they learned the new alphabet quickly,” Tleshov added, according to reports by Anadolu Agency.

Kazakh is one of nearly 35 Turkic languages, making it closely related to languages such as Turkish, Azerbaijani, Turkmen and Uzbek, and is thought to be better suited to using a Latin script, given its complex vowel sounds that have poor or no representation in Cyrillic. All four are already written in Latin scripts, although Azerbaijani, Turkmen and Uzbek, like Kazakh, had at one point been written in Cyrillic.

In October 2017, President Nazarbayev signed a decree to switch to the Latin script by 2025. Nazarbayev is hoping that the new alphabet will pave the way for more effective modernization of Kazakhstan.

Following public debates, the Coordination and Methodological Center for the Development of Languages presented a draft version of the Latin-based alphabet, which included 32 letters and featured an apostrophe; it was later modified. The new alphabet uses diacritical marks to denote sounds found in the Kazakh language that are not present, for example, in English or European Romance languages.

With the aim to promote the president’s initiative to the public, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Sport and Culture arranged a mass dictation on November 14. More than two million Kazakhstanis took part in what was the first dictation in the Latin script. The list of those who decided to check their skills included government officials, athletes, artists and journalists.

“The dictation seemed simple to me, there was no particular difficulty, especially since in China I used to write in Kazakh using Latin script,” said Mayra Muhammad-kyzy, a Kazakh opera singer, who also joined the one-day initiative.

“Of course, time, patience and understanding are necessary to switch to the new alphabet. But it is necessary for future generations, and in my opinion, this [initiative] is correct and timely,” she added.

The ministry recently published the first newspaper using the new Kazakh alphabet. The informational and educational outlet, titled “Til Qazyna,” will be published once every two months. Its purpose is to become an interactive platform for those looking to learn and exchange views on issues related to linguistics.

Soltan Orazauly, a literary expert from Kazakhstan, believes the launch of “Til Qazyna” may be considered the first serious step in the transition process.

“The new edition is aimed at a broad information work in this matter. I think it would not be difficult for people to switch over to the new alphabet. About half of the world’s population uses the Latin script. And if we do, it will be easier for future generations to learn such languages as English or French,” he said, according to reports by 24Khabar.

While the project to re-write the language has not come cheaply – Astana budgeted about $664 million for it – Kazakhstani linguists say the benefits of changing scripts now outweigh the financial costs.

Adisa Kin teaches Kazakh and English in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital, while her spouse conducts sightseeing tours for foreigners. Adisa says that with the introduction of the Latin alphabet, it will become much easier to translate from Kazakh to English.

“We do need the Latin [alphabet]. Because when tourists come to Kazakhstan, they cannot even read the names of the streets. Many of them cannot read the Cyrillic alphabet. Therefore, it would increase the comfortable conditions for tourists,” she told RFI.