Abstracts: Central Asia’s Complex Tapestry

13.00-14.40 Central Asia’s Complex Tapestry: Language, Education, Colonial Legacies, and Decolonial Perspectives

Juldyz Smagulova and Kara Fleming (College of Humanities and Education, at KIMEP University, Almaty, Kazakhstan): Shame and struggles for power: New speakers of Kazakh in Kazakhstan

Few studies have directly focused on language shaming as a social process and a tool for power negotiation. This phenomenon has been described under different names, such as language bullying, linguistic discrimination, accent discrimination, and others, but the role of anxiety and shame is best documented to our knowledge in the context of L2 acquisition and the language classroom (e.g. Horwitz 2010) and in relation to struggles over authenticity in language revival (e.g. Jaffe 2015). This study aims to foreground shaming practices as an important aspect of the process of language revival and renegotiation of linguistic hierarchies by describing the functions, ideologies and practices of shaming in Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, widespread ideologies of language seem to treat Kazakh as a property that ethnic Kazakhs either have or do not have, not as a language which can be learned to varying degrees of fluency. Drawing on survey and interview data collected in Almaty, Kazakhstan, we examine these issues in a context where an established Russian-speaking elite maintain a socially powerful position yet also may be subject to shaming practices which target real or perceived imperfections in their Kazakh, and accordingly cast them as insufficiently authentic Kazakhs. We frame these shaming practices as part of a larger struggle over power, authenticity and language ownership.


Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University) and Oleg Antonov (visiting researcher at the Department of GPS and RUCARR,  , Malmö University; visiting researcher at Södertörn University): Academic Diplomacy: The Educational Aspects of Russian Soft Power in Tajikistan

Over the past thirty years, the use of the Russian language in Tajikistan has declined as the government has adopted policies to promote the Tajik language and Russian-speakers have emigrated away from the country. But Russia is actively disseminating the Russian language and educational programs in Tajikistan, including the construction of new schools and the opening of branches of universities, in order to strengthen its influence in this republic. Russia has redoubled these efforts since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine in an effort to keep the country within its sphere of influence. This study analyzes the strategic approaches and tools used by Russia, as well as assesses the potential implications of this process for the educational system of Tajikistan and geopolitical dynamics in the region. We map trends in the number of schools, enrolled students, higher educational institutions and initiatives. We frame these educational programs as part of a strategy of academic diplomacy as part of a broader projection of Russia’s soft power in Tajikistan. Soft power draws attention to the way governments, and other actors, create a positive image of themselves so that they can attract others and influence them. Two factors may undermine Russia’s position in the coming years. First, its invasion of Ukraine may undermine public support for Russia in Tajikistan. Second, with China’s influence growing and the similarities with Russia’s approach, tensions between the two are only becoming exacerbated.

Victoria Clement, Dr. (Central Asian Insights): Avoiding a Reckoning: Memory Days and History in Turkmenistan

Decolonial perspectives in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have not yet reached Turkmenistan to the same degree. The country did change toponyms from Soviet to Turkmen, and it dropped the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1990s, but there has yet to be a reckoning with history. On the contrary, there have been hints over the years that Ashgabat does not want to rile Moscow. For example, the state negated the foundational social memory of the 1881 Battle of Gök Tepe when the holiday marking it was merged with the October 6 “Memory Day” which marks the devastating 1948 earthquake. On January 12, 1881, 14,000 Turkmen were massacred by Russian troops as they took the Turkmen lands. Subsuming the commemoration under the memory of the natural earthquake disaster amounts to an erasure of the idea that Russia was ever an aggressor and whitewashed the social memories surrounding the catastrophic event. While some Central Asians are seizing opportunities to reclaim their national narratives, in Turkmenistan there has been little appetite for such reversals that paint Russia as an aggressor or highlight Turkmenistan’s colonial experience.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has so far not altered this perspective in Turkmenistan, but a recent visit by St. Petersburg’s governor to Ashgabat has highlighted the intersection of language, identity, and education. During this visit, the governor called in on the joint Russian-Turkmen school named after A.S. Pushkin and presented the school with a set of textbooks on the history of Russia.1 In the new 11th-grade history textbook, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine is described as a “Special military operation”. It further discusses a “destabilizing effect by the United States” and blames the war in Ukraine on the “revival of Nazism.”2 Will Ashgabat react to Western partners being portrayed as Nazi sympathizers? Will this content spill over into Turkmen language textbooks? If the content does spread beyond the few hundred students who received these books, how might it shape historical perspectives? And how would that color Turkmenistan’s stance on the world today?

Dina Kucherbayeva, PhD candidate  and Prof. Juldyz Smagulova (College of Humanities and Education, at KIMEP University, Almaty, Kazakhstan): Language Revitalization: Challenges for Kazakh in Higher Education

This paper is an initial attempt to evaluate the challenges of promoting a new national language as a medium of instruction (MOI) in a post-socialist higher education (HE) context. In the case of Kazakhstan, the choice of MOI is perceived as a key tool to strengthen national identity and resist domination of Russian; in the higher education sector language policies are constructed to foster cultural independence which translates into establishing Kazakh as a full-fledged medium of academia. Drawing on the historical-structural approach (Tollefson, 1991, 2013), we analyze the ideologies and practices of university students studying in Kazakh. Findings from audio-recorded interviews suggest that implementing Kazakh-medium instruction policies face numerous pragmatic and ideological challenges, such as a dearth of teaching and learning resources in Kazakh and lack of Kazakh-speaking faculty. This study contributes to scholarship on language revitalization in the context of tertiary education.

Comments are closed.