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Kazakhstan rewrites its alphabet to shed its Soviet past

Emily Sherwin Almaty
July 1, 2019

Kazakhstan has given itself seven years to transition from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, in a push to modernize the Central Asian country. But at a village school, not everyone is so sure about the mammoth change.

First grade pupils learning to read and write in Kazakhstan (Photo: Grigory Kuzmishchev)
Image: Grigory Kuzmishchev

Kasakhstan to take Latin alphabet

Around 25 first grade school students are excitedly chanting the alphabet. Their gaze hardens as they concentrate on writing basic words in their lined notebooks, slowly tracing the curves of each letter. The pupils at the village school in Kainazar near the city of Almaty have been practicing the Cyrillic alphabet in their Kazakh language classes since the beginning of the year. But soon they will have to relearn everything from scratch.

In 2017, Kazakhstan's then president and long-term leader Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a decree on the switch from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. By 2025, everything in the country — from school textbooks and literature to street signs and official documents — will have to be quite literally rewritten. There is now a final Kazakh version of the Latin alphabet, with 32 letters — including nine letters that are uniquely Kazakh sounds.

The country's new president Qassym-Jomart Tokaev called the gradual change an important stage of Kazakhstan's "spiritual modernization," pointing out that "90% of the information worldwide is published in the Latin alphabet." According to state media, the government plans to spend around 218 billion tenge, around €505 million or $595 million, on the various stages of the transition. In April, the country's National Bank issued new "rewritten" coins. Part of the plan is to use code to digitally convert things written in Cyrillic to the Latin script. From 2021 the alphabet will be officially introduced to the public.

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Teachers will be retrained and will begin teaching the new alphabet next year, starting from the first grade and adding older year groups gradually. But in the Shokan Ualikhanov School in Kainazar, the change is already a worry for some of the staff.

First grade pupils learning to read and write in Kazakhstan (Photo: Grigory Kuzmishchev)
Teachers at a local village school are concerned the transition to the Latin script will be tough on themImage: Grigory Kuzmishchev

The weight of change

The first grade's Kazakh teacher Mirash Alimzhanova says she isn't too concerned about her pupils having to relearn their alphabet. "They learn everything quickly," she laughs, adding that the fact that pupils here have English lessons starting from first grade will help them. "But we teachers will find it harder because we are already used to one alphabet," she adds.

Aigul Ibrahimova, the deputy head of pastoral support at the school, explains that many of the teachers are concerned that the main weight of the change will land on their shoulders. "Parents won't be able to help with the transition to Latin alphabet because they haven't learnt it themselves. So the children will only be able to learn in school. Parents won't be able to help with homework anymore," she explains, as some of the younger pupils crowd around her after their lunch break.

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Linguistic acrobatics are already part of everyday life in Kazakhstan, including in Kainazar. The school is bilingual, like many of its students. Parents chose whether their children will attend classes in the Kazakh language or the Russian language. Both are official languages in Kazakhstan and both can be heard in this schoolyard.

First grade pupils learning to read and write in Kazakhstan (Photo: Grigory Kuzmishchev)
Starting next year, first grade classes will learn to read and write in the new Latin alphabet Image: Grigory Kuzmishchev

Shedding Soviet skin

This will be the third time Kazakhstan has changed alphabets in the last 100 years. In 1929, Kazakhs switched from the Arabic script to the Latin script, as the Soviet Union pushed to create a secular education system. In 1940, Kazakhstan switched to the Cyrillic alphabet. Nationalities in the Soviet Union had the right to education in their own language, but the change was still supposed to create overall unity and is seen as a move towards "Russification."

Now Kazakhstan is trying to shed its Soviet past, albeit much later than many neighboring countries, where Turkic languages are also spoken. Azerbaijan switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet in 1991, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan made the change in 1993.

Kazakstan's move can also be seen as a step to distance from neighboring Russia as well, however. Kazakh authorities have been at pains to emphasize that Russia remains an important ally for the Central Asian country. Russia is one of Kazakhstan's top trade partners. 

According to political scientist Aidos Sarym, concern over the way Russia would take the move could explain why Kazakhstan waited longer than its neighbors to switch alphabets. It was almost inevitable that Russia's elites would take the step as a "personal blow, as a departure from [Russia's] sphere of media influence and political influence," Sarym tells DW.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with Kazakhstan's new president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during a meeting at the Kremlin
Upon taking office, Kazakhstan's President Tokaev made his first official visit to MoscowImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Zemlianichenko

Tipping the balance

But Sarym says there is another reason that the change in Kazakhstan comes later than in neighboring countries. The Russian language is far more than an administrative overhang from the Soviet Union in Kazakhstan. Though ethnic Kazakhs make up the majority of the population, nearly everyone in the country speaks fluent Russian. The last census in 2009 shows that while 74 percent of people understand Kazakh, more than 94 percent understand Russian. But the Kazakh government has declared that it wants to switch that balance in the coming years. 

Political scientist Aidos Sarym sees it as part of an attempt to create a country based more on "Kazakh values."  He explains that the move away from Cyrillic also reflects a natural change in the country's population, which is becoming increasingly ethnically Kazakh. "In the past few years a huge generation of people have grown up who speak Kazakh and who have demands and are articulating those demands," Sarym explains. "The government has to react to these changes." 

Students at the village school in Kainazar chat on their mobile phones (Photo: Grigory Kuzmishchev)
Young people in Kazakhstan say they already use Latin letters on the internetImage: Grigory Kuzmishchev

A new generation 

Back in Kainazar, the director of the village school is optimistic that in the long run, the change from Cyrillic to Latin script will be positive — despite the worries of some of his teaching staff. A metallic sign with his name — Tabyskhan Tatukhanovich — hangs outside the small office. It is already written in Latin letters.

"I think the change is the demand of our time — with IT-technology and the World Wide Web. I think it is a positive thing," Tatukhanovich explains. He adds that he thinks knowing the Latin alphabet will help the pupils at the school learn English. "It will be easier for them to read scientific papers and literature that way," he says.

Outside, in the courtyard several of the school's eighth grade girls seem to agree. Though they usually aren't allowed to use their phones on school premises, their teachers make an exception to allow them to show DW how they use the new alphabet. The girls say they've already taught it to themselves and now they use it to chat to their friends on social media. However it's written, it seems the joys of teenage gossip endure.