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Dr Irina Moore

School of Languages, Social Sciences & CommunicationsIrina Moore

Irina Moore, received a BA Honours in Russian Language and Literature from Vilnius Pedagogical University, Lithuania, and a PhD in Psycholinguistics from Moscow State Regional University.

Before coming to Wolverhampton University, she taught Russian at Vilnius Pedagogical University and in the West Midlands, at Keele University. Irina currently teaches undergraduate modules in Structural Linguistics, Language and the Mind, EFL Advanced and Russian.

She is also an external member of the Post–Graduate Progression Board at the Research Institute of Information and Language Processing at the University of Wolverhampton. Her research interests are centred on comparative psycholinguistics, linguistic landscaping and language policies, and language teaching methodology.

Negotiating Public Space: Post-Soviet Linguistic Landscape in Kazakhstan

During the Soviet era, Kazakhstan was called “the planet of hundred nationalities”.  Historically, it was the most multi-ethnic and bilingual of the sixteen republics that comprised the USSR. With the start of Perestroika, many local governments in non-Russian republics put forward a linguistic demand to elevate their titular language to the status of state language of the republic. Although the transition from the titular language to the state language was reasonably smooth in some republics, such as the Baltic States, in Kazakhstan the ethnic and linguistic boundaries were much more complex.

Historically, the demographic composition of the population of Kazakhstan has always been subject to change. For example, according to the census of 1897, Kazakhs “comprised 81.8 percent of the total population of 4.1 million, Russians accounted for 11 percent, and other ethnic groups – 7.2 percent” (Asylbekov, Galiev 1991:42). By the 1960s, the proportion of Kazakhs “has dropped to around 30 percent and the Russian share had risen to almost 43 percent” (Asylbekov, Galiev 1991:187). By the time of the last Soviet census of 1989, the percentage of Kazakhs was around 40 percent, Russians – 37 percent, and other ethnic groups approximately 22 percent (The Republic’s of Kazakhstan Statistics Agency 2000:8).

Another factor, contributing to the complexity of the situation, is the geographical distribution of the various nationalities throughout the country. The Republic of Kazakhstan’s Statistics Agency reports that by the end of the 1980s, Kazakhs accounted for over 57 percent of the total rural inhabitants, but in urban areas, this number drops to barely 27 percent, while the number of Russians is increased to 51 percent (2000:14). Such a demographic shift in urban areas had a major impact on socio-linguistic processes in the cities.

The prominent Kazakh scholar J. Smagulova writes, that “relocation to a city, demographically, politically and socially dominated by Russians and Russian-speaking Slavs, was akin to moving to another country: after settling in a city, Kazakh monolingual speakers became bilingual in Kazakh and Russian; their children grew up monolingual Russian speakers” (Smagulova 2012 : 3). She compares the process of language shift among urban Kazakhs to “language loss by immigrant families” and sees the educational reforms of the late 1950s as a contributing factor in this process. Thus, this demographic and geographical distribution “led to Kazakhs becoming the most linguistically and culturally Russified of all Central Asian ethnic groups”  (O’Callaghan 2005:208).

Aim and objectives
The aim of this project was to gain an understanding of the extent to which language practices coincide with official language policy in urban Kazakhstan. It provides a review of language policies in Kazakhstan since independence and analyses the current sociolinguistic situation. A linguistic landscape approach was used to investigate language practices in the capital, Astana. For this purpose, a representative collection of digital photographs of public signage was collected from the three main districts of the city. These were analysed quantitatively and qualitatively, in terms of the frequency of appearance of specific languages, the order of their appearance in multilingual signs, font size, colour, etc. The article reports on this investigation and finds a considerable difference between official policy and language practices. The study of linguistic landscape is relatively new. To date, only a few research projects have analysed post-Soviet linguistic landscape. Consequently, this article highlights potential contributions of such an approach to the study of language and identity politics and helps deeper understanding of language use in the post-Soviet space.

Our study employed quantitative and qualitative analysis of data and was performed within the framework of two relevant approaches to social action: 

  1. Bourdieu’s (1991), who put forward the suggestion that social reality consists mainly of power relations between categories of participants in given social fields (urban spaces in our study). From this perspective, the relationships between different codes in LL could be explained in terms of power relations, especially analysis of top-down and bottom-up LL items.
  2. Goffman’s subjectivist perspective (1963), which is useful in analysing the subjective dimensions of social experiences. From this point of view, we would expect identity markers to be clearly visible in LL.

Research design
The documentation of LL items for this project was collected with a digital camera between January and May, 2013. It was stored on a memory stick and on a personal computer as jpg files. The corpus of this study consists of 409 digital photographs taken in the three administrative districts of Astana: Almaty, Sary-Arka, and Esil. Initially more than 600 photographs were collected. Due to the small scale of the project this number was later reduced to exclude those photographs, which represented identical patterns of language use. For example, according to the Law on Languages, all street names and information plaques in places of tourist interest are written in three languages, Kazakh/Russian/English, therefore, we decided to include only two such items from each district. 

Our decision to collect data from all three districts was to compare the patterns of language use in public signs in the two older districts (Almaty and Sary-Arka) with the newer district, Yessil, which was created in 2008. The majority of photographs were taken on the main street of each district: Independence Avenue (Almaty), Republic Avenue (Sary-Arka), Water-Green Boulevard (Yessil). A number of subsidiary pictures were taken in side streets of each district and in the Khan-Shatyr entertainment/shopping centre in the Yessil district.

Astana was chosen as an object of our research for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is the capital of Kazakhstan and is considered to be the youngest capital in the world. It celebrated its 15th anniversary in July 2013. Secondly, Astana mirrors realities of modern day independent Kazakhstan better than any other city in the country, as it is multiethnic, multicultural and underwent a major expansion and re-construction programme after becoming the capital in 1997. It became the main testing ground for Kazakhstan’s economic and political reforms. Thirdly, as the city grows and its urban landscape changes rapidly, it reflects “the development of new institutions, branches of commercial activity, professional identities and demographic developments” (Ben-Rafael et al. 2006, 9). All this, in turn, finds expression in sociolinguistic processes and imprints itself on the linguistic landscape of the city.   

The main purpose of language legislation in Kazakhstan is to reverse the Soviet-era language shift and build a new state with Kazakh as its sole national language. However, a bilingual ideology, particularly in the light of European linguistic rights requirements, was declared to be the desired outcome of the country’s language policy.

Our findings clearly show the co-presence of Kazakh and Russian in the capital, marking the “status” of the country as bilingual. The increasing visibility of Kazakh, particularly in top-down signs, is undeniable. Its symbolic role in defining independent Kazakhstan is particularly visible in the new district of Yessil. The comparison of patterns of language use between the old and new districts provides a diachronic perspective of the changing patterns. Moreover, the high number of monolingual Kazakh signs in this district, where Kazakh replaces all other languages in the names of national institutions, including the Parliament building, could be interpreted as “aspirational” use. Thus, the Yessil district is a clear example of how the new regime and new language policies can bring about a change in the linguistic landscape of a city and illustrate how symbolic practices can give shape to new urban spaces.

Outside symbolic domains Russian still retains the position of de facto language of communication. Our findings have indicated that statistically its dominant position can be seen in the prevalent number of monolingual Russian bottom-up signs and in the overall lower number of bilingual signs throughout the city, especially in the two older districts. Qualitative analysis of the signs sampled also seems to support this. Not only is the number of Russian signs close to or exceeding 50%, the information given in Russian on bilingual Kazakh-Russian signs and the poor grammatical quality of a number of Kazakh only signs, reflect the day to day reality of language use. The model of concentric spirals is a good illustration of the language preferences of the inhabitants of the city. Russian still retains its socio-economic gravity and is the de facto language in the LL of Astana.

As far as the use of foreign languages is concerned, English is gaining a small presence in official and commercial signs, but its function is mostly symbolic, as the language of prestige, sophistication and internationalisation. English has no clear informational function and was used for “display” purposes (i.e. brand names, logos and advertisements for foreign goods, etc.). A small number of signs contained English as a lingua franca (street signs, places of tourist interest, rules in shopping centers) in accordance with the new Trinity of Languages. Kazakhstan is clearly in a transformation period between ideology and actual practice in language policy and it would be unwise to make predictions concerning the future on the basis of this small study.

Post ERAS Success

Following on from the ERAS Project Irina has been appointed as a Director of Studies for a University of Wolverhampton Research Student and has a number of new conference papers and publications:

1. June, 2013 “Negotiating public space: post-Soviet linguistic landscape in Kazakhstan”. Paper presented at the 11th International Conference “New directions in the Humanities”, Budapest, Hungary.

2. July, 2013 “Derussification and kazakhisation policies versus visual reality and language use”. Paper presented at the 4th International Conference “Language, culture, and society in Russian/English studies”, University of London, UK.

3. August, 2013 (with Z. Ermekova) “Realisation of the law on the Trinity of languages in ergonyms of Astana”. Paper presented at The 5th International Conference “Text in the intercultural context of teaching Russian Language and Literature”, Astana, Kazakhstan, Conference proceedings, Volume 1, ISBN 978-9965-310562-6, pp. 105-110.

4.  August, 2014“Multilingual cityscape: language, politics and urban space in Astana (Kazakhstan)”. Conference paper presented at the 17th World Congress of the International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA), Brisbane, Australia.

5. September, 2014 “Negotiating public space: post-Soviet linguistic landscape in Kazakhstan”. An article published in The International Journal of Communication and Linguistic Studies; USA; volume 11, Issue 4, pp.1-21;  ISSN 23277882)