Should “small” languages be preserved?

Yesterday was National Kyrgyz Language Day and I couldn’t have felt more out of place. I had agreed over the weekend to show up for a recording for a show on foreigners who speak Kyrgyz and instead found myself on live television, sharing the stage with a host and 5 other Kyrgyz gentlemen—fathers of the Kyrgyz Republic.

I was the little kid brother to a 6th grader. A peon to the president. A proletariat to an aristocrat. I was a strange, thirty-year old foreigner in a purple checkered shirt and Adidas tennis shoes among congressmen, professors and those who have written Kyrgyz history with pens dipped in the sweat of their brows and the blood of their struggle. Let’s just say I felt…inadequate.

IMG_1290Public Teleradio Corporation (Коомдук Телерадиоберүү Корпорациясы)

Why I was on this show is beyond me. I was told there would be other foreigners there and that we would be briefed on simple questions like, “Why are you learning Kyrgyz? Is it hard? Do you like puppies? Here’s a piece of candy…” The host’s first question was something along the lines of, “Dear gentleman so-and-so, you were the one in congress who pushed for the recognition of the Kyrgyz language in the Soviet Republic of Kirgizia back in the late 1980s. Could you tell us a little about the history of that historic vote?”

We were told this would go on for an hour and now I was really nervous—how many questions was the host going to ask me? How was I going to understand the question, much less be able to put together a string of coherent thought cogently processed and well reflected given the diverse and nuanced point of views on the usage of the Kyrgyz language in today’s culture and society?

What ended up happening was the host asked me a question, I ignored it and then rattled off every piece of Kyrgyz that was anywhere near the front of my brain to tens of thousands of people tuned in to watch this talking head make a blunder on live, national television.

Basically I just talked about how I studied and learned Kyrgyz and gave some advice, but I also added that I thought both Kyrgyz and Russian are important for people to know. In some places, mainly small villages, students speak almost entirely in Kyrgyz and practice Russian very little. Then when they come up to the capital to attend colleges and universities, they really struggle because they don’t have a strong academic command of the Russian language. In order to function in the top tiers of Kyrgyz academia, business and society in general, you really need to know both.

That was about all I had time to say. I had been worried about the whole hour long thing, but luckily I was on stage with several senior gentlemen who also happened to be very opinionated and so that quickly ate up the time. (The first question above took over ten minutes to answer just by itself since we were receiving a minute-by-minute replay of the vote in congress from the distinguished gentleman on my right.)

IMG_1285I missed the memo on wearing a kalpak

The discussion never really got to anything truly controversial or interesting. Basically they just said Kyrgyz culture and mentality is best preserved through the language. That in order to best understand and preserve a culture, the language must first be preserved. Others added that since this was Kyrgyzstan, populated mainly by ethnically Kyrgyz people, the language should be the main operating language of the land.

I agree with this but thinking about it afterwards, I wish I had asked some questions like, “How do you ensure that everyone learns Kyrgyz, especially when Russian is already the operating language?” The world today is so interconnected that it makes little sense to huddle up with a small language almost no one outside of these borders understands. I’m all for preserving Kyrgyz and yes it is useful for those living here, but we can’t deny that Kyrgyzstan—like any nation in the world—is dependent upon relationships with surrounding countries near and far. If we are going to preserve Kyrgyz, let’s also push for fluency in Russian and English. English is the language of the world—you can go to China and speak English. You can go to Argentina and speak English. It’s a transferrable skill that offers immediate benefits in business, tourism, and education and the sciences, all areas that Kyrgyzstan needs so desperately to improve.

After what seemed like hours, the minute hand on the clock hit one revolution and the “live” light went dark. I was completely soaked on every limb of my body except for my mouth which felt like it had been lined with sandpaper and then filled with sand. I performed the perfunctory handshakes and cell phone pictures, received my little gift folder for being on the show and scooted out into the afternoon air.

IMG_1292Gift package including a Russian-Kyrgyz medical dictionary

I may not have had the time or language to get into a deep discussion at the studio, but maybe we could chat here if you have some thoughts to add? How important is it to preserve languages spoken by very few people? Does it make sense to require all people in a nation to speak one mutual tongue? What direction is Kyrgyzstan going? And what part should the English language play here?


  1. I think that ‘small’ languages are useless. I think it’s nonsense to talk about whether or not we should preserve these types of languages because they’re erasure is inevitable. I understand this is sad in some sense, but there are other ways to preserve culture and in today’s world we need to talk about what we NEED, not what we wish could be. Kyrgyz is an interesting, beautifully logical language that I’m so happy I’m learning…and I’ll be happy when it’s gone and everyone here knows Russian and English.


    1. I don’t know if it’s useless, Dan – after all you need it for your work! And like the other commenter here has said, people like the Norwegians have preserved their language well in addition to operating in English and learning other European languages.


  2. I like the model used in small European countries where everyone learns 2 or 3 “international” languages in addition to their native Dutch, Danish, etc. Those countries are richer than Kyrgyzstan and can afford to maintain their culture through movies,literature and TV, but it’s better than being overwhelmed by Russian.


    1. Do you think it’s the fact that they have a lot more resources that allows them to preserve their languages and better learn others? Or is it proximity to their neighbors? Also, most Kyrgyzstanis have very few opportunities to go abroad to places that speak languages other than Russian. And it’s still certainly true here that the language of the business world is a “second” language (Russian) if we want to say that Kyrgyz is the native language of Kyrgyzstan. Another question might be, where does Uzbek fit into the puzzle? The country is 16% Uzbek by population, and many villages and towns in the south are majority Uzbek.


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