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Review of  Language Change in Central Asia

Reviewer: Melissa B Hauber-Özer
Book Title: Language Change in Central Asia
Book Author: Elise S. Ahn Juldyz Smagulova
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.4336

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This edited volume of empirical research was compiled with the goal of increasing scholarly attention to Central Asian sociolinguistics. The book focuses on how these newly independent nation-states have institutionalized language and literacy policies after the fall of the Soviet Union, particularly in order to revitalize titular languages and develop national identities. It also examines language practices in light of cultural, demographic, and economic changes, urbanization, and the politicization of transnational ethnic identities in the region.

The book begins with an introduction by the editors, Juldyz Smagulova and Elise S. Ahn, which sets the social, geo-political, and ethno-linguistic context for the compilation. This introduction reminds the reader of the somewhat fuzzy boundaries of Central Asia, which is technically made up of the former Soviet Union Turkic republics but, due to migration and transnational ethnic ties, extends beyond these borders, including parts of Western China, southern Siberia and Afghanistan. This framing chapter also establishes the linguistic diversity and multilingualism of the region, comprising mainly indigenous Turkic and Iranian languages while Russian continues to have a lingering impact. In this context, the editors emphasize both the emergent nature of empirical research on language policy, use, and education in the region and the enormous potential for scholarship in these areas. These nations, as we are reminded, have simultaneously navigated the post-USSR project of establishing national identities, redefining relations with the international community, and developing viable economies in distinct ways, and language plays a crucial role in these dynamics.

Stephen Bahry’s contribution, Language Ecology: Understanding Multilingual Central Asia, follows with a literature review examining language change in the region. Bahry employs a language ecology lens (Voegelin & Voegelin 1964), which is place-based rather than language-based, to trace historical developments, uses, and interactions of the numerous Turkic and Indo-Iranian languages and dialects present within and across national boundaries. The chapter highlights the dearth of research on bi-/multilingualism during the Soviet period and asserts the importance of further interdisciplinary study on multilingual practices, policies, and planning, particularly for non-titular languages. This interesting contribution helps to contextualize the more specific foci of the subsequent chapters within the region’s unique political, social, and religious history and suggests an agenda for future research.

In Chapter 3, Nathan Light offers a linguistic anthropological analysis of the use of habitual narratives in Kyrgyz through ethnographic interviews conducted in villages in northwestern Kyrgyzstan. Through analysis of a series of vivid narrative excerpts, Light draws attention to how participants expressed singular and repeated events in the past and expressed cultural beliefs. In this way, Light casts into doubt “assertions of tradition” (p. 41) based on imposed generalizations and calls for linguistic ethnography to continue uncovering “what people generalize about, when, and why” (p. 55). The study illustrates the importance of understanding linguistic nuances in research on cultural practices.

Elise S. Ahn and Antonia Jenson’s chapter follows with an examination of Turkmenistan’s post-Soviet education system, in which extensive reforms were implemented to increase the use and status of the Turkmen language in pursuit of a national identity. Jenson, in fact, was invited to contribute to the volume because of a lack of research on language change in Turkmenistan, and autoethnography was selected to overcome the ethical challenges of conducting research in a sensitive political context, in particular due to concerns about protecting local participants. The resulting chapter provides fascinating insights through the experiences of an English teacher into the influence of political ideologies in the education system, embedded attitudes toward foreign language and internationalization more broadly, and resulting dissonance at the school level.

The second section of the book consists of six chapters looking at the role of language in nation-state building. In Chapter 5, Juldyz Smagulova discusses educational efforts toward the re-acquisition of Kazakh in Russian-dominant parts of Kazakhstan. This chapter begins with a fascinating overview of Kazakh political and linguistic history, including shifts in the medium of education and family language practices leading up to Kazakh language revitalization efforts – both top-down and grassroots – as well as the lingering urban-rural linguistic divide. Smagulova then uses mass survey data on language use, reported proficiency, and beliefs to reveal social stratification and changing identity among younger generations of Kazakhs.

Chapter 6, by Managat Shegebayev, examines technical corpus building for Kazakh and Russian terminology in Kazakhstan’s growing oil and gas sector. In this chapter, Shegebayev uses Cooper’s (1989) language policy and planning framework to examine how language practices affect the actions of several oil and gas companies throughout Kazakhstan and how translators and interpreters handle terminology problems in this multilingual context and international industry. The data, collected through surveys, questionnaires, and interviews, reveals ongoing challenges and a need for professional development due to changing technology, frequent high-stakes miscommunications, and a lack of resources and standardization across companies. This study, though specific to one industry, has important implications for those training translators and for future language policy and planning in globalized industries.

Stephen Bahry takes us to the Pamir region of Tajikistan in the next chapter to examine societal multilingualism and personal plurilingualism using a linguistic ecology lens (Voegelin & Voegelin 1964). With significant detail, Bahry reviews the literature describing the complexity of language use in home, community, and official domains in this remote, mountainous region as well as the difficulty of accurate documentation. The chapter establishes, among other themes, the challenges of developing literacy in (until recently unwritten) local languages due to diversity and a lack of appropriate materials. The result, which Bahry calls an “exploratory descriptive synthesis,” is a very dense literature review covering somewhat dated research. It does, however, convincingly argue the need for additional research in this rich linguistic context.

In Chapter 8, Daniyar Karabaev and Elise S. Ahn turn the reader’s attention to Kyrgyz-medium schools in Tajikistan’s mountainous Badakhstan province. The authors provide a helpful overview of Tajikistan’s post-Soviet development, language policy, and centralized education system, which allows for minority languages as the medium of instruction, although Tajik, Russian, and foreign languages must also be taught. However, the authors highlight the severe lack of appropriate teaching materials, qualified teachers, class time, and exposure to Tajik speakers. In this context, Karabev and Ahn report the findings gleaned from an interview study with educational stakeholders, including administrators, policy makers, teachers, students, and parents in Kyrgyz-medium schools. This study provides intriguing insights into how stakeholders have adapted the policies and curricula to better meet students’ needs as well as how this system limits minority students’ access to higher education and career options.

Ruth Bartholomä then discusses Tatar nationalism and the controversy over the introduction of a Latin script. Starting with a brief history of alphabet reforms in Soviet Tatarstan – from Arabic to Latin to Cyrillic – this chapter analyzes discourse about the attempted return to a Latin script at the end of the 20th century, an apparent move toward symbolic independence mirroring similar post-Soviet projects in Turkic-language-majority nations like Uzbekistan. Bartholomä draws on interviews and textual analysis to determine attitudes toward the proposed change among journalists and education department employees, offering an interesting glimpse into the sometimes contentious relationship between minority ethnolinguistic identity and language policy.

Ablimit Baki Elterish addresses a move in the opposite direction in Chapter 10, the 2004 implementation of a policy changing the medium of instruction at universities in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region from ethnic minority languages to Chinese. Using a mixed methods approach including a questionnaire (adapted from Baker 1992) and interviews, Elterish examines changes in attitudes toward and use of Uyghur and Chinese among Uyghur students at one such university three years after the introduction of this policy. The results show high levels of reported bilingualism with an emphasis on the role of spoken and written Uyghur in daily life outside the classroom. This chapter highlights sociolinguistic dynamics of a lesser-known region that is especially relevant in light of recent reports of aggressive Chinese “reeducation” campaigns targeting Uyghurs (Sudworth 2019). It is clearly written but depends on a somewhat dated (2007) study; it would be very interesting to see a follow-up study indicating the longer-term impact of this policy change.

The book closes with a brief, final section under the heading of Globalization and Language Change in Central Asia, which contains two empirical papers and an afterword from the editors. In his informative Chapter 11, Leroy Terrelonge, Jr. examines how Tajikistan’s educational and economic challenges and language policies have affected labor migration to Russia through five migrant workers’ narrative accounts. The chapter shares findings regarding the importance of Russian proficiency in navigating challenges: obtaining accurate information before migrating, arranging suitable housing in Russia, avoiding police abuses, adapting to daily life in Russian society, finding skilled work, and preventing exploitation. Terrelonge convincingly argues for an investment in language education to boost Tajikistan’s struggling economy.

On a similar theme, Dilbarhon (Dilia) Hasanova offers a helpful descriptive overview of English education in Uzbekistan, with information on policy, standards, pedagogical approaches, and challenges. For example, Hasanova points out that despite efforts to incorporate communicative teaching methods, many teachers prefer traditional, grammar-translation approaches. The chapter is based on a qualitative study conducted between 2005 and 2007 – seemingly the author’s dissertation research – which incorporated data from questionnaires, classroom observations, and interviews with teachers and secondary and university students. Hasanova provides extensive information on English teaching at the preschool, secondary, and higher education levels and students’ enthusiasm for learning English and highlights the need for further curriculum reform and increased professional development, teaching resources, and teacher salaries. Given the fact that this study occurred over a decade ago, updated data would be interesting to learn whether conditions have improved.

Editors Elise S. Ahn and Juldyz Smagulova close the volume with a brief afterword reiterating the complexity of language use, policy, and change in Central Asia in the context of socioeconomic stratification and geopolitical instability. They liken the book to a vertical case study (Vavrus & Bartlett, 2006) and reiterate the need for additional interdisciplinary, empirical work on the region.


Overall, this volume offers unique glimpses into a fascinating multilingual region undergoing significant social, political, and economic change. The studies display a variety of research methods and data collection tools, from more traditional questionnaire- and interview-based studies to less conventional autoethnography. Authors approach the topics from diverse professional viewpoints, including educators and researchers from linguistics, sociolinguistics, applied linguistics, and anthropology. There is a good variety of topical treatment within the broader theme and relatively even coverage of the countries and territories in Central Asia, including the semi-autonomous Tatar region of Russia and the Uyghur-populated Xinjiang province in China. Despite this broad scope and the inevitable differences in writing style and skill within edited volumes, the book is cohesive and offers much of value.

The insights provided in this book are not only useful for scholars of Central Asian linguistics. The compilation is also relevant to readers interested in language policy and planning in other linguistically diverse areas, as it reveals the complexity of language attitudes, education, and use and offers examples of possible research approaches. The contributions are, by and large, accessible to non-linguists and highly informative for scholars from other fields (e.g. Bahry’s Chapter 2 for historians). These perspectives on today’s global economy and widening socioeconomic gaps between the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds and resulting variance in access to material and intellectual resources are important to scholars from many fields.

The volume naturally has some shortcomings as well. Despite the interdisciplinary value outlined above, the title will likely initially appeal to a limited audience already interested in language issues in Central Asia. Several of the contributions also rely on data collected a decade or more ago; it is understandable that publishing studies takes time, but given the relatively rapid changes documented in the data from the first 10 or 15 years of post-USSR independence, there has likely been quite a bit of subsequent change not accounted for in these chapters. As noted, there is a range in writing skill and style as well, which is to be expected in this type of project, especially given that most of the contributors are not writing in their primary language. As a result, some chapters lack polish, a problem that would be easily mitigated by more attentive editing. There was evidently a lack of attention to detail in the proofreading process with typos like “the its society” (p. 71), incorrect comma placement in the number “756,4502” (p. 151), and improperly cited sources (e.g. Chapter 11).

The compilation as a whole achieves its stated purpose, to draw attention to Central Asian sociolinguistics by highlighting the linguistic, educational, and political changes occurring in these recently independent states and semi-autonomous territories. My existing interest in the region, especially Turkic languages, drew me to the book, but I found that it has much to offer to other scholars of sociolinguistics and educational linguistics. It presents fascinating insights into a complex and diverse region and sets an agenda for future research, policy making, and educational planning initiatives.


Baker, Colin. 1992. Attitudes and language. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Sudworth, John. 2019, June 21. Searching for truth in China's Uighur 're-education' camps.

Vavrus, Frances & Lesley Bartlett. 2006. Comparatively knowing: Making a case for the vertical
case study. Current Issues in Comparative Education 8(2). 95–103.

Voegelin, Charles F. & Florence M. Voegelin. 1964. Languages of the world: African fascicle
one. Anthropological Linguistics, 6(6). 1–149.
Melissa Hauber-Özer is a PhD candidate in International Education at George Mason University. Her research focuses on language and literacy education in migration contexts, and she is currently working on her dissertation research with refugees in southeastern Turkey.

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