Kyrgyzstan is a dual-language country, with one titled the “state” language (Kyrgyz) and the other an “official” language (Russian). Everything important is required to be done in both languages. A pretty good portion of the country speaks Russian, and the majority of Kyrgyz also speak their own language. There are, of course, many other minority languages as well, including some rather large groups (like Uzbek). Most Russians and other white people don’t speak Kyrgyz, and usually one can get around with Russian because someone is available to translate if you get in a Kyrgyz-only situation. I have only been stopped once by a police officer who hassled me for not speaking Kyrgyz and refused to use Russian. We have now spent considerable time studying and using Russian, and also invested 6 months off and on in Kyrgyz-language studies. A few observations from a foreigner studying foreign languages in a foreign country:
• As noted, white people in Kyrgyzstan usually speak Russian. It is normal. So I don’t ever recall anyone (other than other foreigners, maybe) being surprised that I was learning to speak Russian. It seems natural. On the other hand, it is much rarer for a white person to speak Kyrgyz, and people are frequently surprised (and pleased) that I can interact a tiny bit with them.
• For many non-Russians here (even more so with younger people), Russian is a second language. They grew up speaking Kyrgyz (or their own language) at home, and Russian in school or maybe with friends on the playground as children. This is helpful to learners like me, because people are accustomed to hearing Russian at all levels of ability ranging from “I can barely say anything” all the way up to “I quote Shurik at appropriate times.” With the Kyrgyz language, however, people don’t seem accustomed to learners, so when you begin to speak (poorly) in Kyrgyz, people treat you as if you’re fluent, talking extremely fast and using whatever vocabulary they would regularly use. Most of the time, they don’t seem to be incredibly patient with the slow, stuttering, mistake-ridden speech of a student. I’ve learned a huge amount of compassion for foreigners in a foreign land struggling with a new language that I am pretty sure I didn’t have when I lived in the States prior to this adventure. I would encourage all of my readers to also seek to be compassionate to those around you who are, like me, struggling to get by in a foreign tongue! (After all, to non-English speakers, we all sound like this video…)