Sing the Songs of the Land You’re in 4: Kyrgyz Language Day Edition

There’s a Kyrgyz saying: Кимдин жерин жердесең, ошонун ырын ырдайсың, Kimdin jerin jerdeseng, oshonun yryn yrdaisyng. The literal translation is clunky, so I prefer this more poetic rendering: “Sing the songs of the land you’re in.” Having lived outside the U.S. before, I was used to being out of touch with American Top 40 lists, and as a Peace Corps volunteer, it’s part of my job to be familiar with the local culture. “Sing the songs of the land you’re in,” right? At first, Kyrgyz pop seemed cheesy to me, but I’ve come to love the music that plays on marshrutkas and on TV, and I cheer with everyone at weddings when my favorite songs blast on the loudspeakers. And so begot this (semi-)regular feature on the blog: Kyrgyz pop music videos and brief explanations of the songs, artists, and any prominent cultural symbols.

I love this feature and the chance to share Kyrgyz-language music, and it’s even more special this time because on September 23, Kyrgyzstan celebrated Kyrgyz Language Day. The day honors the national language of Kyrgyzstan; Russian is technically the country’s “official” language, which is useful as a lingua franca here given the impressive ethnic and linguistic diversity, but many Kyrgyzstanis are passionate about preserving the language and its cultural heritage. My friend and fellow PCV Mark wrote a pretty comprehensive history of Kyrgyz, its language family, and its role in politics and society in Kyrgyzstan — check it out here.

Since Kyrgyzstan became independent 25 years ago, there have been all kinds of efforts to promote the language. Some, like Kyrgyz Language Day are organized by the government and have the stamp of state approval. This song, the “Anthem of the National Language,” written by Seiit Altymyshov in 2006 for a national competition, sings the praises of the motherland and Kyrgyz people’s mother tongue. “Kyrgyz language is my heart, the flag that father Manas carried. Kyrgyz language is my homeland, Kyrgyzstan is my country!”

Though the music is certainly majestic and the strength of the songwriter’s patriotism is clear, the lyrics aren’t very subtle and songs like this might not be the most effective way to inspire young people to rally behind Kyrgyz language. That’s where pop culture comes in.

Begish and Bayastan, two Kyrgyz rappers, collaborated on this song, called “Mother Tongue.”

As the video shows a Kyrgyz secondary school classroom and kids smiling as they study the language, the chorus assures the listener that Kyrgyz can be everyone‘s language, a message reinforced by non-ethnic Kyrgyz people lipsynching in the video:

This is my song, my mom’s too

The listeners’ and yours

It’s the song of the woman who taught our Kyrgyz classes

These words are my motherland’s

These words are my mother’s

They’re this life’s and yours

Those of the woman who taught you Kyrgyz,

These rich words are the Kyrgyz people’s

I get why songs like this are popular, given how many people are concerned about the degree to which Kyrgyz is spoken in the country. I often hear locals complain (more so in Cholpon-Ata than I ever heard in Jalal-Abad) that children can’t speak Kyrgyz, that people don’t care about the language.

Bektour Iskender, founder of independent media outlet Kloop and Kyrgyzstan’s first TED fellow, wrote an article asking how Kyrgyz could be made more popular. Iskender is careful to avoid taking the position that all people should know the government language; instead, he suggests that it’s better for people to decide themselves that they want to learn Kyrgyz for the sake of learning it. He suggests that the level of Kyrgyz language education should be improved, a point I agree with – Peace Corps volunteers focus a lot on foreign language methodology training for English teachers, but barely do any work with Russian or Kyrgyz language teachers, who could also stand to benefit from incorporating communicative methodologies into the classroom to better deal with mixed-level classrooms (cough native-speakers mixed with non-native ones, all expected to perform at the same level). Iskender continues to say that Kyrgyz language education should be more closely linked to English, a point I didn’t entirely understand and still don’t necessarily agree with, but his final point gets at the contrast in tone and content of “Anthem of the National Language” and “Mother Tongue.” He says that the development of Kyrgyz should come from below, not above, and that a pro-Kyrgyz language movement will be successful only if it comes from within the Kyrgyz-speaking community.

On Wednesday the 28th of September, a few days after the official Kyrgyz Language Day, my school put on a spektakl’ in honor of Kyrgyz language. Students of all ages performed in a play about Manas and his son Semetei, I recited some Manas and sang the National Anthem in Kyrgyz, teachers sang traditional songs, and there was a big dance. After the concert, the director (an ethnic Russian woman who doesn’t speak much Kyrgyz) praised the concert organizers and participants for 15 minutes straight – her enthusiasm for the concert and the students’ reaction to it was genuine, and I think she’s right that this sort of event is important to showing kids the richness of their own culture and language. I’m not sure what to make of the irony that a Russian-only-speaking administrator at a school where classes taught in Kyrgyz are shutting down because of low enrollment praised Kyrgyz Language Day celebrations in the language of a former colonial power (and I’m not sure I ever will know what to make of it), but for the moment, I was proud of being one of ~5 million people on earth to know Kyrgyz.

Kyrgyz may not my mother tongue, but while I’m living here, it’s certainly my language.

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