A Kazakh Linguist's "Secret" to Learning Languages
Last night we enjoyed a meal at our place with a very talented linguist (let’s call him Murat). He claims to know 15 languages and I believe him. Russian was his first language even though he is ethnically Kazakh. Eventually Murat mastered Kazakh, as well as Ukrainian, Uzbek along with being very proficient in German and English. What a delight to get acquainted again with Murat after a hurried meeting in the Minneapolis airport 14 years ago when Ken was traveling with him from Washington D.C. to visit some Montana farms. Ken and Murat go way back with their shared experiences in Soviet agriculture.
Twenty years ago, as a Communist party leader, Murat traveled with President Nazarbayev to the U.S. looking at American agriculture. Later their delegation went to Canada representing the U.S.S.R. In the U.S. they went as private citizens to many states, notably Kansas and later to New York where Murat’s cousin lived. Their per diem as “communist big wigs” was $17 a day. Murat’s cousin hosted them in New York and handed them hundreds of dollars of extra spending money, he knew $17 was not enough, especially in New York. This same cousin of Murat’s, who is a noted Kazakh poet, was nominated to run against President Nazarbayev in an earlier presidential election. Somehow he was talked out of his ambition for Kazakhstan’s top job and encouraged to pursue his career in poetry. Murat’s cousin currently has an ambassador post in Italy where he can represent Kazakhstan while he writes Kazakh poems. Being linguistically inclined must run in Murat’s family.
Murat shared this advice about language learning which I think an important clue to his success: “You have to love the people of the language you are studying. Learn their songs, their jokes, their sayings…it does not work for Kazakh students to be forcefully told by the President to learn English or to think you will get a better job if you master the language.” Murat went on to say that the best Russian spies who worked with the Germans succeeded only because they loved the German language and German people. (Putin comes to mind.)
Murat emphasized, “Basic [to language learning] is that you have to love their tradition, their music.” He heard someone say, “Switch off the Kazakh music!” Murat is able to predict that that person would NEVER learn Kazakh with that kind of attitude. Murat has translated into Kazakh the American folksongs “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” and also “This Land is Your Land.” Murat did the same with translating four verses into Kazakh a German folk tune he learned from ethnic Germans born in Kazakhstan. However, back in Germany the Germans only knew two of the verses to this very famous tune. Obviously Murat has an ear for music which helps in language learning.
Another secret to Murat’s achievement as a linguist who has mastered many languages is “Then you have to work hard, work continuously.” He began reading English since 1966-67 every day. He tells young people, “if you will do this, you will be better than me.” Murat also strongly exhorts young people with, “Lazy bones, you can’t even imagine self-study in the 1960s when I learned English with only a rotating record and 25 lessons on it. I couldn’t even imagine to travel or live in English speaking countries back in those times. Now there is CNN to listen to American and British English, this generation has it so easy.”
Even after 40 years he still has some of those first lessons in English committed to memory: “Mr. Green gets up early in the morning. He dresses himself, he washes himself.” He asks “Is breakfast ready?” then “We are having some people over for supper this evening.” “It comes as a surprise to me what strange things people eat. You stick to fish and chips I suppose.” Murat listened and repeated after the record phrases over and over again. Murat also added, “Most important I enjoyed doing it, I tried to pronounce in the same way as the native speaker, to pick up a faster speed, as fast as he speaks.” Another key to his accomplishment was he would remember one sentence, but then insert other words in that sentence.
Murat is a true linguist as he puzzled over westerners’ use of the word chernozem which means “black soil” in Russian. [A very sophisticated classification system of soil was invented by Russian agronomist Dokuchaev which unfortunately has fallen into disuse]. Agriculturalists today worldwide will mistakenly say “brown chernozem” or “chestnut chernozem” or “dark brown chernozem” but most confounding to Murat was when westerners say “black chernozem” which means black black soil to him. We had a laugh about the nuances of languages.
Another sad but true story was when Murat was awarded by President Nazarbayev one of the first prizes for Peace in 1992. Back then two others were also given the honor with the equivalent of $10,000 in roubles. However, in those chaotic, first days of Kazakhstan, the worth of the rouble was plunging. Murat’s prize amounted to only about $500 in cash prize, but the three had not even received that amount. When Murat asked about it a year later, he was only given $200 worth of money. Ten years later, Murat learned from other honored recipients of the distinguished, Presidential prize they received their full compensation of $10,000 worth of tenge. He just shook his head with a smile, wistfully thinking what might have been. Many people lost money during the early years of Kazakhstan.
Finally, as an English writing teacher I HAD to ask Murat what helpful hints he could tell me about his learning to write in English. As a scientist, he knows how important writing is even though he has written many books about agriculture in Russian and Kazakh; he gets much of his material from literature in English. Murat said, “I worked in an international center for ten years, where every day I was writing. More reading, more translation, if you do automatic translation, learn to speak and translating simultaneously, writing comes more naturally… you have to be committed, I knew that writing is important, as a scientist I had to learn how to write and later to publish.
One thing Murat ruefully noticed while he worked in this international office is that, “All [Kazakh] staff was local, all spoke English, but they didn’t make any effort to improve themselves in writing. They reached a certain level of proficiency and that was enough for them.”
I fully appreciate President Nazarbayev’s vision about higher education in Kazakhstan. In his most recent book The Kazakhstan Way on p. 329 he ended with a Kazakh proverb: “Try to master seven languages and know seven sciences.” I believe Murat has more than achieved that as a linguist and as a scientist. I would hope my future Kazakh students would share Murat’s contagious enthusiasm for learning.