Multiplicity of language ideologies

The notion of language ideology is a useful analytical concept allowing for unified analysis of processes at different levels of social organization as it affords linking large-scale social change (for example, socio-economic and demographic change, language and educational policy) with micro-level interactional processes (child parents interaction at dinnertime or student-teacher classroom interaction). A multidimensional analysis of ideologies shows that they exist in different interrelated modes of articulation and are linked to different subjectivities that become activated and essentialized at different moments. The paper also demonstrates how language ideologies of ‘monolingualism’ and ‘multilingualism’ emerging in the form of formal legislative documents and public debates, explicit beliefs circulating in society, and implicit ideologies structuring language practices co-exist despite being seemingly contradicting.

The notion of language ideology is a useful analytical concept allowing for unified analysis of social processes at different levels of social organization. Using a combination of a large-scale survey and language socialization/interactional sociolinguistics research tools for studying language ideology, we can gain insights into:

  • the circulation of explicit grand language ideologies across different social levels: official discourse of language policy, language beliefs among different social groups, and explicit local language beliefs;
  • local implicit language ideologies structuring processes of language socialization at home, and their link to large-scale social change and political projects such as nation-building and ethnic mobilization.

A multi-dimensional analysis of sociolinguistic situation in Kazakhstan [1] presents a layered view of ideology and provides empirical evidence supporting a current “sophisticated” view of ideologies as “complexes that operate in different shapes and with different modes of articulation at a variety of levels on a range of objects” expressed by Blommaert & Rampton [2, 11].

Firstly, there is wide societal support for seemingly contradicting language ideologies of multilingualism and monolingualism, “Russification” and “Kazakhization”. However, the quantitative and qualitative analyses show that these ideologies are relevant at different scales of political organization and have different “reality” status. Monolingual ideology of “Kazakhization” is dominant because the state promotes it. This ideology operates in the form of the explicit theories of “Kazakh-ness” and “Kazakh nationstate”. The universal belief in the primordial link between language and nation (unfailingly recorded by national censuses and our survey) helps to solidify the highly symbolic status of Kazakh as a national language. Wide social acceptance of the symbolic status of Kazakh contributes to what Gal refers as “legitimation of political arrangements” [3, 324]. By accepting Kazakh as a state language, people demonstrate that they accept the idea of Kazakhstan as a new independent nation-state.

The dominance of Russian, according to quantitative and qualitative results, resides in the realm of lived reality: “Some ideas and practices are “dominant” not because they are produced or held by dominant groups, but because their evaluations are recognized and accepted by, indeed partially substitute, the lived reality of a much broader range of groups” [3, 321]. Survey data and ethnographic observations indeed demonstrate that Russian is a prevailing language of communication in both private and public urban domains. The study findings also show that urban speakers are not aware of the fact that by using Russian in particular ways, they re-produce a social order in which Russian is a superior language of a more influential social group.

Secondly, tracing historical and socio-economic roots of language ideologies shows that in urban Kazakhstan Kazakh and Russian have come to index dichotomies related to:

  • social identities –urban vs. rural, middleclass vs. lower class;
  • group membership – social group vs. nation;
  • aspects of personhood – independent vs. dependent (actor), cultured vs. ignorant;
  • social values – traditional vs. modern, parochial vs. cosmopolitan;
  • political values – nationalism vs. linguistic and minority rights, superiority of one vs. equality of all;
  • linguistic values – inferior language vs. superior, etc.

However, these dichotomies are not absolute antimonies and even less so they are patterned worldviews attributed to different social groups. The quantitative data shows that the boundary between ideological positioning and social membership are not clear-cut. The variability of responses within the social groups, especially within the Kazakh ethnic group, points at the process of contestation between different language ideologies, revealing tension between pro-Russian and pro-Kazakh interests, group and individual rights, and between ethnic loyalty and social status. For example, the survey data and ethnographic observations suggest that Kazakh revival means different things to different generations. For older Kazakhs, their native language is an essential part of ethnic identity, lack of proficiency in one’s native language is shameful. Failure to transmit the Kazakh language is viewed as a personal failure. The middle-aged generation constructs the proficiency in Kazakh in more instrumental terms, it is another resource along with Russian and English that might improve one’s life chances.

The fact that individual respondents shift and rework their views of languages within a single survey hints at the complex processes of affiliating and disaffiliating with a group, depending on the hypothetical situation described in the questionnaire. For instance, the survey data demonstrates considerable difference in responses about the role of Kazakh, depending on whether the question is hypothetical or has immediate relevance for the respondents’ everyday lives. Most urban Kazakhs agree that people occupying highly symbolic positions representing the state, such as the President of the country, must speak Kazakh, and agree that Kazakh must be studied in school. However, at the same time, this group is more likely to opt for multilingual choices when asked about their own language use. These fin-dings ratify the view that ideologies as Kroskrity [4] suggests are context-bound; different ideological positions are activated in different social contexts.

The table below illustrates my point by showing some examples of various modes of ideological expression at different levels for two widely distributed ideologies of monolingualism and multilingualism.

Table 1

Language ideology: Levels and modes of articulation


Modes of articulation

Levels of social

Monolingual ideology of “Kazakhization”

  • Kazakh as a sole state language
  • Candidate for the President must pass the Kazakh language exam
  • Kazakh is a required school subject
  • Renaming street names and geographical places
  • Re-writing history with stress on the struggle for independence from Russia

-“Kazakhs should know Kazakh” (e.g.teacher talking to a Russian-speaking parent in Kazakh)

  • “Kazakh is a rich and beautiful language”
  • Dividing Kazakhs on real Kazakhs “NagyzQazaq” and half Kazakhs “ShalaQazaq”
  • “Kazakhs are entitled for better positions”
  • Kazakh-language schools are monoethnic
  • Discrimination because of lack of Kazakh
  • Power positions are occupied by Kazakhs
  • Conducting ceremonies, e.g.weddings in Kazakh
  • Enrolling children to Kazakh-medium school
  • Asking grandparents to speak Kazakh with children
  • Learning rhymes for school in Kazakh
  • Using Kazakh affectives and endearments
  • Using Kazakh kinship terminology
  • Praising a child for saying something in Kazakh

Multilingual ideology involving maintenance of Russian

  • Russian is an official language
  • There are no language requirements for government jobs (yet)
  • Russian is a required school subject
  • Road signs in three languages: Kazakh, Russian and English
  • Emphasizing common past and future with Russia, accommodating local Russians e.g. by granting citizenship automatically
  • “Russian is our second mother tongue”
  • “Russian is better suited for academic work”
  • Branding rural Kazakhs as “Mambets” (derogatory term)

-“Russians are better specialists, more knowledgeable”

  • Russian-language schools are multiethnic
  • Discrimination because of lack of Russian
  • Most manual laborers are rural Kazakh
  • Publishing classified ads and announcements in Russian
  • Speaking Russian at home
  • Buying books in Russian, playing computer games in English
  • Teaching Kazakh through Russian
  • Disciplining in Russian
  • Labeling the world around baby in Russian
  • Stating that child’s pronunciation is Russian-like




Level of social

beliefs (ideas

of different

ethnic and

other interest


Level of



interaction at


Thirdly, the distribution of ideologies reminds us that “different ideologies construct alternate, even opposing realities; they create differing views arising from and often constituting different social positions and subjectivities within a single social formation” [3, 320]. The quantitative data indeed suggested that different ideas are linked to different social positions and subjectivities. Kazakh and Russian express different yet positively valued

dimensions of the self for urban Kazakhs. Kazakh is as a marker of Kazakh ethnic identity, and Russian is a sign of higher status and belonging to an urban group. It then explains why urban Kazakhs, who speak primarily in Russian; insist on using their “native” language during official ceremonies like weddings (even when the married couple does not understand a single word during the whole ceremony); use Kazakh kinship terminology; and use Kazakh for greetings and leavetaking while conversing in Russian; or why the state changes the name of streets and other geographic places from Russian to Kazakh. Speakers using Kazakh for these symbolic functions, establish and re-affirm their ethnic and national identities. Meanwhile, by using Russian for work and entertainment, speakers reaffirm their social status and affiliation with urban Kazakhs.

Likewise, interactional data also shows that different languages are associated with different subjectivities. In local family language practices, the caretaker role is linked to speaking Kazakh, while being an autonomous social actor is associated with Russian; speaking Kazakh co-occurs with the caretaker’s aligning as a language tutor while constructing a child as a second language learner.

Fourthly, the situation is further complicated by the fact that language ideologies interact with other beliefs such as ideas about personhood and adulthood, theories of language socialization or learning, and also with personal experiences of second language learning. Bilingualism and multilingualism in urban Kazakhstan is a mass phenolmenon; but many did not grow up bilingual, they became bilingual as adults. There is a whole generation of Kazakhs who arrived to cities as Kazakh-speaking adults in the 1960-1970s and became successful, balanced Kazakh-Russian bilinguals. There are younger adults who also effectively acquired English or Kazakh as a second language in their 20s. These personal experiences seem to have had a profound effect on the way people perceive failure to transmit Kazakh to children. It is viewed a repairable matter. Success stories of adults learning second

languages feed the strong faith that children will be able to learn Kazakh later in life, if strongly motivated or forced by circumstances. However, the urban reality is not conducive to the acquisition of Kazakh by individuals, as there are no real forces that might motivate Kazakh re-acquisition. This belief contributes to the maintenance of Russian in urban families.

Finally, the analysis also revealed that language practices are contingent not only on ideological positions but also on pressure of multiple parental jobs. Obviously, reviving language requires constant attention to one’s language use as it presupposes changes in habitual language practices. Yet, even the caretakers most committed to the idea of language revival face multiple pressing parental tasks that need to be done in the here and now. Putting a child who just recovered from illness to bed seems to be a more urgent task than learning with him Kazakh rhymes for the school concert.

In summary, ideologies exist in different interrelated modes of articulation: formal legislative documents and public debates, explicit beliefs circulating in society, and implicit ideologies structuring language practices. I maintain that it would be erroneous to present two popular ideologies of monolingualism and multilingualism as opposing; they are rather co-existing. Their existence reflects the linguistic reality of modern urban Kazakhstan where different ideologies are linked to different subjectivities that become activated and essentialized at different moments. Such interpretation then might explain how in the context of wide-ranging ideological contestation, people manage to live their everyday lives largely avoiding conflict and confrontation.



  1. Smagulova J. Language shift and revival in Kazakhstan: A multi-level analysis. Unpublished PhD. dissertation. UK: King’s College London, 2011.
  2. Blommaert J. & Rampton B. Language and superdiversity // Diversities 13, (2): 1-22. – diversities/vol13/issue2/art1
  3. Gal S. Multiplicity and contention among language ideologies: A commentary // Language Ideologies: Practice and theory / B. Schieffelin, K. Woolard & P. Kroskrity (eds.). – Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. – S. 317-331.
  4. Kroskrity P. Language ideologies // A companion to linguistic anthropology / A. Duranti (ed.). – Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. – S. 496-517.
Magazine: KazNU BULLETIN
Year: 2013
City: Almaty
Category: Philology