Just over a year ago, a group of students at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest started their first Kazakh lesson. Created and taught by Aidana Smagul, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics, the beginner’s language course was a new addition to the Turkic Studies department, which used to offer only Turkish and Uzbek.
Hungarians don’t struggle much with Kazakh, Aidana told QazMonitor. She went on to reveal what makes our language interesting to learn and some of the obstacles she faced in her first year of teaching.
A new opportunity
How did you develop an interest in teaching Kazakh?
In 2019, I went to Poland to work as an intern. I interned at Erasmus+ in Warsaw and it was a company that specialized in language courses. I was a representative for the Kazakh language and also worked with Russian and Turkish. That was about the time when I made it my goal to not only teach but to popularize Kazakh.
Many people with whom I worked had never heard of Kazakhstan. Even when they had, they wouldn’t be aware that we had our own language. They thought we only spoke Russian.
After the internship, I moved to Hungary to pursue a doctorate degree in Language Pedagogy. In the first semester, I realized that, since PhD students can teach classes, I could teach my native language.
We have a department of Turkic Studies, which only taught Turkish and Uzbek at the time. I took advantage of the opportunity and wrote to the Head of Department, telling them that I know Kazakh very well and would love to teach. I got a quick response and we started our work the next semester – spring of 2021.
Kazakh as a foreign language
How do you get your students interested in learning Kazakh?
Since many of them take Turkic Studies, my students already know about Kazakhstan and Kazakh. But also, there are linguists who are just keen on learning new languages. Overall, I taught eleven students in the first year.
Which feature of the Kazakh language were your students drawn to the most?
During one of the lessons, we studied the longest word in the Kazakh language. It consists of 33 letters:
qanağattandyrylmağandyqtaryñyzdan (‘due to your dissatisfaction’).
I explained to them that Kazakh is an agglutinative language, which means that you can add different suffixes and endings to a root word. With every additional suffix, the meaning of the word changes.
It wasn’t a surprise to my students, as Hungarian works the same way. Their language also has vowel harmony, where the syllables contain only back vowels. That’s why learning Kazakh isn’t particularly hard for a Hungarian student.
Teachers of popular languages often use cultural aids like TV shows and music to supplement their lessons. Do you do something similar?
Unfortunately, no. I remember in my first year of teaching I couldn't find any English textbooks that were specifically made to teach Kazakh to foreigners. There’s remarkably little information on the Internet for someone who is just starting to teach.
Then, I met people who work in this field and discovered that those kinds of textbooks do exist and there are more than just a few.
How would you rate these textbooks?
There are no serious faults. But, in general, our textbooks still put focus on theoretical stuff, like grammar, over practice.
Are there any plans to return to Kazakhstan? To get involved in creating teaching materials maybe?
I'm planning to come to Nazarbayev University as a visiting scholar of Turkic studies. I want to see how our universities work and compare it with what we do here in Hungary. After that, I will decide whether I should come back to work in Kazakhstan.
Does Hungary have a Kazakh diaspora?
I would even say there are a lot of us here. About 250 Kazakhs come to Hungary to study through the Stipendium Hungaricum scholarship. I don’t know exactly know how many students there are in Budapest, but I would say about a thousand. There are also those who come here to work – usually at international companies and factories, not in Budapest, but in other cities.
Thoughts on living in Hungary?
After living here for a while, I started to notice similarities between our cultures. For example, they have langos here, which is very similar to our baursaks but with different toppings.
Plus, a lot of Hungarians believe their ancestors were nomads from Central Asia. Not everyone subscribes to this theory, but those who do have a keen interest in the region. I think if I were to teach, say, in Poland, there probably wouldn't be such an interest.