Mon, Oct 08, 2018 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Kazakh schools pilot latest iteration of new alphabet

AFP, ASTANA

The classrooms of School No. 76 in the Kazakh capital of Astana are buzzing with change as old words take on new forms and teachers struggle to keep pace.

No. 76 is one of several pilot schools in the city where a Latin alphabet of 32 letters is being test-driven for the country’s state language, Kazakh, which has been written in Cyrillic script for nearly 80 years.

The long-planned return to Latin, which was briefly used to write Kazakh from 1927, after the Bolsheviks phased out Arabic scripts for a number of non-Slavic languages, should be completed by 2025.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has called the reform a modernizing move to make it easier to use the Internet and learn English.

The Soviet Union encouraged the use of Cyrillic letters in its republics and a move to the Latin alphabet would break symbolic ties with the nation’s former master, Russia.

The transition has been bumpy so far, sparking philological mudslinging — notably over apostrophes — but school administrations have expressed confidence that younger generations could take all the upheaval in their stride.

“Children understand the language of computers, they know some English. So they will grasp Latin script very quickly,” No. 76 deputy director Ernur Omarkhanov said.

However, for the class mentors, who spent their formative years living in the Soviet Union, it might be harder, he added.

“Tests showed that a task in Latin that might take a teacher two-and-a-half hours can be completed by pupils in 20-25 minutes,” he said.

When reporters visited the school last month, the class was preparing for a competition with the other pilot schools known as an Olympiad in former Soviet republics.

Amirbek Talipbayev, 15, one of the participants in the competition, which was to feature a spelling contest using the new alphabet, said that he supported the switch.

Using a Latin alphabet would help him “understand more English” and grasp how speakers of other Latin-script languages speak, he said, adding that he expected people his age to “master it quickly.”

The reform has sparked heated discussions. Some opposition has come from those who are happy enough to transition away from Cyrillic in a republic where Russian is also widely spoken, but dislike the specific alphabet adopted by state philologists.

Arman Baikadam, whose business supports online education projects in the country, said that Kazakhstan could be committing “a historic mistake” after introducing the latest 32-letter version of the alphabet in February.

“We should have a 26-letter alphabet, like the German and English alphabets. Our alphabet needs to be in harmony with other Latin alphabets,” he said.

However, if this latest version is seen as too bulky, it is at least free of the nine apostrophes that troubled its predecessor, introduced in October last year, which conjured a storm of public criticism.

The apostrophes were the philologists’ attempt to represent specific Kazakh sounds, but were criticized as impractical in an era of computing.

The language’s short-lived Soviet-era Latin alphabet had a keyboard-busting 42 letters and a return to that set was immediately discounted by policymakers.

However, each of the recent attempts to better it has triggered furor on social networks, such as Facebook, which is popular in the Muslim-majority republic of 18 million people.

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