Will Turkish became the lingua franca of Central Asia?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Russian, Turkish and English are probably the three languages used most often in Central Asia for communication between peoples, and at the moment none of them could be considered to be the definite lingua franca of Central Asia. During the Soviet era Russian was definitely the language to use in the region, but since independence a number of countries have begun to forget the language, such as Uzbekistan, but 70% of the population according to that article remains fluent in Russian which is still quite sizable.

The general linguistic approach taken by countries in Central Asia now is three-fold: a national language, plus Russian and English as foreign languages. This is the approach taken by Kazakhstan, which wants to 1) strengthen the role of the national language throughout the country; 2) maintain fluency in Russian to benefit from having Russia as a next-door neighbour; and 3) speak English in order to have a voice on the international stage as well. Maintaining Russian fluency is a much easier task though that becoming fluent in English, given that there is no real English minority in any of the countries. English is a language encountered most often in the classroom and online, whereas Russian is encountered in real life.

Turkish: Turkish really does have an enviable position in its own linguistic family tree. Romance languages, for comparison, are each entrenched in their own independent country or group of countries, and though some are stronger than others there is no clear winner in all areas. French is stronger than Spanish in Europe, but Spanish has more influence in Central and South America, Portuguese has Brazil and a number of other countries throughout the world. Let's compare that to the position Turkish has to some other Turkic languages throughout the world.

Turkish: Official language of Turkey, NATO member, strong regional player, population 75 million, population increase 1.31% per annum (= almost 1 million more per year), may eventually become member of the EU.

Azeri/Azerbaijani: Official language of Azerbaijan, population 8.8 million, plus regional language in Iran, for total of almost 30 million. Azerbaijan has a rapidly growing economy due to its vast (compared to its size) oil reserves. But Azeri, along with Turkmen, is part of the Oghuz group of Turkic languages, making it so similar to Turkish that many refer to it as simply a different variant of Turkish rather than a different language. Azerbaijan has recently passed a law that television shows must be dubbed into Azeri, but the problem has always been what to do with shows that are in Turkish that people can already understand. For a while Turkish was made an exception, but apparently a few months ago it was decided that Turkish shows would have to be dubbed into Azeri as well, but there was a lot of debate over that since most like the Turkish shows as is and don't enjoy hearing something they already perfectly understand be dubbed over by a voice actor they have no attachment to. Azeri probably has the strongest position of any Turkic language besides Turkish itself, but it is so similar to Turkish that this only strengthens it rather than acting as a competitor.

Turkmen: same as Azeri above, but with a smaller population: 5.1 million. Turkmenistan has recently begun opening up after the death of its former mad president (Niyazov) that died in 2006. With Berdimuhammedow as president it has begun to resemble a normal country again, and given its similarities to standard Turkish this benefits Turkish as well.

Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz: Spoken by 12 million, 23 million, and 5 million respectively. We are now moving east, and these Turkic languages are not quite as similar to standard Turkish as the other two. These three countries are also in a similar situation in that though they achieved independence at the same time as the others, they are still quite attached to Russia and Russian, and only one of them (Uzbek) has finally made the switch to the Latin alphabet. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan intend to do so eventually, but logistics and maintaining good relations with Russia mean that they haven't quite gotten around to it yet. Uzbek would seem to be the most linguistically stable here given that it has been a while since it adopted the Latin alphabet, but it has next to no economic clout per capita ($1,026 per capita compared to $11,426 for Kazakhstan).

Besides this, there are many Turkic languages that are spoken in various autonomous regions throughout Central Asia and nearby. Uyghur is spoken by 10 million in northwest China (also called East Turkestan), and is similar to Uzbek. Tatar is spoken by 8 million in Russia, to the south of that is Bashkir spoken by another 1.8 million (also in Russia), and then getting a bit away from Central Asia we see many other small Turkic languages that have little influence of their own such as Gagauz in Moldova (150,000), Crimean Tatar in the south of Ukraine (almost half a million), and then of course there is Cypriot Turkish, not to mention large Turkish minorities in other countries such as Bulgaria (800,000), Syria, Iraq, etc. etc.

It's easy to see that Turkish is the only Turkic language that is capable of projecting itself, and it does so through a variety of ways. Here's an article on training Turkey gives to the gendarmie in Kyrgyzstan, here's another on a library in Gagauzia set up with Turkish aid. Turkey's international broadcaster TRT (Turkish Radio & Television) is available in just about every Turkic language, and most of them have a podcast to learn Turkish, such as this one in Tatar.

Besides this though, Turkey really is in an enviable position in that it doesn't really have to do anything besides work on its own progression as a country in order to promote its language to other Turkic peoples, much in the same way that the US doesn't have to have a specific agenda to promote English in order for Hollywood movies to be seen around the world. Turkish programs like Avrupa Yakası are enjoyed outside the country as well:



There is probably not enough information available to make a conclusion on whether Turkish will be able to become the lingua franca of Central Asia, but demographics alone seems to point to at least a continued stronger role in the future.

How will we be able to tell when one language has established itself as the lingua franca in the region? That will depend on the actions taken by non-English countries located outside the region. Here in Korea there is quite a bit of cooperation between Korean companies and those in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and the languages used between the two is almost always English and Russian. Interviews from documentaries filmed in the area by Korean television crews are also almost always done in those two languages, not Turkish. It will probably not be possible to call Turkish the lingua franca of the region until it becomes the language of intercommunication not just between Turkic peoples but also those from outside the region as well.

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