The Linguist

The Linguist 58,4 - Aug/Sept 2019

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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FEATURES Vicky Davis on her fieldwork at the linguistic crossroads of Central Asia 'Вам сколько лет?' ('how old are you?') has been the overture to most of my conversations in Kyrgyzstan. People don't expect a relatively mature woman to be out and about alone. They usually leave their grandmothers sitting in front of the television or knocking up a tasty dish of fatty mutton tail while looking after the numerous grandchildren. This unexpected conversation opener was always said in Russian – even by strangers in a remote mountain village, who seemed to know all about me even before we met. It expresses a friendly sentiment of open curiosity and genuine interest in the very few visitors who make their way to this corner of the world. While researching in Russia, I had become used to the greeting 'Where are you from?', followed quickly by an acknowledgement that Manchester United is still the most well- known British export. Once I was accused by an elderly lady of being a spy: "That's why you speak such good Russian." I took this as a compliment and went on to convince Marta that I was writing a book about the history of her town. 1 Her parting shot was a relief: "You're one of us," she finally accepted. I found myself in totally different territory when embarking on a research project into the impact and legacy of World War II in Central Asia. I was culturally unprepared for meeting a range of interview subjects in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In any interview it is essential to build up a personal but professional relationship with the respondent. This is easier said than done when you are a stranger – a foreigner to boot – from a different cultural and linguistic background. Such encounters demand attention to interpersonal dynamics. Photographs of the town where I live helped bridge the immense geographical distance between us. I have little knowledge of the Turkic languages spoken in this region, but most citizens have some level of Russian, the lingua franca of the former Soviet Union and the current Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), comprising 10 Soviet republics. Although I spoke to some Kyrgyz war veterans through ad hoc interpreting by their families, most interviews were conducted in Russian. Such enormous cultural and linguistic barriers are not to be taken lightly, and it is possible that I missed certain nuances in accounts. Would a Russian or native Kyrgyz interviewer have been quicker to grasp these inferences? Were some interviewees trying to put a positive spin on commemorative remembrance of the war out of nationalistic pride? Care must be taken with the interpretation of the oral interviews, although these formed a relatively minor, illustrative part of my field research, alongside archival documents and other written evidence. A Soviet legacy Most Kazakhs and Kyrgyz were happy to speak to me in Russian, as the majority learn some of the language at school. Older citizens speak it best – a remnant from their education in Soviet times when literacy was brought to Central Asia along with communist ideology. Children whose parents can afford the textbooks are still sent to Russian-speaking schools, which helps them get their feet on the first step of the difficult career ladder. English comes third in priority, seen as vital for the budding tourist industry, while Japanese, Chinese and Korean prove popular for business purposes. Kyrgyz who have benefited from higher education usually speak excellent Russian, although many have a distinct provincial accent and may display a dubious grasp of grammatical niceties. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were originally populated by tsarist Russian explorers – soldiers and peasant settlers seeking cheap land after release from serfdom in the 19th century. Many of their descendants are still native Russian speakers. This is partly thanks to their grandparents, who coped better during Research in relay

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