How to Learn Kazakh

Kazakh (Қазақша, Қазақ тілі, Qazaq tili, قازاق ٴتىلى) is a Turkic language, closely related to Karakalpak and Kyrgyz, spoken natively by over 11 million ethnic Kazakh Turks in Kazakhstan, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, and Germany. Due to the Kazakh peoples' mixed nomadic, Islamic, and Soviet history, the Kazakh language has been influenced over centuries by languages like Persian, Mongolian, Uzbek, Uyghur, and especially Russian.

Whether your objective is total fluency or picking up just a few words, learning how to speak Kazakh will open you into the minds, hearts, and yurts of a Silk Road people dotting Siberia to the Caspian Sea.

If you know a related language like Turkish or Tatar, your entry into the language will be made all the easier...

Here's how to get started...


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    Develop (first) a sound command of Turkish and Russian. Language materials in English on Kazakh are few and far between, but are abundant in Turkish and Russian. One of the only Kazakh book/CD sets available in English is Colloquial Kazakh by Zaure Batayeva; it equips learners with the essential skills needed to communicate effectively in Kazakh in a broad range of situations and provides a rich set of cultural notes. However:
    • Turkish is the most widely spoken and published on Turkic language and shares most of its grammar and base vocabulary with Kazakh. Establishing a working knowledge of Turkish will ease your transition into Kazakh, both in the sense of linguistic elements and better access to materials. It will also open you to the many bookshops across Turkey that carry a sizable array of books and resources on Turkic languages.
    • Russian is the co-official language of Kazakhstan and is the inter-ethnic language of communication, education, and business throughout both Kazakhstan and the entire former Soviet Union where most Kazakh and other Turkic speakers live. Also, many Kazakh are more comfortable communicating in Russian in certain contexts (i.e. science, technology, news, etc.) and Kazakh in others (culture, music, daily life, etc.).
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    Learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Kazakh is largely written in modified form of the Cyrillic alphabet. At present, there are almost no write resources that transcribe Kazakh into the Latin alphabet for foreign learners. Grasping a solid command of the Cyrillic alphabet will be of big help to you both in decoding Kazakh as well as surviving Kazakhstan if you travel there.
    • The above applies primarily to Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Kazakhstan has also proposed a Latin-based writing system to draw the written language closer to its broader-spoken Turkic cousins Turkish, Azeri, and Uzbek.
    • The more than one million Kazakh-speakers in China use an Arabic-derived alphabet similar to that used to write Uyghur.
    • If you are able to get hold of Kazakh reading materials, practice your reading skills. This will improve your reading fluency and speed as well as develop your language skills. A great place to start is the online newspaper [Gazeta].
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    Listen to Kazakh. YouTube and the internet have an abundance of Kazakh language media, music, and films available to the world at large. You need to develop an ear for the language in order to cognitively distinguish decode Kazakh's complex morphological and grammatical system to get meaningful information out of what you're hearing.
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    Forget the rules of English. Kazakh, like other Turkic languages has an extremely complex system of grammar and word formation:
    • Kazakh has Subject Object Verb (SOV) sentence structure: Mary market-to went (Mary went to the market); John Frank-from old book bought. (John bought an old book from Frank).
    • Kazakh observes agglutination: It strings suffixes together to form long words rich in meaning and syntax.
    • Kazakh observes vowel harmony: A system whereby vowels have to agree with one other based on complex sound/phonology rules.
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    Have fun learning Kazakh. Kazakh is a challenging language to acquire, but worth the effort. Don't stress yourself over speaking perfectly or mastering intricate verb conjugation etc. as it will come naturally with listening, practice, and time. Keep your ears open and don't be afraid speak up.
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    Think Kazakh. You have to think Kazakh in order to speak Kazakh. This may be quite challenging if you don't live or have the opportunity to travel to Central Asia, however, you can start by reading as much as you can about the Kazakhs, learn how to cook Kazakh food etc. to give you a better sense of the people and their way of life.
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    Travel to Kazakhstan and Central Asia. The Kazakh diaspora is rather limited outside Asia, so the best way to experience and practice the language and culture is to live it where it's spoken. Don't be intimidated at first if all you hear is Russian, especially in major cities---this is a legacy of the Soviet Union. However, the more rural you travel, the more and purer Kazakh you will observe. The Kazakhs are a very proud people with a very rich cultural and oral story telling tradition.
    • Be careful to observe all government policies and practices. Most Central Asian countries are still communist and are often economically quite poor. Try not to step out of line, try not to stand out, and be sure to keep yourself safe and well informed at all times.
    • Rural Kazakh families are mostly nomadic. They move from location to location with the seasons and live a very agrarian life. If you chose to live with a nomadic family, help out. You can learn best by helping herd their sheep and yaks, cook, milk, and participate as a member of their families. You will be greatly rewarded with invaluable experience, insight, and knowledge. Be sure also to bring small (but practical) gifts to your host family, a very Turkic practice.


  • Most Kazakhs are Muslim. Kazakhstan has a rich Islamic cultural heritage with beautiful mosques, carpets, mosaic art, and literature. More rural nomadic Kazakhs may observe shamanism and folk beliefs mixed with Islam.
  • Understand the history and geography of the Kazakh peoples well. Background knowledge will prove invaluable to understanding the people and their way of life in the most intimate sense.

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Categories: World Languages