Hitting the (Research) Ground Running

18 01 2011

Last week, after three months of language training, a whole bunch of prep work and dozens of unreturned phone calls and emails (and a handful of returned ones), I was finally ready to get started on my fieldwork — the reason that I came to Kyrgyzstan in the first place.


As many of you know, I was granted a Fulbright to research multilingual education here.  My original intent was to do a lot of advocacy work and teacher interviews, attempting to tout the benefits of developing proper multilingual education in Kyrgyz classrooms.  Once I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I began to understand the dire conditions facing the Kyrgyz education system in general.  Government funding on education is half of what it was a decade ago.  Teachers are not being paid a living wage.  Students are being taught out of Soviet era textbooks and materials.  Many school buildings don’t have heat or indoor plumbing — even in sizable towns.


Confronting this reality led me to understand that what would really be useful is current statistics about language usage in the schools and at home.  I firmly believe that students should begin their education in the language that they speak at home with their families.  This allows children to get a firm educational foundation in a language they are comfortable with, and then once that foundation is built, other language can (and should!) be introduced.  What I’m finding is that this does is not the situation for many Kyrgyz students.  Russian classes are often considered “better”, and many parents believe that they offer more opportunities for their children.  This often leads to students being thrown in to exclusively Russian classes and subsequently struggling in what is not their native language.  The situation varies greatly depending on where in Kyrgyzstan you are, with the predominant home language being Russian in Bishkek and the surrounding area, Uzbek in many areas of the south, and Kyrgyz in most of the rest of the country.  Yet most students (at least in the north) are encouraged to enroll in Russian classes from the get-go.


I spent a lot of time in December developing a survey to measure students’ attitudes toward and actual use of these different languages.  After doing so, I set out last week to Naryn Province, the most ethnically Kyrgyz province in the country, to start my fieldwork.


My Russian has gotten to a point where I feel comfortable in many situations, but my Kyrgyz remains fairly non-existent.  I can count (thanks to the fact that the Kyrgyz numbers are virtually identical to Turkish) and engage in basic formalities, but that’s about as far as it extends.  So, I hired a translator to accompany me on my journey.  This proved to be an excellent decision, as Murat was both a resource with Kyrgyz speakers and a great travel companion.


I initially struggled to make contacts in the Kyrgyz school system, but fortuitously met up with some Peace Corps Volunteers in Bishkek the week before I set off to Naryn.  Many PCVs in Kyrgyzstan work as English teachers in elementary and secondary schools, and tapping into that network has proved to be invaluable.  My first stop in Naryn Province was Kochkor, where I met up with PCV Hannah, who welcomed me into her school and served as a conduit to meet the directors of the other schools in town.  In Naryn city, another PCV, Denis, kindly put us up in his apartment, in exchange for some Kurt-style home cooking.  Another contact provided me with the contact information for someone in the Ministry of Education for Naryn city, who was also supportive of my work and helped us meet with directors in Naryn.

I made soup!

Andreea enjoys Kurt's culinary offerings.

The work itself has proven to be a lot of fun.  The students are usually excited to have a break from their regular routine, and most of the schools welcomed us with open arms.  This resulted in us collecting over 500 surveys from nearly a dozen schools in the province.  I haven’t started crunching the data yet, but I’m really excited to see what comes from it — and to see how the data varies in different regions of the country.

Kids taking the survey

I was even able to instruct a number of classes on how to fill out the survey on my own — in Russian!  It was great to put my still-developing language skills to use and to be (mostly) understood along the way.


In addition to doing the research, it was great to get to see a bit more of Kyrgyzstan.  Naryn is a beautiful, mountainous part of the country, and, while super cold (temperatures rarely got above zero F in Naryn city), the landscape was breathtaking.  The cold kept us from exploring what little night life there is in Naryn, opting rather to hunker down inside over home-cooked soup and games of all sorts.

Murat faces off against me at Narde

I’m back in Bishkek this week, planning the next leg of my research, which will take place next week along the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.    I can’t begin to explain how excited I am to interact with more and more people all over the country over the next few months.  And hopefully the results will be useful to other researchers, academics, and educational organizations for a long time coming.

Everything is frozen! (including the Naryn River bank)

Murat takes in the scenery

A gorgeous mosque in Naryn city.

An impromptu ice hockey match

Many more photos can be found on my facebook.



3 responses

25 01 2011

Narde. Is that the same as backgammon?

3 02 2011

Narde is very similar to backgammon, but the rules are a bit different. All of your chips start out on one side of the board, and you have to get them all to the other side of the board.

4 02 2011
Clare dB

If ever there was an example of someone getting off their backside and doing something useful for society & themselves without needing to be asked, it’s you. I’m proud of you mate.

AND you write a good blog too.

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