Peace Corps volunteers learn Kyrgyz with a smattering of Russian (links are to free PC language material downloads), most Bishkek expats opt for Russian, plenty of Turkish expats get by on a Turkic creole. So what language should you learn? And which language will be most widely spoken – and understood?
First, let’s start with the languages:
Kyrgyz is a Turkic language closely related to Kazakh and characterized by it’s agglutinative nature (“extra information” is added to the word root in place of prepositions, etc…) and strict internal vowel harmony. If you’ve ever studied Turkish, or another Turkic language, the structure and vocab of the language should not be too hard. However there are very limited resources available for learning Kyrgyz. Apart from the Peace Corps materials linked above, there’s this SRAS student-created phrasebook, a reader from Indiana University the Lonely Planet Central Asia Phrasebook, a Kyrgyz vocab list, and another ‘Kyrgyz’ phrasebook that claims to teach the reader Kazakh (?). There are more local Kyrgyz materials in Russian, but if you already know Russian then you probably aren’t reading this post. Google translate does not support Kyrgyz, and I’ve yet to see an English-Kyrgyz dictionary. AUCA and The London School both offer Kyrgyz Language Instruction – if you make arrangements in advance.
In Short: probably the easier of the two to learn, but crippled by a definite scarcity of materials.
Russian is a Slavic language with absolutely no relation to Kyrgyz save Soviet-era Russian vocabulary introduced into the later. Having studied Russian both in Bishkek and back in the states, I can say that it’s definitely difficult for native English and Romance Language speakers (and plenty of people agree). There’s [an excessive] use of prepositions for everything, declensions, gender, and five thousand forms for the genitive plural. Russian is hard; it will take you two months to even have a basic conversation. However, there are plenty of materials available in Russian both online and off, and it’s quite easy to find a professional Russian language tutor for about $5 an hour.
And apparently not everyone believes Russian is (so) hard:
Languages Comprehended: For many ethnic Kyrgyz who completed their schooling in or just after the Soviet period, Russian was their only language of education. They might speak Kyrgyz at home or even on the street, but feel unsteady discussing more academic or professional topics in their native tongue. Likewise, most other non-slavic ethnic minorities (Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens, Tatars) received and still receive, all of their education in Russian. I’ve met maybe three Russians who can speak Kyrgyz, and all of them attended Manas University (where both Turkish and Kyrgyz are compulsory subjects). However, once you’re out in the countryside it can be a completely different story, especially in the southern half of the country. Many rural Kyrgyz did not receive education in and may not understand Russian. So if you will be spending your time in a village where Russian does not dominate, Kyrgyz may be a better bet.
Language Mixing and Code Switching: Decades of Russian language instruction and use of Russian among Turkic ethnicity peers in work and school mean that the Turkic languages are rarely spoken in their pure form in urban centers, especially among younger people who still receive education in Russian. It’s not uncommon to hear a person start a sentence in Kyrgyz and end it in Russian. I haven’t found anything on this in Kyrgyzstan, but for an interesting comparative exploration of the way one language creeps into another see “Bulgarian Turkish: The Linguistic Effects of Recent Nationality Policy“. What this means is: if you are living in an urban setting and know Kyrgyz, you might still struggle with comprehension when chunks of conversations erupt in Russian. Russians, obviously, do not code switch with Kyrgyz, and the only words they seem to borrow are those related to national foods or traditional Kyrgyz clothing.
Language Directed Towards You: If you live in Bishkek and look vaguely Russian, Korean or foreign, people will most likely address you in Russian. I even see Kyrgyz addressing each other in Russian when they are out shopping or speaking to someone they don’t know on the streets. Not understanding Russian could lead to some unpleasant situations or just general confusion. However, plenty of Turkish citizens get by without any Russian – though, to be fair, the headscarved Turkish housewives with their middle-class small-city-folk Muslim overcoats do look distinctly Anatolian. Outside of the cities most people will probably try to address you in Russian unless you address them first in Kyrgyz. At the same time, if you do speak Kyrgyz (or Turkish with some Kyrgyz thrown in), ethnic Kyrgyz may give you a much warmer reception.