From the FLAS Fellows: Larkin Cleland, Ella Meyer, and Julian Smith in Central Asia
Written by Sophie Papp, CSEEES Autumn 2023 Intern
This summer, three FLAS fellows from the Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (CSEEES) utilized their fellowship funds to study abroad in Central Asia. Larkin Cleland, an undergraduate Islamic Studies, Arabic, and Geography major, traveled to Dushanbe, Tajikistan to study 4th-year Dari in the Eurasian Regional Language Program offered by American Councils. Julian Smith, an undergraduate Philosophy, Politics, and Economics major, traveled to Almaty, Kazakhstan to study 3rd-year Russian in the Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program offered by American Councils. Ella Meyer, an undergraduate International Studies and Russian major, traveled to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to study 4th-year Russian in the SRAS Russian as a Second Language Program.
In recent years, political conflicts have made Central Asia an increasingly popular study abroad destination. In our FLAS fellows’ case, Russia’s war in Ukraine and ongoing instability in Afghanistan have effectively removed the possibility of studying in what would have once been ideal destinations. However, nearby Central Asian countries provide new opportunities to study the languages spoken in places to which traveling may be difficult. In this interview, Larkin, Julian, and Ella share insights from their travels and discuss how their time abroad has impacted them academically and professionally.
What made you choose to study in the countries you studied in?
Larkin: I knew I wanted to study Persian, specifically Dari, the dialect spoken in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, studying in Afghanistan itself is not possible due to the current political situation, but neighboring Tajikistan has a sizeable Afghan population and speaks a related dialect of Persian.
Julian: I would have loved to be able to study in Russia, but that was not possible due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Kazakhstan has a rather large population of native Russian speakers, which made it a fantastic place to really get acclimated to using the language.
Ella: I chose Kyrgyzstan because of its mountains. It’s known as the Switzerland of Central Asia! My program offered a three-day horse trek in the Tien Shan mountains, so this incentivized me to choose Kyrgyzstan over other locations.
How do the cultures of the countries you chose to study in differ from your home culture?
Larkin: While Tajik culture differs from that of the United States in many ways, one thing that stood out to me was the structure of family life. Most of the time, extended families live in a larger compound surrounded by walls and a gate, with separate structures where possible for each of the sons and their families. This creates very tight-knit families who remain close (sometimes too close!) throughout their lives.
Julian: I was struck by the incredible mixture of different cultures in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s location along the historical Silk Road allowed for the development of a new culture that draws inspiration from the cultures of Europe, the Middle East, and Eastern Asia. Thus, as an outsider, very little feels entirely Kazakh. The historical nomadic lifestyle is probably the one cultural area that did feel truly "Kazakh" to me – the people of Kazakhstan have strong emotional connections to horses, yurts, and nomadism.
Ella: Kyrgyzstan is a very superstitious country, so I had to adjust to the superstitions. For me, the hardest one to adjust to was the Kyrgyz people’s belief that cold drinks and air conditioning make you sick, which resulted in me drinking hot tea in a very hot apartment in 105-degree weather.
There has been increased interest in studying abroad in Central Asia following 2022’s escalation of the war in Ukraine. What advice would you give to students who may be engaging with Central Asia for the first time through a study abroad program?
Larkin: When you study abroad in Central Asia, you must be mindful of its unique colonial and Soviet history. If studying Russian, it is necessary to keep in mind the reasons that the language is so widespread in Central Asia and the ways it still contributes to neo-colonial political relationships. One must think about how Russian can both allow for employment opportunities and limit people based on their accent and level of education. And for those studying other Central Asian languages, there are equally long histories of linguistic change and intermixing, all of which are far murkier than today’s national governments and language maps portray.
Julian: With Russia's invasion of Ukraine, study abroad options for Russian learners have been limited, and programs in Central Asia have become the new go-to. I believe the size of my group was around double the size of the former largest group. As for advice, I would say it's important to speak early and often in any language program, and to not get demoralized. Being in another country and learning another language is incredibly difficult, and you are traveling there on purpose because you don't have masterful control of the language. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.
Ella: You will be the first American that most Central Asian people have ever met. Be open to questions, as well as lots of pictures! Make sure you represent America well!
What did immersion teach you about your target language? Are there any new insights you got that you would not have gotten in a language classroom in America?
Larkin: Immersion exposed me to a much broader range of Persian-speaking society than I could ever have encountered in the classroom. In a classroom, one primarily hears the literary language spoken by an educated upper class. But in the immersive environment of Tajikistan, I was forced to learn to understand Tajiks and Afghans across the social spectrum – people who did not have experience modifying their speech to make it more understandable for foreign learners.
Julian: I think the biggest insight I got into my language was less about the language itself and more about my own engagement with language learning. I discovered new and more effective ways to study. I learned how important speaking and repetition are for language learning, and that no amount of classroom engagement can replace that.
Ella: It taught me to not be afraid to make mistakes! Russian is an extremely difficult language, so no one expects you to speak it perfectly.
Tajikistan’s main dialect of Persian is Tajik, not Dari. Larkin, how did the national languages of Tajikistan, Tajik and Russian, interact with your study of Dari there?
Larkin: Apart from a few different words and grammatical structures, Tajik and Dari are mostly mutually intelligible. For the most part, I was able to speak Dari with some slight modifications and be understood by most Tajiks. However, the presence and prestige of Russian was an enormous challenge for me. As an American, I am automatically upper-class in Tajikistan, and upper-class people there are overwhelmingly educated in Russian and speak it in their daily lives. I did not conform to this pattern, and this was a source of consternation for some of the people with whom I interacted, including members of my host family.
Many people in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan speak Kyrgyz and Kazakh, respectively, in addition to Russian. Julian and Ella, how did Kyrgyz and Kazakh interact with your study of Russian?
Julian: Almaty, the city I was studying in, is probably the largest Russian-speaking enclave outside of Russia. Most people in the city speak Russian in their daily lives, and many people from the city speak Russian as their first language, so I ran into Russian most frequently. However, Kazakh was ever-present. Everyone in my host family spoke Kazakh, and while they mostly spoke Russian around the house, sometimes individual sentences or words would get swapped. I had the ability to add additional Kazakh language classes onto my schedule, but they only amounted to two hours a week. Though it was not enough time to learn anything substantive, I was able to learn just enough to be able to introduce myself and start talking about my life.
Ella: I didn’t have a lot of exposure to Kyrgyz because I was in Bishkek, a predominantly Russian-speaking city. The only Kyrgyz that I used daily was terms of endearment for elders.
How did your experiences abroad impact your career goals and plans for the future?
Larkin: My time abroad opened up more options for my future career. I already envisioned an international career, either with international organizations or serving immigrants to the United States, but the time I spent in Tajikistan gave me expertise outside of the Middle East and thereby gave me more options for the future.
Julian: I think spending such a long time abroad gave me new insights into my character. I'm not the biggest fan of the act of traveling, but I think my demeanor makes me uniquely well-suited for things like a career abroad. I am relatively easygoing and had very few challenges with culture shock and other people in Kazakhstan. I think the time spent abroad also further confirmed for me that I am capable of learning, speaking, and eventually working with Russian in a professional context. My exact future plans are still up in the air, but my time abroad deepened my interests in international relations and diplomacy.
Ella: I really loved Central Asia, so I hope to return upon graduation. I plan on teaching English in Kyrgyzstan for a couple years, then coming back to the U.S. to get my master's degree in Russian!
Note: Responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.