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Kyrgyz, Russian & English: A Bishkek Bazaar Language Mash-up


brooke and erica

Erica and Brooke in Bishkek 2008

Not many foreigners come to Kyrgyzstan and actually speak Kyrgyz.

In the language school, only a small handful of people take up the Kyrgyz language lessons while the majority of foreigners spend their time stumbling across Russian’s 6 ugly cases, myself included.

My friend, Erica, however, has been a very brave soul — attempting the Kyrgyz language.

I met Erica in Bishkek back in 2008, and it was both of our first times to Kyrgyzstan. She boldly ventured back the following summer, but didn’t make it back again until this past October — when I also decided to arrive. By this time, Erica had become advanced in her Kyrgyz language skills (her go-to while in K-stan) and with only a basic understanding of the Russian language.

I, on the other hand, do not know Kyrgyz and resort to speaking Russian when out on the street. As you can guess, this linguistic mix leads to very interesting market adventures in the bi-lingual country of Kyrgyzstan.

Trilingual encounters happened at the bazaars.

Several bazaars are scattered across Bishkek, including the Orto-Sai Bazaar and the Osh Bazaar. Given the fact that Erica and I love blowing off steam and catching up with chit-chat while shopping in Bishkek, we went to each of these bazaars together in November.

orto-sai bazaar

Fruit stands at Orto-Sai Bazaar

“How much does this cost?” I’d ask in Russian to the Kyrgyz woman at the clothing stand, shoe stand or the food stand.

To which the woman would respond in Russian the price. I’d then turn to Erica and tell her the cost for the item in English. Once she started to get interested in the product, she would turn to the same woman and ask something in Kyrgyz, which was then translated into English for me.

This chain of translating across 3 languages happened often, and I have to give those market workers props for being able to keep up with two languages at once.

Osh Bazaar

Under the tarps at Osh Bazaar

Speaking Kyrgyz at the bazaar has its perks.

While Russian has dominated the city of Bishkek and its business world for years, there has been a recent surge of nationalism leading some locals to looking down on those who cannot speak the nationalistic language of Kyrgyz.

Perhaps this is why Erica was always able to get such great deals at the bazaar! When people heard her (a white person) speaking Kyrgyz, which we’ve been told is the equivalent shock as hearing a dog talk, they may have given her a little extra leeway on bargaining.

Or, she could just be really good at bargaining in Kyrgyz. (I’ll go with the latter.)

One situation does stick out in my memory.

Erica was bargaining in Kyrgyz for a rolling pin. After a few minutes, the Kyrgyz woman asked if Erica was Turkish (Kyrgyz is a Turkic language and therefore similar), to which Erica definitely said she was (without hesitation). Because of that, she got a discount!

The point of the story?

The language situation in Kyrgyzstan is intriguing. I’ve had my share of crazy bilingual encounters, encounters where I discover finally that the other person doesn’t speak Russian, and situations where speaking one language has (or has not) been beneficial.

Have you traveled to a bilingual country before?


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5 Responses to Kyrgyz, Russian & English: A Bishkek Bazaar Language Mash-up

  1. Erica January 8, 2012 at 2:12 am #

    I haven’t run into a bilingual country but did you know that New Mexico has 2 official languages – English and Spanish? I would do just peachy there! πŸ˜›

  2. Amanda January 8, 2012 at 7:04 am #

    Well I’m in a bilingual country right now — Canada! I suppose most Americans don’t think of most parts of Canada as being bilingual (and for good reason, because not all parts are), but here in Ottawa everyone seems to speak both French and English. It’s odd going into a store and being greeted with “Bonjour hello.”

  3. Audrey January 12, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    Haha, I love the chain of translation! When I was in Bolivia it was funny hearing things repeated in English>Spanish>Quechua. It makes bargaining that much funner. πŸ˜€

  4. Steve June 28, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

    Happens all the time in my family!

    I’m an American of Taiwanese descent living in San Francisco, and any family gathering always involves Taiwanese, Mandarin Chinese, and English being spoken.

    But in my travels, other language combinations I’ve been involved in are English/Italian/Mandarin, English/French/German, and English/Mandarin/Japanese.


  1. 11 Things (Re)Learned About Bishkek Travel | Brooke vs. the World - July 2, 2012

    […] I love going to the bazaars in Bishkek, and it’s even more fun if you get yourself into tri-lingual conversations. Just be prepared to have to haul your goods back home afterwards either in a crowded marshrutka or […]

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