English Instructor Teaches Language Course in Kazakhstan

This year Department of English instructor and poet Laura Gray spent weeks in Kazakhstan teaching an English language course at S.Seifullin AgroTechnical University in Astana, the capital.

Below is an account of her experience in the rapidly growing country.

A former Soviet state with just over 20 years of independence, Kazakhstan is one of the fastest-growing global economies in the world. The country has 3 percent of the world’s oil supply and has benefitted from the discovery of precious metals since independence. Astana, the new capital in the north, is a showcase for the opportunities rapidly taking place in the country. Termed the “left bank” by locals, the new, developing side of the city looks like an architectural Disneyland, with diverse building styles from competing architects worldwide, situated side by side. And construction is ongoing everywhere.

Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, features architecturally diverse building styles.

Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, features architecturally diverse building styles.

The old town center on the right side of the river is mostly Soviet block construction. The universities are located here. New signs for grocery stores and small businesses hang over old spaces. From their nomadic traditions, Kazakh culture maintains an openness to Western culture and commerce. A sense of modernism, a ‘blending’ and moderation pervade the culture. With Russia to the north and China to the east, Kazakhs are proud of their 30-year stability in government. More and more, Astana is a unique blend of East and West.

With its interests in Western student and faculty exchange and my background in global educational development, I was invited to S.Seifullin AgroTechnical University in Astana to teach a course for faculty development in English language learning methods to the 25 members of the foreign languages department. My goal outside of the 30-hour coursework was to learn and to foster relationships with educational leaders in the capital who could make differences in curriculum policy. I met with several universities’ administrators, community development organizers and the U.S. Embassy educational specialists. In educational global development work over the past decade, I’ve seen firsthand the positive impact when opportunities for exchanges and programs for faculty and students develop and expand.

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Laura Gray, second from right, and her Kazakh colleagues.

S.Seifullin AgroTechnical University has more than 14,000 students, mostly in agriculture, science and technologies. Due to national curriculum policy initiatives, English language learning is a priority for the current Ministry of Education. The plan is for one third of all major areas of study courses to be taught in English language within the next several years. For a country with educational growth concentrated mostly in the metropolitan cities of Astana and Almaty, and with many students in agriculture coming from small villages with limited educational resources, this is an ambitious plan. With limited English-speaking visitors, expanding possibilities for both educators and students in English language learning is the challenge.  For the future, looking at national policies and funding for these initiatives will be essential.

There is a strong spirit of exchange and cooperation there. Besides the English language faculty at S.Seifullin, faculty from Eurasia University also participated in the workshops I led. Along with modeling methods in English writing standards, we focused on English reading, listening and speaking, areas in which standardized testing like TOEFL or IELTS measure for study abroad opportunities, and which may soon become part of hiring and employment standards within the next two years for all universities in Kazakhstan. I developed curriculum for a 30-hour course as a model for their upper-level students, with exercises to supplement their texts, to use and adapt in their own classrooms. A challenge for the foreign languages department is that it supports translation for the entire university in its effort to teach upper-level classes in English. So, professors from specialty courses need their coursework translated, and language teachers must do this work. This often comes at the expense of classroom lessons. Language professors in this country earn just $200 U.S. per month, and they work long hours. The demands on their time are intense. The faculty and I worked together to adjust levels for the material since students from rural villages come to their college with very limited listening and speaking experiences.

My goal outside of the coursework was to listen and learn, and to foster relationships with the faculty and educational leaders in the community who could make a difference in future curriculum policy. I want the door to be open for those who might have resources to increase opportunities for exchange and for programs for faculty and students. Due to limited visa opportunities to go to the United States, it is often difficult for educators from Kazakhstan to visit our country.

On this first visit, I gathered much information and further developed curriculum that can be built upon. The most exciting part of the experience was working with some of the faculty to create a series of practical language videos that will be immediately useful for English language learning. I discovered there is limited Kazakh-English media online. Partnering with faculty on this trip, we recorded a series of videos for a Kazakh-English language bridge that can be used in teaching and pronunciation not only for university classrooms, but also for rural schools. These videos will be available for faculty and students, and later they will be accessible for anyone with Internet access and in classrooms on campus. My hope for the future is to reach all levels of learners and to create more opportunities for exchange using current technologies.

There are many exchange opportunities at this site with technologies available to us today. Many U of A students want to make a difference and become involved in supporting meaningful global development work. Some may not be able to travel abroad or are unsure how to do it, and we have many programs and resources on campus for students to get involved without leaving campus. I want to support student-led initiatives and opportunities for U of A students to serve as English language partners with Kazakh language classrooms. Using technologies like Skype, American students will have the chance to serve, meet and learn about students in a culture and place a great distance from our own, without flying for more than 20 hours. If anyone would like more information or to become involved in supporting English language learning with university students in Kazakhstan, please contact me, lgray@uark.edu.

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