How To Learn The Kazakh Language By Yourself And Without Taking Any Classes

avatarMille Larsen
18 mins read

The Kazakh language is a language of around 12 million people mainly in Kazakhstan, but also in China, Russia, Afghanistan and several other countries in Central Asia.

Kazakh is of the Turkic language family, meaning that it's related to languages such as Turkish, Uzbek, Azerbaijani, Tartar and many others. While some Turkic languages are relatively close to Kazakh, such as Kyrgys, most aren't mutually intelligible, meaning that people tend to use other languages like Russian (a completely unrelated language) as a Lingua Franca in the region.

The Kazakh language is not a well known language outside of its region. There are many reasons, however, to learn the language and to keep an eye on Kazakhstan in the future. The country has a lot to offer in terms of tourism and culture - and if you're looking into the language for professional reasons, Kazakhstan has seen economic growth in recent years.

But how to go about learning Kazakh?

Learn the Kazakh alphabet and how to pronounce the letters

A good start would be to focus on the alphabet. Kazakstan has changed its alphabet multiple times during history. It's been written with the Arabic alphabet, then the Latin alphabet for a short period of time and then the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

Recently, the Kazakh President has presented his plans for changing the alphabet again, this time back to a modified version of the Latin script. The new script is going to be gradually introduced to the country until 2025, and the idea is to turn a page in the country's history, progressing away from the days when it was part of the Soviet Union.

I still recommend that you learn the Cyrillic alphabet, however. Even though the country will gradually change publications to using the Latin alphabet, there is bound to be a significant amount of material still written in Cyrillic, as well as a lot of people who mainly read and write Cyrillic for years to come.

So how to learn the Kazakh Cyrillic alphabet?

First of all, try having a look at this video which provides a walk-through of the Kazakh Cyrillic alphabet along with the pronunciation of each letter.

This video is a great walk-through of the Kasakh alphabet

So after having watched the above video, you have an idea of the different letters in Kazakh and how they're pronounced. Some of them might be challenging for an English speaker to pronounce at first.

These include

  • А - This is a normal "A" sound, but with the tongue in front of the mouth
  • Ғ - This resembles a French or German "R" and will need a little getting used to.
  • Қ - This is a K or Q sound pronounced from the back of your throat. It sounds a lot like the Arabic "ق " and requires a little trial and error too.
  • Л - The Kazakh "L" sound can be a little more "tensely" pronounced than it is in English. Try pressing the tip of your tongue against your front-teeth instead of the front of the roof of your mouth when pronouncing an "L".
  • Ң - this is, in fact, not difficult to pronounce, but it might seem strange to some. It's the "ng" sound that you make when saying "singing"
  • Ө - This resembles the French "E", German "Ö" and Danish "Ø"". Try pronouncing an "o" sound, but then move the tip of your tongue to touch your bottom front-teeth.
  • Р - This is a rolled-R
  • Ү - Sounds like a French "U" or a German "Ü". Try making an "eee" sound and rounding your lips in the shape that you'd use to pronounce "oo".
  • Х - this sounds like a Spanish "J", a Dutch "G" or an Arabic "خ" - It's sort of the same sound you make when cleaning your throat.
  • Һ - This one sounds a lot like the above Х. If anyone could shed light on the difference, please don't hesitate to write me a comment!

After familiarizing yourself with the Kazakh alphabet, I suggest that you start doing a routine of handwriting exercises. Writing the letters out by hand helps you with two things. Mainly, it's a great way to make the new alphabet stick. You simply learn the alphabet much easier by writing it down on paper. Secondly, it's a good way to learn to read and recognize handwritten Kazakh, which can look quite different from the printed letters.

It's not difficult to learn a new alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet is even one of the easier ones. I recommend that you dedicate around a week to learning the alphabet, and continue to do daily handwriting exercises afterwards.

So to learn the Kazakh alphabet, have a look at the video below, where it's demonstrated how you write each individual letter by hand.

After having finished the video, I recommend that you try and do exactly the same thing as demonstrated in the video.

Sit down and write the letters one by one. First write the letters in the capitalized form, pronounce the letter out loud while you write it, then in the non-capitalized form. Repeat three times, trying to pronounce the letter as correctly as you can. Write slowly and neatly and try to imitate the handwriting you see in the video. Then write the word example two or three times, trying to pronounce the word out loud.

I recommend that you do 5-8 letters in one sitting. This shouldn't take long. After finishing, take a pause, but come back and repeat the exercise one or two times during your day.

For each day, add 5-8 letters to your cycle, and don't forget to review the letters you did yesterday.

When you've worked your way through the whole alphabet after a couple of days, start doing the same exercise, only with complete words.

I recommend that you keep writing Kazakh every day, even if it's only a little. When learning a language, people sometimes tend to neglect handwriting, and you'll often see people having very poor handwriting skills despite speaking the language fluently.

Get a good beginner's textbook for Kazakh and start doing lessons daily

After having gotten the alphabet down, it's time to really start learning Kazakh. I recommend that you start by picking up a good beginner's textbook.

Kazakh is not the most widely studied language in the world, and it can be complicated to find good language learning material for the language for that same reason. One I can easily recommend, however is Colloquial Kazakh.

The Colloquial language learning series offer guides to a wide catalog of languages. They're known for providing thorough and effective material and the Kazakh edition is no exception.

This is how I recommend that you study with your Colloquial Kazakh textbook:

Each day, do a new lesson. Find a good spot throughout your day, where it's practical for you to study the language. I like studying languages early in the morning. (You might want to read my article about studying languages on a busy schedule, if you have a hard time finding the time throughout your day).

  • First read through the English translation of the dialogue in order to get an idea about what's going on.
  • Then try reading the sentences in Kazakh one by one. Read them out loud, and compare your pronunciation with the audio (that you can download for free here).
  • Repeat each sentence two or three times.
  • Then play the dialogue in its entirety, following along the Kazakh text.
  • Finish by reading the grammar explanations and cultural notes and do the exercises.

Don't worry if you don't get the grammar all at once. You should consider these explanations a kind of reference and not material that you have to learn by heart. Grammar will become natural to you from using the language. You'll learn it from habituation, so don't sweat it!

The same goes for the exercises. I've never been a fan of doing exercises and drills when learning languages. I think it's much more effective to see the language used over and over again and thus getting used to it. But do the exercises if you want, or skim through them. The choice is yours!

The importance of varying your approach when learning Kazakh or any language

When learning a foreign language like Kazakh, it's extremely important to keep your approach varied. The reason is that seeing words, grammar examples and linguistic concepts used in different contexts helps make it stick in your memory much better.

I've written an article on the subject of remembering words that I recommend that you read. One of the things I discuss is how you make a new piece of information stand out in your brain. When you look up an unknown word, you try to remember that "x = y". This is very hard to remember, because there's nothing that links the "x" and "y" to one another in your mind. So you need to make the new word stand out in as many ways as possible to better remember it.

One way is to study from multiple fronts at the same time. If you hear a word used in a podcast that you only vaguely remember from your Colloguial Kazakh book, you'll experience the feeling of recognizing the word. The moment that this happens, you'll kindle a spark and the word will suddenly stand out as a word you've learned and then remembered when seeing it in another context. This is important.

The more different contexts you can stick the word to, the more of a complex web of information you'll be weaving in your brain, and consequently, the harder it'll be to forget it.

So in the beginning stage, I always recommend people to pick up not one, but two beginner's textbooks that they do simultaneously. With Kazakh there's not a lot textbooks to choose from, however, which is why I suggest that you skip ahead and start working on Glossika Kazakh or at the same time as you do your Colloquial Kazakh book.

How to use Glossika Kazakh to improve grammar, listening, vocabulary and pronunciation

Glossika is a language learning program that teaches you languages through sentences. You're gradually introduced to sentences in Kazakh along with the English translations and Kazakh audio recordings. These are scheduled for review regularly. As you follow the evolution and keep doing new sentences daily, you'll gradually start to internalize the vocabulary and grammar used in the sentences. (I'll put a link to Glossika below).

When you first start using Glossika for Kazakh, you're asked to do a placement test to establish what level you're at. If you're not a beginner, you might benefit from skipping a little ahead and doing sentences at your level. Otherwise, you can skip the placement test and start from zero.

How to learn Kazakh with Glossika

This is what the Glossika Kazakh study screen looks like

When you start studying, you'll be introduced to a batch of 5 new sentences in Kazakh. You'll repeat each of them 5 times, meaning that a batch of new sentences equals a total of 25 repetitions. This is how it works:

You'll see the English sentence followed by the same sentence written in Kzakh both in the Cyrillic alphabet, an estimated version in the Latin alphabet and in the international phonetic alphabet.

You'll hear a recording of the English sentence followed by a pause. As soon as you hear this, try reading the sentence in Kazakh out loud. Now you'll hear the Kazakh sentence two times followed by a pause. Try repeating after the recording as well as you can. Try to mimic the pronunciation, tone of voice, melody and rhythm of the native Kazakh speaker. This is important!

You'll notice that it's quite difficult to repeat the sentences in Kazakh in the beginning. You need to do so quickly, because you only have a limited time, and it's tough to pronounce the sentence correctly. You're bound to do a lot of mumbling in the beginning, but don't worry! These sentences will be rescheduled for review several times in the future, and you'll learn.

There's also the option of slowing down the speed of the recordings, but I don't recommend that you do this. It's better (and possible) to get used to the speed in which the language is spoken from the very beginning.

I suggest that you do no more than 5-20 sentences in one sitting. It might seem quite doable to do a lot more, but keep in mind that the sentences will be rescheduled several times in the future!

The importance of reps in Glossika Kazakh

Revisions or "reps" are the cornerstone in Glossika. It's not when first seeing a new sentence that you learn the vocabulary and grammar that makes it up. It's from seeing it over and over again.

When you first study a sentence in Glossika, it's immediately scheduled for review. At first, the review will be only after 12-24 hours, but for each time you review a sentence it's rescheduled further and further into the future.

Glossika's rescheduling algorithm is based on what is called the "forgetting curve". It tries to predict when you're about to forget the information that you've learned, and it schedules the sentence for review a little before that moment. The more you review, the longer the delay until you'll see the sentence again.

This is one of the reasons that you shouldn't worry too much about not getting a sentence right the first time. You'll get plenty of opportunities later on.

Glossika measures the progress of learners by how many reps they've done. The milestones are 25.000, 50.000 and 75.000 reps. This is obviously a lot, but it clearly illustrates how important repetition is.

If you want to learn more about Glossika, try reading my Glossika review.

Or you can go directly to the Glossika Kazakh website.

Start reading in Kazakh every day

After you've finished at least half of the Colloquial Kazakh book and done a few thousand reps in Glossika, it's time to start reading in Kazakh.

Most people would approach this by picking up a novel in the Kazakh language and start reading it with a dictionary. I don't recommend this.

You're bound to come across a lot of unknown words for each and every page you read in Kazakh. Especially in the beginning. If you were to pause, search through a dictionary, find the right word and match it to the context for each word, you'd spend almost all of your time with your nose in the dictionary, and almost no time actually reading.

And once you'd have found a word and gotten back into reading, you'd forget it as soon as you got to another unknown word. Try grasping the plot in a novel with this kind of interruptions!

So my advice is to not bother with a paper dictionary. You need to stay motivated and you need to get something out of reading. For this to work, you need to find other ways to make the text transparant.

Read articles in Kazakh with a popup-dictionary

One tool that I've gotten a lot out of using again and again is Google Dictionary. Google Dictionary is a browser extension that you can download and install for free to work with the Chrome browser. (Alternatives exist for other browsers)

With this handy little tool installed, you can click on any word, anywhere on the internet and get an instant translation.

An article I found about Pike fishing in Kazakh

With this tool, you can look up anything that you might be interested in online and read it directly on your screen. The quick look-up's make for a pleasurable reading experience, and instead of spending several minutes with a dictionary every time you come upon an unknown word, you get a translation in under a second.

Read anything that you might be interested in in Kazakh. The above example I found by googling "pike fishing" in Kazakh. If you don't know how to formulate search queries in the Kazakh language, just run your keywords through Google Translate, and paste the result into the search bar.

As for the type of content? I recommend that you read light, easy to understand articles. Read about your hobbies. When you read about fishing, gardening, pets or something similar, you're sure to be reading articles written in a relatively easy language and you're better off than if you were to read philosophy or history in Kazakh. Reading news articles can work as well, just stick to light subjects that are easy to grasp.

I've written an article about a few other reading techniques that you might find useful for learning Kazakh.

It's time to speak and write in Kazakh

With your Colloquial Kazakh textbook behind you, several thousand Glossika reps on your belt and a solid habit of daily reading, it's time to start speaking and writing Kazakh.

I recommend that you do this with a tutor. Try going to a site like Italki look up Kazakh language tutors and make contact with someone that you think you could work with.

I recommend that you take charge of your tutoring learning experience from the start. Discuss with your tutor how you'd like the tutoring sessions to work and stick to your plan.

Many tutors have their own programs, lessons, teaching styles and so on. I suggest that you keep it conversational. Agree on a topic of discussion before each session and stick to it. You should speak in Kazakh the whole time.

Corrections, explanations and anything else in English should be kept at an absolute minimum. It's much better that your tutor write a report with a few pointers for you after the end of a session rather than interrupting the flow of conversation again and again.

You should also hear your own voice at least half of the time. If you find that your tutor is speaking much more than you, it means that the conversation is turning into listening practice. You can do listening practice for free on YouTube, so make sure that you're speaking!

Try scheduling 2-3 tutoring sessions per week. Make them 30-45 minutes each. After the end of each tutoring session, sit down and write a short text in Kazakh about the topic you've just discussed. In the beginning you can make it short. 200-300 words is fine. As you improve you can gradually write longer texts.

Send your writing to your tutor and have it corrected. Now make sure to read through the corrections and to take note of everything your tutor has pointed out! But don't expect to never make the same mistakes again. These things take time.

If you keep up with these tutoring sessions, you're pretty much guaranteed to improve quickly. It does however cost money, and you have to make sure that you're getting as much as possible out of it. That's why I encourage you to never hesitate to comment on your teacher's approach, request changes or even pick another tutor if things aren't working out.

Language exchange - A free alternative to a Kazakh tutor

While hiring a tutor can be extremely effective, it's also costly. Getting a language exchange partner can be an option if you'd rather not spend the money on a tutor.

Language exchange is when a Kazakh speaker acts as your tutor in exchange for you helping him or her learn a language that you speak.

While this can be great in many ways, it has its downfalls.

For one thing, you'll be spending a significant amount of time speaking English, correcting English texts and perhaps trying to explain points about the English language to your language partner.

Then you're going to have to keep looking for a long time before you find a language buddy who're willing to put in the same amount of time as you'd like to spend. You need to agree on how you want the conversations to go, and you have to rely on your language exchange partner's talents as a tutor which may or may not be as developed as a professional instructor.

On the other hand, you're pretty likely to make a new friend through language exchange. You'll have another kind of relationship than the "student - teacher" setting that paid tutoring offers.

In the end it's your choice whichever method you pick.

Ultimately, learning Kazakh comes down to one thing

If you follow all my suggestions above and you keep at it, you'll be well on your way to becoming fluent in Kazakh.

The last point, however, is the most important. You need to keep at it. There are many ways to go about learning a language like Kazakh, but when all is set and done, it comes down to only one thing: Consistency.

You need to study Kazakh every day. You need to be patient, and you need to understand that you're not going to see results right away. Learning a foreign language takes a lot of time, and it's not always fun and games.

But if you put in the time, you stay patient and consistent, you will become fluent in Kazakh!