ASTANA – Soyle.kz is using the Internet and mobile technology to bring Kazakh language, culture and history to Russian and English speakers across the globe. “Soyle” means “speak.”
“The project ended up being highly efficient. Soyle.kz is the first online website that teaches Kazakh language for free. Oralmans [returnees] and residents of Mongolia, Uzbekistan and China who don’t know Russian can learn the language using Soyle.kz,” Director of the State Language Development Fund and Kazakh language and literature teacher Azat Shaueyev told The Astana Times.
According to him, at the request of foreign embassies and members of the five million Kazakhs living abroad who don’t know the Cyrillic alphabet, a Latin-alphabet version of Soyle.kz for English speaking users is planned to be made starting next year.
“That way, foreigners and Kazakhs abroad can learn the Kazakh language and the Cyrillic alphabet while our residents inside the country can learn some English and the Latin alphabet. It’s a huge project that involves huge financial resources and I have to find sponsors,” Shaueyev said.
The State Language Development Fund is a nonprofit organisation established in 2008 at the initiative of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to promote, support and develop the Kazakh language.
According to Shaueyev, the online project started from contests, Olympiads and other projects the fund ran at kindergartens, schools and universities. Through working with young people, the fund started to operate via social networks like VK (Vkontakte) and Facebook. The director found plenty of online English courses, and decided to start learning the language.
“As one sage said, ‘the more languages you know the more you are a person,’” he explained. But when he searched for Kazakh language lessons online, Shaueyev was disappointed.
“I found a couple of websites that charged a fee and the quality of lessons was not what I would have wished. Private organisations teach carelessly because they make those websites to make money,” Shaueyev said.
Shaueyev thought he saw a need for a free, high-quality Kazakh language learning website. He gathered a team consisting of a philologist, an information technology specialist and linguistic scholars. They polled members of social networks to find out whether such a website really was in demand. Most respondents said yes, it would be convenient. Shaueyev struggled to find sponsors and financing for his project, until the First President’s Fund, the Samruk Kazyna Sovereign Wealth Fund and Samsung Electronics Kazakhstan stepped in to support the organisation.
“We were able to make our first beginner level sections in the end of 2013 as a result of this support. People were happy not only in Kazakhstan, but also overseas,” the director noted. “They leave feedback saying that the project is very useful and helps them a lot; it’s convenient, free, online and easy to understand. Our goal is to create all conditions for any citizen to learn Kazakh language for free, at home or work. We have already achieved this.”
According to Shaueyev, over two years, about one million people from nearly 200 countries visited the website. Registered users exceeded 36,000 as of Feb. 17.
The team began to work on second level and advanced level sections, which they expect to finish soon. “All lessons are developed and tested by linguist scholars in collaboration with other specialists. They begin by learning essential phrases used in daily conversations. Users can listen and repeat as they learn, do grammar exercises, play games to memorise words and do final tests in the end,” the director explained.
One lesson lasts about 30 to 40 minutes and tests can be done at the end of each lesson. A user can go through the lesson again if not satisfied with results. The next lesson can be started once the test for the previous lesson is passed. Audio phrasebooks contain basic conversational phrases and users can also listen to Kazakh popular songs with lyrics. The website has a library, file exchange, chat forum and other functions. There is the Sozdik.soyle.kz dictionary for those who want to learn vocabulary.
The project posts lessons on social media, where it has over 15,500 members in VK and nearly 2,000 likes on Facebook.
“The Internet is the best and most efficient way to learn, because no one reads books nowadays. Those who don’t have a lot of free time can learn from the website’s pages on social media,” he said.
Last year, the fund created Bala.soyle.kz, a version for children.
“Alphabet, words in pictures, developing games, audio fairy tales, cartoons, films, songs, meta-grams and everything else that is interesting for children is on this website,” said Shaueyev.
Soyle mobile applications are available only for Android now, but the team plans to make one for Apple users, too. According to Shaueyev, in one year, about 50,000 people downloaded the Android app.
“It is very convenient to learn a language with a mobile phone. The Internet is everywhere now,” he noted.
Shaueyev received a $300,000 donation from Nazarbayev personally in March last year for his successful work in teaching the language to young people for free. In addition to further developing Soyle.kz, the donation money was spent to create the first Kazakh language literary website in the country, Tattialma.kz. For this project, the director gathered Kazakh language literature for children.
“The first two parts of the book contain prose: children’s short tales about patriotism, respect for the elderly, love for the motherland and other enlightening stories. The second part contains children’s poems,” Shaueyev said.
Released in 6,000 copies, the book was handed out across the nation’s children’s libraries, including in schools.
“Even if 10,000 copies were released it wouldn’t be enough for all children,” Shaueyev noted. He decided to create a website version, which around 1,000 children visit every day now. Apart from materials used in the book, the site contains cartoons, fairy tales, riddles, contests, parenting tips and so forth.
He later noticed that there was no good website about Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev, so he decided to make one.
“The online encyclopaedia Abaialemi.kz can be read in Cyrillic, Latin and Arabic scripts and is made for Kazakhs living abroad,” Shaueyev said. According to him, around 1,000-1,500 schoolchildren, teachers, students and scholars from different parts of the world use the site everyday.
Then he noticed young people, including his own children, playing the Russian “Bor’ba Umov” (The Struggle of Minds) social quiz game and decided to make a similar Kazakh-Russian mobile game about Kazakhstan’s history, culture, sights and so forth.
“The game’s most important feature is its Unified National Testing section that enables students to prepare for those tests. Around 2,000–3,000 schoolchildren downloaded this app and about 5,000 were using it one or two months after it was created,” he said.