Reviving the Kazakh language on Wikipedia

Illustration of Rauan Kenzhekhanuly (State Dept./D. Thompson)
(State Dept./D. Thompson)

Rauan Kenzhekhanuly is on a mission to spread his native Kazakh language, and he’s doing it through an unlikely medium: Wikipedia.

A former fellow at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Kenzhekhanuly is the founder of the WikiBilim Public Foundation, a Kazakhstan-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting online educational content in the Kazakh language.

Kenzhekhanuly came up with the idea to create a Kazakh-language Wikipedia site while taking a new media class at Harvard, when he was given an assignment to write a Wikipedia article. While researching, he was disturbed to realize that out of 170 languages available on Wikipedia, Kazakh was ranked 127th.

On Wikipedia, Kenzhekhanuly found just 7,000 articles and only four people who edited them on a regular basis.

When Kenzhekhanuly returned home to Kazakhstan, inspired by what he learned in America, he set out to change that. After recruiting a few friends, he founded WikiBilim (bilim means knowledge in Kazakh) and set the organization’s first major goal: creating 200,000 Kazakh-language Wikipedia articles in honor of the country’s 20th anniversary of independence.

While Kazakh isn’t in danger of extinction, the language became less common when Kazakhstan was brought under Soviet Union rule in 1936-1991. In preserving the language, Kenzhekhanuly hopes to also share the heritage, cultural values and expertise of its native speakers.

In just one year, WikiBilim’s Kazakh language Wikipedia site grew from 7,000 articles to 170,000 articles. Today, the site has around 220,000 entries written in the Kazakh language, all monitored by a community of 250 editors.

Kenzhekhanuly believes the ability of editors to quickly update entries in Wikipedia is the platform’s greatest strength. “It’s bigger and more comprehensive. And it’s updated all the time,” he said.

In 2011, Kenzhekhanuly was named the first “Wikipedian of the Year” in Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ “State of the Wiki” address. The honor included paid travel to Wikimania in Washington and a cash award.

But Kenzhekhanuly’s work isn’t finished. With WikiBilim, he is also working to digitize all of the books ever written in Kazakh and to add the language to Google Translate.

“Crowdsourcing projects like Wikipedia or Google Translate can help our mission and … can be done by people,” he said. “That is the power of the internet.”