Becker goes from AU Spanish classes to the “end of the world” and then co-authors its dictionary

AU alumna Betsy Becker (left) and Jyldyz Sherova Baimatovna with their completed Kyrgyz-to-English dictionary.

02/05/2020 ASHLAND, Ohio – Betsy Becker has all the hallmarks of a modern-day adventurer.

She is curious, unafraid and she knows there’s a whole lot of world out there beyond her native Ashland.

Just months after her 2004 graduation from Ashland University, Becker went off to be a stranger in a strange land, yet made it her home. She spoke not one word of its language, yet ended up writing a dictionary.

That comes as no surprise to Becker, nor to AU Spanish Professor Dr. Barbara C. Schmidt-Rinehart. “She was always vivacious and curious and inquisitive and wanting to learn more,” Schmidt-Rinehart said. “And she had a sense of humor. She’s able to handle this.”

“This” is life in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous, landlocked country of 6 million, where Becker has lived and worked for 15 years.

It’s a long way from Spanish classes at Ashland University, even though Becker admitted “the intent was not to be a Spanish teacher, but to go live overseas somewhere.” Her first foray out of the country was a month in Mexico through AU’s study abroad program. Then came three months in Spain the summer after her sophomore year – which led her to the conclusion that Europe was not for her.

Following graduation, Becker was given two choices of locations where she could start her English teaching career -- Buenos Aires, Argentina or in a small town in Kyrgyzstan. Choosing the later, “I packed two bags and left,” she said.

While fluent in Spanish, “I went to Kyrgyzstan with zero – zero” knowledge of Kyrgyz, Becker said.

While Russian often is spoken in Kyrgyzstan’s cities, Kyrgyz is the language of the towns, villages and rural areas. It’s a Turkic language, “so the entire grammar structure is backwards from English,” she said, and it “doesn’t have a whole lot of words, so you have to do more with the words you have.”

The language wasn’t so much an issue when Becker was teaching at a university, because she taught in English. Life outside the classroom was a bit different.

It was learning mostly by immersion. After mastering, “My name is Betsy. I’m learning Kyrgyz,” she went right out to the children from a school near her home. She’d point to things; the children would name them. “Every time I’d go outside, these kids would see me,” Becker said. “They’d come running.”

And rather than be stressed or anxious about what she didn’t know, Becker quite enjoyed herself. “I loved the season of learning,” she said. “It was fun.”

After seven years and a visa issue, Becker went from teacher to student. All that learning on the fly paid off, as her master’s area of study was Kyrgyz philology and intercultural studies. Her thesis: A Comparative Analysis of the English- Kyrgyz Verb Categories. It was admittedly, she said, a lot of work.

“I spent a whole week in the library, just learning helping verbs,” Becker said. “And I thought, ‘how many times did I use the wrong helping verb and totally insulted someone’.”

If she did, no one said anything. In fact, apart from the beauty of the country, it is Kyrgyzstan’s people who have led her to thinking of the country as home. Even when she was stopped by a police officer while driving what she referred to as her “iron yak”, the incident ended with the man praying for and blessing her.

Becker went on to a rehab center to work with with children with disabilities, a population often misunderstood and underserved. “There is zero information in Kyrgyz about how to handle your kids” or understanding their issues, she said. What little does exist often is in Russian.

For four years, Becker and Jyldyz Sherova Baimatovna worked on a Kyrgyz-to-English dictionary, which not only listed the words and their definitions, but also included the context in which the words would be properly used. The words were all entered and tracked into a computer program, though the process was still quite time-consuming.

But eventually, the project went to the printer, though Becker recalled with a laugh that an employee who was supposed to collate the finished product was kidnapped for marriage. That is not an unusual occurrence, she said, at least not in Kyrgyzstan.

So comfortable has her Central Asian home become that just last summer, Becker led a group of tourists on a six-week excursion across Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan to help them better understand the nomads who populate those regions. The region is growing in popularity among tourists looking for beautiful vistas while still in a safe area.

“This is as remote as it gets,” said Becker. “The end of the world? We found it.”

For now, Becker is temporarily back in the U.S. and headed for Indiana University’s Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region, the sponsoring organization for her visa and where she will help provide language and cultural resources to add to their Kyrgyz textbook. She gets “home” to Ashland every few years, but misses her other home in Kyrgyzstan and vice versa. “Home,” Becker said, “is wherever I am not.”

Becker’s experiences are just the kinds of travels that Schmidt-Rinehart hopes other AU language students will emulate. “There’s a whole world out there,” she said, and being able to learn a language helps unlock it. “If you do immersion, it becomes meaningful. It changes you.”


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