Language in Tajikistan

Language in Tajikistan

Salom, everyone. Last week's Feedback Friday survey included a question about which languages are spoken in Tajikistan. Most people knew that Tajik (or "Tajiki" as they say in Tajik) and Russian were the principal languages used in Tajikistan. Russian was the lingua franca and official government language during Soviet times.

After independence (1991), Tajik became the official national language. In practice, Russian continues to be used for business, higher education, and intellectual discussions, particularly in the cities, while Tajik is used for "home discussions" and in rural areas. When I visited Tajikistan last October, I would often ask my local escorts how to say a particular word in Tajik, which would be followed by a long and heated discussion, in Russian, between the locals, about what the proper word in Tajik was. Eventually, I figured out that even among people who are fluent in both languages, they tend to use Russian among themselves in the business and intellectual contexts, while Tajik is typically reserved for the home and family context. Most students in Tajikistan continue to study both languages in school, though in some remote rural areas the post-independence generation is not developing any fluency in Russian. We experienced that first hand when we hosted a delegation from Tajikistan in 2014, and found that one of the delegates' Russian was really limited to what he learned from Tajik subtitles in Russian movies.

Tajik is a version of Persian/Farsi, which makes sense since Tajikistan was the northern-most extension of the original Persian Empire as well as the Islamic Persian Empire. Many of the great classical Persian poets and philosophers came from the Tajik ethnic areas of Central Asia. People who speak modern Iranian Farsi and Tajik have no difficulty communicating orally, since there is an estimated 90% overlap between spoken Farsi and spoken Tajik. We saw this in practice when one of the first Tajik delegates to visit Albuquerque in 2013 was hosted by an Iranian immigrant family, and conversation flowed easily in their native languages.

 Reading each others' language is a different story, however, since modern Farsi is written in the Arabic script, while Tajik currently uses a modified version of the Cyrillic script, which is also used for Russian and many other Central Asian languages. (Before 1928, Tajik was written with the Arabic script, and the Latin script was used between 1928 and 1940). Although Tajik is a Persian-based language, it also contains many words with Arabic roots, since Arabic is the language of Islam. Those familiar with Turkish will also find many Turkish cognates in Tajik, which come primarily from a common Arabic root.

Basic Phrases in Tajik





ассалому алейкум

Asah-lomu ah-lay-koom

Hello (Informal)






Thank you


Rah-mat/ Tasha-koor






He/ Ba-le




Although Tajik and Russian are the primary languages spoken in Tajikistan, there are a number of other native languages as well.  These include Uzbek (spoken by Uzbek ethnic minorities in the country), Kyrgyz (spoken by Kyrgyz ethnic minorities in the country), Pashto (the language of the Pashtun ethnic group, which is also one of the two official languages of Afghanistan and the second largest regional language in Pakistan) and Shughni, an endangered language from the Pamir region of Tajikistan.

Major Linguistic and Ethnic Distributions in Tajikistan

Linguistic Maptajikistan_ethnic_92

Students in Tajikistan routinely study other foreign languages in school, starting at a young age. When I visited Tajikistan in October 2015 and stayed with the family of one of our artisans, I learned that her 6 year old son was already fluent in Russian and Tajik, and was studying both German and English in school.  He taught me to count to 10 in Tajik, and was quite a task master. In recent years, English has become the foreign language of choice for many Tajik youth, and is widely taught in the cities as well as many rural areas.

The previous US Ambassador to Tajikistan commented a couple of years ago that English language learning resources were her single biggest diplomatic tool. The ability to speak English opens up many foreign exchange and study abroad opportunities, as well as job opportunities, in a country where the economy is struggling greatly and over half the adult male population works as migrant labor in Russia.

I hope you have enjoyed this little excursion into the world of language in Tajikistan. Until the next time.

Rikki Quintana


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