Mother-tongue education in Kurdish

Kurds demand education in Kurdish

Ahmet Türk of the DTP says the Turkish government needs to include education in Kurdish in its Democratic Initiative.  Without mother-tongue education, he says, there will be no solution to ongoing problems.  Kurds in Turkey have long sought public education in Kurdish, a language spoken by millions of people there.  Back in February Türk spoke Kurdish in parliament in recognition of International Mother Language Day to raise awareness of language disparity issues in Turkey.

Mother tongue education is the idea that a learner is taught the fundamental concepts of a topic in their first language (Kurdish).  The idea being that children absorb concepts easily in their own familiar languages and can gain a fundamental understanding of them.  But in a second language (Turkish) they simply become words that are learnt, but not absorbed. If children are to reach their full educational potential, it is extremely important that the grounding of these learners be made in their mother tongue.  Kurdish, not Turkish. Mother-tongue medium education, simply put, is formal education in the language you speak at home with your parents and siblings.

The most central of linguistic human rights is the right to mother-tongue medium education in state schools.  All state-run schools in Turkey, however, use only Turkish.  There is no Kurdish public education at all.  Many Kurdish children arrive on their first day of elementary and do not know any Turkish.

Ciwan, a six-year old Kurdish boy, in a Turkish classroom. LIFE: January 2003

Teaching through the medium of a dominant language, in this case Turkish, is subtractive.  That is, Turkish is learned, not in addition to, but rather at the expense of, the child’s mother tongue, Kurdish.  Subtractive education which replaces the children’s mother tongue is genocidal, according to the UN Genocide Convention definition of genocide.  The Turkish educational system is a direct agent in Kurdish cultural and linguistic genocide.  Yes, it is genocide.  It forcibly transfers children from their own cultural and linguistic group to another one.

Lack of mother-tongue education is not the only hurdle to education for Kurds in Turkey.

The lack of school buildings for primary education also contributes to the low rates of schooling. Most of the almost 6,000 primary schools in the Kurdish regions of SE Turkey are deficient in basic educational material and equipment.  There is also a shortage of educational instructors, which results in high student-teacher ratios.  Up to 90-100 students per qualified instructor in some areas.  The average in western Turkey is 19 students per teacher.

The major stumbling block to Kurdish educational rights, however, is the Turkish constitution.

The preamble of the Turkish constitution states:

…no protection shall be accorded to an activity contrary to Turkish national interests, the principle of the indivisibility of the existence of Turkey with its state and territory, Turkish historical and moral values or the nationalism, principles, reforms and modernism of Atatürk.

Articles 3 and 42 of the Constitution state that the official language of the state is Turkish and that no other language other than Turkish can be taught to Turkish citizens in any educational institution.

And the Turks mean any educational institution.  It doesn’t seem to matter if the educational institution is even in Turkey.  An example cited by Amir Hassanpour in his article ‘Kurdish Language Policy in Turkey’ talks about how the Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen tried to stop a Kurdish language training course for Kurdish teachers there by saying that ‘participants were still Turkish citizens and were thus not entitled to break Turkish law.’  To wit, being educated in Kurdish.

The CHP (People’s Republic Party) has stated flatly that education in the Kurdish language is one of their red lines not to be crossed.   CHP leader, Deniz Baykal feels that granting the right of education in languages other than Turkish would lead to division of the country.  And many in Turkey share his views.

from UNESCO: Mother tongue dilemma

Prime Minister Erdoğan has said that assimilation is a crime against humanity and that children should get educated in their native language.  Was he speaking about Kurdish children in Turkey?  No.  He was speaking about Turkish children living in Germany during his recent visit there.  And now Turkish children at schools in parts of Germany will receive an education in their mother tongue.  But apparently this multilingual approach to education is too controversial for Turkey.

According to Clair Thomas, an author of the recent report ‘The State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009,’ policymakers often mistakenly believe that education in a home language will mean that children will never really master a national or majority language.

‘In fact the opposite is true,’ she said. ‘What we are really talking about is multilingual education, whereby children start speaking the language they speak at home, and other languages are gradually introduced over time.’

There’s a new film out which has the English title ‘On the Way to School’ that deals with some of these issues in the educational system in Turkey.  On the Way to School is a docu-drama style film about a Turkish teacher who is appointed by the government to go and teach in a remote Kurdish village where, he finds, the students don’t speak Turkish. In Turkish the title is ‘İki Dil, Bir Bavul’, which translates as ‘Two Languages, One Suitcase.’


Kurdish move not satisfactory, says DTP leader.  Hürriyet Daily News, 30 November 2009.

Çalişlar, Oral, Why would education in Kurdish separate Turkey? Hürriyet Daily News, 02 September 2009.

Rizvi, Haider. Mother Tongue absent in thousands of classrooms. IPS News, 16 July 2009.

Hava, Ergin. German schools to give Turks education in mother tongue.  Today’s Zaman, 27 November 2009.

The Kurdish “non-education” in southeast Turkey. Peyama Azadî, 26 June 2009

Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. Working Session: Cultural Diversity and Linguistic Diversity, International P.E.N. Diyarbakır PEN Seminar on Cultural Diversity, Diyarbakir/Amed, 20-25 March 2005

Yavuz, Ercan. Education in Kurdish language seems unlikely in Turkey. Today’s Zaman, 28 July 2009


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