Class time for a ‘foreign language’ in Turkey

After decades of bans and suppression in Turkey, taboos against Kurdish in the public sphere are slowly being broken with more universities offering courses about the language. Students are keen to learn but shy to reveal their interest in the language to friends and family…

It is a Monday evening in one of Istanbul’s private universities. A young woman in her early 30s tries to get the attention of her students in order to start their biweekly language class.

“Çawa yî?” (How are you?) she asks a student in Kurdish. “Spas, ez baş im” (I’m fine, thanks), the student replies. As the teacher speaks, a student begins playing a music video downloaded from YouTube on the class projector.

The song is called “Digerim Nagerim” (I’m searching, I’m not searching), by Kurdish musician Koma Azad; deciphering the lyrics are part of a typical start to the elementary Kurdish-language class at Istanbul Bilgi University.

Classes such as this one are part of a wider debate in Turkey – a country whose 42nd constitutional article decrees that only Turkish is permitted as a language for primary education. But members of other ethnic groups, especially Kurds, have been increasingly challenging this law, demanding that their native tongues also become a language of instruction.

Although attempts to make Kurdish a language of instruction in primary and high schools have so far failed, Kurdish has been a popular class at Bilgi University since it was introduced as a “foreign language” elective in 2009.

“This is the fourth semester I am giving Kurdish classes here,” said Ronayi Önen, who works as a part-time Kurdish instructor at the university. “There is a considerable demand from students who want to learn Kurdish. I even have to set a limit on the number of students so lessons can be more interactive.”

Önen is originally from Derik in the southeastern province of Mardin. She is the 11th child in her family and moved to Istanbul when she was 3 years old. “My mother didn’t speak Turkish,” she said. “I learned it through my relatives. I am actually lucky because I have educators in my family. Therefore I had the chance to learn both languages well.”

Önen said she actually studied to be an English teacher. “Yet, when I am teaching Kurdish I am doing it with much more emotion. It doesn’t feel like a job.”

The instructor, however, said she found it absurd that her class was included in the university’s Foreign Languages Department.

“It is the native language of many students [born in Turkey], so it sounds a bit funny when you categorize it under that department,” Önen said. “Kurdish should not be an elective language class; that reminds me of integration courses in other countries. What I think on the other hand is that Kurdish should be a primary language of education in itself.”

Students learn for a variety of reasons

Önen teaches the Kurmanci dialect, which is the most widely spoken Kurdish dialect in Turkey. There are 22 students enrolled in the elementary level Kurdish class and many of them said they wanted to learn Kurdish because of their origins.

“I am originally from Dersim,” said Hakan Sandal, a fourth-year student from the Performing Arts Management Department. “I should have been speaking Kurdish already. But I never learned it because our family was dispersed after the 1938 Dersim incident. So now I am trying to reconnect with my roots. I am trying to understand the way they feel when they speak Kurdish or listen to Kurdish music.”

Until 1935, the present province of Tunceli and surrounding districts were known as Dersim. In an effort to extend control over the area, the Turkish state launched a massive operation in the area in 1937-8 that resulted in a large number of deaths and internal displacements.

Another student, Didem Balta, said she was learning Kurdish because of her grandmother. “My grandmother lost her ability to hear and she started reading lips. But because her Turkish is poor, she can only read lips in Kurdish. I suddenly felt like I had lost my communication with her, that’s why I decided to learn Kurdish.”

Almost all students in the class have Kurdish roots in their families, but some said they were attending purely out of interest.

“I don’t have any ethnic connection,” says Oğul Köseoğlu, a fourth-year student from the Comparative Literature Department. “I am here just to learn the language.”

“My Turkish friends told me that it is a good idea [to learn the language], because they don’t understand what people are saying on the bus and they are disturbed by it,” he said. “My Kurdish friends, on the other hand, didn’t really understand why I was doing it at first – but then they said they would get cross with me if I spoke better than them!”

While many of the students are at the elementary level, some of them are native speakers. “I do speak Kurdish, but I don’t know writing and grammar at all,” says Pelşin, who chose not to give her last name. “Writing is very different than speaking and I am having a hard time.”

Although Pelşin said she was having difficulties learning the language, she said she contributed to the class in many other ways: when the teacher starts singing out of the blue, she accompanies her. “I can sing the songs, but I don’t know some of the words or the sentence structure.”

“It is emotionally difficult to be learning your mother tongue at this age,” said Ayşe, who also did not want to provide her last name. “I always spoke [Kurdish] at home with my mother, but I never spoke it with anyone else. So, it never went deeper than limited words.”

Although the class is an official university class, some students are still hesitant in disclosing to others that they are learning Kurdish – a reason for which many refused to provide their last names.

“I don’t think anything will happen if I give my last name, but still I don’t feel comfortable,” said Pınar.

Music is as important as grammar

The class runs for two hours at a time, twice a week. During this particular lesson, students learned how to make simple present-tense sentences with basic verbs such as walking, thinking and writing, as well as how to describe people. After the grammar session, another YouTube session started with other Kurdish singers such as Serhado Aynur Doğan and Mehmet Atlı, whose popular song “Lolo Pismamo” uses lyrics from famous Kurdish poet Cegerxwîn.

Kurdish music seems to be a common interest for everyone in the class.

“Language is not just about grammar,” Önen said. “I also teach them about literature, songs and village life. You can’t separate language from the culture.”

“I like Kurdish music and literature,” said Pelşin. “I want to read [famous Diyarbakır author] Mehmed Uzun in Kurdish.”

When asked if they would continue learning after the course, they all responded positively.

“I want to continue,” said Pelşin. “And I want to teach it to other people too.”

Kurdish in Turkey

There are close to 15 million Kurds living in Turkey. According to a recent report by Turkish research firm KONDA, 13 percent of the country’s population speaks Kurdish as their mother language.

Until recently, it was a taboo to even speak Kurdish in public spaces due to state policies, and many people were jailed for speaking or listening to music in Kurdish.

Today, usage of the Kurdish alphabet is still problematic, especially Kurdish names containing the letters X, W, and Q, which are not found in Turkish.

Despite the difficult situation, there has been a greater official acceptance of the Kurdish language in the public sphere in recent years.

The government allowed Kurdish courses to be opened in many cities in 2004 while the state-run Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, or TRT, started its own Kurdish-language television station that has been broadcasting 24 hours a day since the beginning of 2009.

Mardin’s Artuklu University founded the first Kurdish department offering post-graduate work in 2009.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also recently said Kurdish Studies departments would soon be opened at other universities.

December 10, 2010


Hürriyet Daily News


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