ISTANBUL: Elective Kurdish course offers too little

Today’s Zaman, Turkey
April 1 2012

Education researcher Ayan Ceyhan: Elective Kurdish course offers too little


A longtime researcher in education has told Today’s Zaman for Monday
Talk that suggestions to have Kurdish as an elective course in schools
would fall short of meeting the educational demands of Turkey’s Kurds,
who seek the right to have education in their mother tongue, which is
restricted by the Turkish Constitution.
`An elective Kurdish course would be far from meeting the demands of
Kurds — despite that it would be an important step forward, it would
fall short of solving an important part of the Kurdish problem,’ said
Müge Ayan Ceyhan, coordinator of Ä°stanbul Bilgi University’s Sociology
and Education Studies Unit and an instructor in the sociology

Ayan Ceyhan also indicated that multilingual education is not just
about Kurdish education, as there are several groups in Turkey
demanding rights to have mother tongue education.

`As more groups become visible and voice their demands, those demands
have been perceived as threatening by traditionally dominant groups in
society, but at the same time, there is an opportunity to discuss
issues that have never been discussed and get one step closer to
finding solutions to problems,’ she said.

She has been critical of the fact that debates on education do not
focus on children’s needs, and the tremendous opportunities of
multilingualism have been ignored.

Answering our questions, she elaborated on the issue.

In Turkish literature, there is a special place given to the mother
tongue, or one’s native language, yet when it comes to the Kurdish
language, or even other mother tongue languages, there are still fears
associated with their becoming languages of education in schools.
Where do you think those fears come from?

This has to do with the nation-state ideology. Social groups other
than the dominant groups have been ignored in this process. This is
the main reason. It was a taboo issue in the past, and recently it has
been changing since we have taken some positive steps in that regard,
even though these steps are not enough. As you said, the use of
Kurdish, and also the use of other `minority’ languages — I don’t
like the term `minority’ since it places groups in a hierarchy —
cause concern in society.

Education Minister Ã-mer Dinçer said recently there is nothing wrong
with offering elective Kurdish language courses in schools. He said,
`If you are democratizing Turkey, what problem is there in offering
elective Kurdish language courses in schools?’ What is your opinion of
having Kurdish as an elective course in schools?

There are positive and negative sides to having Kurdish as an elective
course. First of all, Kurds are not a homogenous group of people.
There are different groups of Kurdish children in Turkey. When we look
at this heterogeneity in terms of language, we see that some of them
know little Turkish or no Turkish at all when they start school. There
are also those children whose Kurdish and Turkish are at almost the
same level. And there are also those Kurdish children whose Kurdish is
very little. If we talk about a multilingual education system, for
each group of children, there needs to be a different educational

For which group do you think an elective Kurdish course would be suitable?

For the last group, because they have only a little knowledge of the
Kurdish language. In the suggested system [Ã-mer Dinçer’s], they can
have a chance to learn about their language of inheritance. Even
though those children are Kurdish, their first language is Turkish.
However, such an elective course would be far from meeting the
educational demands of Kurds in Turkey.


Firstly, there is a chance government officials would think that now
that they have given this right to the Kurds, to enroll in elective
Kurdish courses, there is no need to take more steps toward education
in Kurdish. This would be like TRT Å?eÅ? [the Turkish Radio and
Television Corporation’s Kurdish-language channel]; it’s been
important to have it operating — I’ve been criticized by some groups
when I say that TRT Å?eÅ? has made important contributions in regard to
making the Kurdish language visible — but it’s been too little, and
its content can be questioned. I expect similar effects with the
introduction of the Kurdish language as an elective course in schools;
it would be far from meeting the demands of Kurds — despite that it
would be an important step forward, it would fall short of solving an
important part of the Kurdish problem.

`Multilingual education seen as threatening’
Have you seen multilingual education included in the debate regarding
the newly formulized `4+4+4′ education system [in which children would
be able to enroll in vocational high schools after the first four

Not at all. Multilingual education has been seen `threatening’ and as
you mentioned, people associated it with their fears. It’s been
discussed within the context of national security. In the process,
children, who are supposed to be at the center of the debate, have
been disregarded. Multilingualism offers tremendous opportunities, but
it is — not only in Turkey but in other countries that adopt
pro-assimilation policies –presented as a limiting thing to society.
We see that approach in such countries as Germany and Denmark.
Teachers in Germany, for example, have told immigrant parents that
their children will be better off if they speak only German at home.
This is quite problematic. First of all, those parents’ knowledge of
German is limited, and when they try to speak with their children only
in German, they will have to limit their communication. That means
those children would have to grow up without listening to fairy tales.

Is there a misconception that knowing or learning a language will make
it hard to learn another language?

Yes, there is such a misconception and it should be changed by raising
awareness about the issue.

I often hear from Turkish parents who live abroad that when their
children are older than one year old, and they still haven’t spoken a
language — either the language of their parents or the language of
the country that they live in — that the parents start to speak the
language of the country where they live, out of concern that their
children won’t be able to speak either of the languages; they think
they had better learn the language of their new home country. Are they
too concerned?

They are definitely too concerned. For example, when we evaluate the
children of a German father and a Turkish mother, we see that they
respond to their father in German and to their mother in Turkish. We
also see that children are able to make those transitions very easily.
We even see that multilingualism helps children develop
intellectually. Multilingual children are able to process all the
languages that they know and they obtain very quick results out of
that processing. This is a required ability, especially in today’s
world where we receive more and more information, requiring quick
processing. In addition, when a child develops literacy skills in the
language that he or she is best at, then those skills can be easily
transferred while learning a second, third or even fourth and fifth
languages. This is known among linguists as `the principle of
interlingual transfer.’ Therefore, educators should be aware of this
enabling potential and share this knowledge with parents.
Unfortunately, this is not the case; we see the opposite is being

You have done research in this area. Would you share some of your
observations with us from the study?

I conducted field research in a school located in large city in Turkey
where there were mostly Kurdish and Roma children. I asked a teacher
working in that school about the relationship between multilingualism
in children and academic success. The teacher responded that this is
related to the intelligence level of children and has nothing to do
with language. So it was demonstrated that problems with learning a
new language were associated with mental retardation, and aspects of
multilingualism were completely ignored.

`Research needed on educational experiences of Greek, Armenian and
Jewish communities’
Is it possible to say that there is censorship of some languages that
are different from the official language of the state, Turkish?

There is, and it is because children who communicate in Kurdish are
forbidden from speaking Kurdish, even during breaks at school. They
are forced to speak only in Turkish. However, there needs to be a move
in the opposite direction. If children are allowed to communicate with
each other in the language that they know best by whispering during
class, it would allow them to better understand the subject matter.
They tend to consult with each other in a language that they know well
when they do not understand something in class. Otherwise, they
refrain from speaking; they develop fears. I have an example from my
research. We found that there were a group of students who were
getting Kurdish language classes outside school and their Kurdish
language teacher was one of their teachers from school. One student
whispered this into my ear. I asked that student why there was a need
to whisper, and the student told me that s/he did not want their
teacher to get into trouble.

There is also the issue of the quality of education. We see from your
research that even though groups that are considered `minorities’ have
been given rights to education in their mother tongue by the Treaty of
Lausanne, only a small percentage of these children go to special

Yes. For example, only three-fifths of Armenian children of school age
go to Armenian schools in Turkey. One reason for that is related to
the quality of education and the infrastructure. The other reason is
hierarchical approaches to languages. A lot of parents prefer that
their children learn the dominant language. However, literacy in
Armenian does not limit children from learning a second or third
language; on the contrary, it provides more opportunities to develop
mental capacities of children, as I mentioned.

Is it possible to get guidance from the experiences of the Greek,
Armenian and Jewish communities in Turkey as regards the problems
associated with foreign language education?

Yes, it is possible. We have to look at examples in the world in that
regard while there are also local examples that we can look into,
which, I believe, would provide us with even more insights. However,
the bureaucratic process to obtain permission to do research in
schools is quite discouraging. It would be a great contribution to
conduct research in `minority’ schools both in order to eliminate
deficiencies in those schools in regards to quality of education and
not to repeat the same mistakes in other schools where mother tongue
education is considered.


`Multilingual education not just about Kurdish education’
In your research, there are several models of education that are
considered multilingual education.

For example, there is the immersion education model in which education
is given in the second language in the beginning, but then first
[native] language classes are included in the educational program.
Another example is the dual language/two-way immersion model in which
students learn together regardless of what language they speak at
home. The goal is to graduate fully bilingual students. There is also
the transitional model in which education starts with the first
[native] language of the student and later education in the second
language starts; after a while the language of instruction continues
only in the second language or instruction in both languages
continues. There are early transition and late transition programs.

Are these models being discussed in the Ministry of Education or in
other Turkish institutions?

Recently, the Diyarbakir Institute for Political and Social Research
(DÄ°SA) has suggested educational models. However, in general, we are
still holding quite unproductive debates in Turkey in regards to the
issue. The issue is not about just deciding on whether or not there
will be native language education. There are different groups of
people — it is not only about Kurdish/Turkish; there are other groups
of people too — and there are different educational models. It’s a
complex issue. In order to make a decision on which model is best
suited for particular groups, we need to do more research. Effective
education policies need to be backed up by scientific research.
Additionally, there is a need to educate teachers who would be able to
function in various educational models. There is also a need to
provide educational materials to teachers and students. It’s important
to grant the right to education in mother languages, but having this
right does not mean that the implementation will be perfect. Let’s not
forget the prejudices in society. In the school where I conducted
research, a Roma student who watched `The Battle of Gallipoli’ told me
that the battle was between Turks and Kurds. This is really alarming.
In that regard, multilingual education has the potential to contribute
to peace in society.

Would you explain how?

Because you bring together students from different groups; they learn
each others’ languages; they have contact with each other; and they
learn about each other’s cultures. This contact serves positively as
to how perceptions are shaped in regards to equal citizenship. Of
course this would only be possible as long as educationalists know
what they are doing. Research shows that social contact per se would
not be a solution. There are several circumstances under which it is

Can a new constitution help to overcome barriers in front of mother
tongue education in Turkey?

It can and it should. In the present constitution article 42 makes it
impossible to teach any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue
to Turkish citizens in any institution of training or education. I
support the view that it is important to remove legal barriers in
front of mother tongue education, but the real challenge would be its
implementation. And implementation is not independent of how society
views `others.’ In that regard, it is important to evaluate the
content of the school textbooks with regard to biases that they
contain toward different groups in society. The Ministry of Education
has done some work concerning this, and there are studies continuing
to make improvements in school textbooks. It is important to realize
that we are in a social transformation process that has the potential
for both democratization and conflict. As more groups become visible
in the public arena and claim their rights to equal citizenship and
voice their demands to mother tongue education, those demands have
been perceived as threatening by traditionally dominant groups in
society, but at the same time there is an opportunity to discuss
issues that have never been discussed and get one more step closer to
finding solutions to problems.

Your first language is Turkish, and you have been recently learning
Kurdish. Would you share the reasons why?

First of all, it’s a beautiful language. Secondly, learning Kurdish is
beneficial for me as I’ve been doing research in the field. And I also
consider the issue of learning Kurdish to be related to the issue of
the hierarchy of languages. When learning Kurdish becomes a normal
practice in Turkey, then this would have a positive effect on the
Kurdish community’s perception of being considered `equal citizens’ of
the country.


Müge Ayan Ceyhan currently works as the coordinator of İstanbul Bilgi
University’s Sociology and Education Studies Division and as an
instructor in the sociology department. Recently, she worked as a
senior researcher in a Turkey-Germany comparative project on `Literacy
Acquisition in Schools in the context of Migration and
Multilingualism.’ She is an anthropologist practitioner with a DPhil
and MPhil in social and cultural anthropology from the University of
Oxford and holds an MA in translation studies from BoÄ?azici
University. She has been conducting fieldwork in various schools in
Turkey since 2000. Her areas of interest include anthropology of
education, changing conceptions of personhood, school ethnography,
literacy acquisition and multilingual education. She co-authored a
comprehensive report on `Bilingualism and Education’ for the Education
Research Initiative of Sabancı University, and on `Literacy
Acquisition in the Context of Migration and Multilingualism’ for the
Volkswagen Foundation.

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