Why Is Turkey against Bilingualism at the Same Time That Turks Are Opening Schools around the World Teaching Turkish?

Kurdishaspect.com - By Dr. Aland Mizell

Kurds demand their natural right to have an education in their mother tongue. The Turkish government insists that this will never happen. In my view, if Turks are able to teach Turkish around the world, why don’t Kurdish children have the right to an education in their mother tongue? When Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, President Gul, and other ministers visit Turkish schools abroad and listen to foreigners speak Turkish, they get very emotional and even cry. When they hold the Turkish language Olympia in Istanbul bringing students from all over the world who speak the best Turkish language, the event makes them proud. Why can they not have the same feeling towards Kurds who live in Turkey and belong to that part of the world? Why are they part of that country but yet cannot have their own mother language? Using the mother tongue is one of the most basic human rights and one affecting all aspects of life, yet the Turkish government takes that right way from the Kurds.  Famous freedom fighter Nelson Mandela said,”if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his mother tongue language, that goes to his or her heart.” A mother tongue language is important because it shapes identity, personality, skills, character, and other aspects revealed through the mother tongue that give confidence.

Turks for a long time have been distorting general knowledge about the Kurds and the Kurdish people. It is time for the international community and Fethullah Gulen’s admirers to raise questions about this distortion and lack of fairness. Since Gulenists are teaching Turkish around the world, they should also allow Kurds to learn their own language because according to Gulen’s claim, education must be based on recognition of the pluralism of cultures, civilizations and faiths. Also, Gülen stresses the necessity of keeping one’s identity. For Gülen, the world has become a global village as a result of rapid development in transportation and communication. Countries and nations have become like next-door neighbors. However, we must make sure that we protect our essential characteristics such as religion, language, history, and the motherland. It is time for Turks and some intellectuals to change their lens of prejudice, because the Turkish government and intellectuals are wearing the wrong prescription.

It is important for Kurdish parents and Kurdish educators to support their children’s learning and training in their native Kurdish language. As a student of linguistics and education, I have strongly encouraged students to develop literacy in their mother tongue and to be proud of their unique culture. Each language represents a special culture and thus beauty to everyone, and the Kurdish language is no exception. Further, the mother language is definitely an asset and treasure for Kurds. Consequently, it is the responsibility of Kurdish leaders, intellectuals, and everybody who values the mother language to preserve the Kurdish language.  It is important for Kurdish children to have an education in their mother tongue and to pass it down from generation to generation. Having been privileged to speak other languages, I know that this language acquisition contributes many advantages in my life because learning another language brings other opportunities and helps us to understand other cultures better.   Also, learning another language helps us to understand our mother tongue better. Research shows that most children eventually learn a second or third language to a native like fluency level, but sometimes we fail to understand that many children are at risk of losing their mother tongue language. The Kurdish language exemplifies this trend, because at school children learn Turkish not Kurdish, so that many Kurds do not speak their own language and some even totally forget it. Even Abdullah Oçalan, the PKK leader charged with “terrorist” activities, gave his court defense in Turkish rather than in the Kurdish language.

A mother tongue has a very important impact on the formation of the individual because it shapes his or her thoughts and emotions.  Children’s character and personality development depends on the mother languages and helps children’s mental and emotional growth. Psychologists argue that language expression and words that we choose when we speak to children are important. In my undergraduate study, I minored in linguistics. One of my linguistics professors maintained that differences in brain activity existed when the subjects were shown words in their mother tongue versus in the other languages they speak because the brain waves have a much higher amplitude when the word is in the mother tongue. In addition, research shows how differently the brain absorbs and recalls language learned in early childhood rather than later in life. For a child the learning of concepts, skills, and perception of existence begins with the mother tongue and what is taught to him or her. Further, research shows that the brain absorbs the mother tongue at a time when it is also storing early visual, acoustical, emotional, and non-linguistics activities. It shows that people dream, think, and feel emotions in the mother language. When we speak our mother tongue, it gives us a direct connection between our heart, brain, and language.

Therefore, it is a moral question to ask, “Is it right for the government not to let Kurdish children have an education in their mother tongue?” Changing a person’s language means changing his thoughts. Fairness is what justices really is, so the Turkish government should be fair and just toward everybody.  By practicing justice, the Turkish government will come to mind when the next generation thinks of fairness, caring, equality, and integrity. Fairness is not words, but an action, as the proverb says, actions speak louder than words. Kurdish children‘s right to be educated in their mother tongue and to learn Kurdish is being violated in Turkey. If the focus of teaching tolerance in education is to deal with the concept of equality, justice, and fairness as well as to establish confidence in children, so that there is more goodness in the world, then I would have expected Gulenists to support Kurdish children’s learning in their mother language because they know how important it is to have an education in the mother language. Kurds should be treated like everybody else and should not have a double standard used for them.

I am sure every country and nation should make it a matter of national pride to teach their children in their mother tongues because language is at the very heart of culture and identity. Kurds should not be deprived of it. Nothing can be as important to a people as the preservation and transmission of their inheritance and identity. I would argue that bilingualism is a positive factor rather than a divisive one and, therefore, is necessary to strengthen the unity among the various ethnic and linguistic groups in Turkey. Learning Kurdish will not lead Turkey to collapse nor will it divide the country, but certainly the continuation of prejudice and injustice toward a particular group may lead to more division in society.  A friend from Jamaica once told me that when they were first colonized by the Spanish and British, the African slaves were not allowed to read or write; therefore, in order to communicate among each other, the tribes developed their owned language with various dialects. Children find it hard to speak English because they are not encouraged to use it but instead Patois as their native language. This kind of policy causes confusion among Jamaican children.  Unfortunately, many enslaved and colonized people around the globe are somehow ashamed to speak their native language because it is considered inferior to the language of the colonizer. It is sad and has very significant effects on children’s development because it affects their self-confidence and self-image.

Kurds are not exceptional in this case. Even some Kurds in Turkey do not consider themselves Kurdish because of the same reason. If the Turkish government and leaders were wise enough, then for many years this Kurdish issue would not have become a major block for Turkey’s economic and social growth and leadership in the region, because people would be confident in expressing themselves without being stigmatized as backward or of a lower class. It would make a huge difference in Turkey if Kurdish were accorded the distinction of a state language. Democracy will not survive in Turkey without the guidance of Kurds and other minorities, and the issue of language rights is emblematic of the larger concern about democracy.

In conclusion, I think that if Turkey wants to be a global and regional power, the government must solve the Kurdish problem democratically; otherwise, it will be a major block for Turkey. The mother tongue helps to articulate values and to express hopes and ideas.  Also, it helps to develop self-confidence and a unique identity--increasingly important in a global society. The objective for Kurds to learn their mother tongue is to promote and to propagate their unique heritage with unity in diversity strengthening the Turkish society rather than breaking it up. The mother tongue is the most basic human right, so that in all aspects of life, the Turkish government should not take away that right from the Kurds.  I strongly believe bilingualism is not a negative factor but rather a positive one that will contribute a great richness to the Turkish culture; it will not be divisive but will strengthen the unity among other minorities. Mother tongue languages help children’s mental and emotional growth, and give them self-confidence to express themselves better. I do believe Gulenists and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) recognize how important it is for minorities to have an education in their mother tongue, but because this bilingualism proposal certainly comes from the BDP, they do not agree with it.

I also think it is important for the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to propose bilingualism in the schools because they are representing the Kurds and are democratically elected leaders. I would argue that the mother tongue language would help Kurdish children to learn to speak Turkish and other languages well.  Research has proven that many skills acquired in the first language can be transferred to the second language. For example, if a Kurdish child developed excellent reading skills in Kurdish, he or she would more likely be able to apply those skills when reading Turkish or other languages. If students have gaps in their mother languages, sometimes it causes a problem of identity and self confidence as well. All Turkish citizens should develop and maintain a level of spoken and written Turkish, but the ban on the Kurdish language should be lifted without any conditions, and their linguistic education should be improved, maintained, and developed. Language services should be provided, and printing media and libraries should be expanded and improved, because learning Kurdish in the mother tongue is a fundamental right. The real test of tolerance, brotherhood, and courage came not when the AKP were a minority but now when they are in the majority. Will the AKP have the courage to hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal?

Dr. Aland Mizell is with the MCI. You may reach the author via email at: aland_mizell1@hotmail.com

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February 2, 2011
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