“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 İstanbul Bilgi University’s Sociology and Education Studies Unit and an instructor in the sociology department.
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.
‘First of all, Kurds are not a homogenous group of people. There are different groups of Kurdish children in Turkey. Some of them know little Turkish, and some others do not know any Turkish when they start school. … elective Kurdish course would be suitable only for children who have only a little knowledge of the Kurdish language. … 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’
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 Ömer 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 model.
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 [Ömer 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 Şeş [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 Şeş 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 years]?
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 done.
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 schools.
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 (DİSA) 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 implemented.
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 Boğazici 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.