Wednesday, 27 June 2012, 08:23 GMT
Kurdish as an Elective,Language Rights in Turkey

Elementary Kurdish students pose for a photo in a school in Diyarbakir/PRESS PHOTO

The Kurdish Globe
By Dr. Amir Sharifi

The decision to offer Kurdish as an elective course in Turkey has had extensive repercussions throughout the world. Heralded as an educational reform, the initiative has generally been seen as a positive development in Turkish politics and language planning.

Some have seen this initiative as a political decision to quell the unabated Kurdish demand for full linguistic recognition and the right to education in the primary language while others see it as an attempt to convince the European Union (EU) that Turkey is still pursuing the path of reform albeit incrementally to earn its long awaited accession to membership in EU. While the initiative has been presented as an educational breakthrough, upon closer scrutiny, as language in education planning, it leaves much to be desired as the status of Kurdish will remain controversial and unsettled in Turkey.

The initiative provides for the choice of Kurdish as an elective thereby extending the right to education in private schools to teaching the language as an elective in public schools, and as such it is a positive step in the democratization process; nevertheless, it is not sufficient to meet the very basic conditions of the right to public education in one's native language as it does not create the favorable conditions for the full realization of linguistic rights. Kurdish is still treated as a secondary, ancillary, superfluous language in tautological sense.

Prime minister Erdogan in announcing the initiative stated "[it] had been created after painstaking and careful research into international education systems, particularly those of the EU countries" Zaman, June12, 2012). It is not clear what EU or international criteria are being implicated here, but the EU Article 14 Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on linguistic rights specifically recommends that "states should endeavor to ensure adequate opportunities for [languages] being taught in the minority language or for receiving instruction in this language."

The Framework Convention based on Lisbon Treaty explicitly protects language rights and provides for free private and public, oral and written use of minority languages. The question that arises is how this new initiative is going to change anything when young children are denied the right to education in their primary language, The best international norms encourage native language schooling as the most significant way to reverse and revive language loss. What would change if the official language, the language of education, the language of courts, even the language of religion and culture remains Turkish? How is this going to change anything when Turkish is increasingly acquiring more Kurds and a century of linguistic homogenization has impoverished and impeded the creation of linguistic resources and coordinated bilinguals ?

Many Kurds in Turkey because of language discrimination, social mobility, education, displacements, forced evacuations, work or migration have shifted to Turkish and continue to experience language loss at an alarming rate. A great many Kurds in Turkey young and old suffer from linguistic insecurity and incompetence as they struggle in both Turkish and Kurdish. Efforts to ensure linguistic rights are inseparable from human rights. Unfortunately the initiative does not seek to provide parity and free public native language education although on the surface Turkish as the official language has been justified as a social and economic equalizing force. (Kuzu, 55).

An obvious advantage of this initiative is the symbolic acceptance of Kurdish in education as an elective may become a significant step psychologically in transforming the Turkish entrenched monolingual ideology and negative public views and attitudes Vis a vis Kurdish. Based on reactions I have seen and read, most Kurds are skeptical about the prospects and promises of this initiative primarily because the measure is the by-product of a top down approach in which Kurds were not included nor does it seriously address the vulnerable position of the Kurdish language as Turkish will continue to be the dominant language .

It is not clear which EU criteria the prime minister and the research team have used. EU is unequivocal about the use of the primary language in primary education in areas where minorities such as Kurds constitute a distinct ethnic and national majority. If Turkey wants to follow the EU criteria, a principled language policy is to follow the examples of multilingual countries with two or more official languages. EU has currently 23 official languages. For example, Austria is a country with multiple official languages. Likewise Switzerland recognizes multiple official languages including German, French, Italian, and Romansch; Belgium is trilingual: Dutch, French and German. Beyond EU, such models are not uncommon in the world at large. Iraq now has two official languages along many regional languages. Even in Israel Arabic enjoys official status with Hebrew.

In South Africa, eleven official languages are recognized, but government uses only two; In Tanzania, Swahili is used as the national language and Swahili and English serve as official languages. To address the chronic problem of a flexible and liberal language policy and planning, Turkey should confront the fact that it is not a monolingual state with a common language nor is it a state with a lingual franca as it is the case with Castilian in Spain where other languages also have official status as well. Turkey could continue to use Turkish as a national language to ensure the political unity of the country while granting Kurdish the official language status would enable the language to be used as a medium of local communication, administration, and education.

Such a comprehensive policy will be in accord with the EU and world criteria, non-discrimination laws that would encourage bilingualism in the true sense of the word.

The struggle over language rights is in essence inseparable from the struggle over human rights. Only expanding constitutional rights can accommodate language minorities. Kurdish as an elective arbitrarily and unilaterally treats the language of a minority not as a natural but subjective right, leading to various justifications for its linguistic discrimination and denial of language rights. The present initiative will not reverse the tortured and familiar path of language shift and marginalization for Kurds who will continue to receive instruction in the majority language as they will inch forward to enjoy their long recognized and cherished language rights.

Dr. Amir Sharifi

California State University, Long Beach


President of the Kurdish American Education Society

Kuzu Duruku, A Self-Governing Group or Equal Citizens? Kurds, Turkey and European Union. Journal of Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe.Vo9. No.1 2010.pp 32-65.

The Council of Europe, Framework Convention for Protection of National Minorities, Art 14