Diyarbakır Institute for Social and Political Research’s commissioned book “Language Wound: Turkey’s Problem of Not Using Mother Tongue in Education” was co-authored by three academicians and contains narratives of students, educators as well as parents.
Ruşen: “When I first started elementary school, I started crying because I wasn’t able to speak Turkish back then. The teacher is speaking in Turkish and you cannot understand a single word, thus you start crying.”
Gülbahar: “Since we were not able to express ourselves, there was an inevitable distance forming between us. Whatever problems we had, we could not communicate it. Some of our friends were not financially well off. If someone’s collar was torn or something happened, we could not communicate this to the teacher. Thus the teacher started shouting as if the child was reckless or naughty. This is how the teachers perceived the kid. But the problem is that the child and his/her family does not have the means to afford the uniform and cannot explain this to the teacher. Or the child may have other problems at home or about the lesson and homework but is unable to explain these as well. Since the lesson is instructed in Turkish, the kid does not know when to do which homework thus arrives in class without having done the homework most of the time. When I was in elementary school, I did something; the thing they call “building a reputation” in math class. I built a reputation alright but when the words you can read are approximately fifty or less both the teacher and I was in a state of shock. The teacher beat those who could only read fifty or less words. But (s)he beat me the most. There was a how can she still not know” kind of reaction. Our failures or incomprehension nearly always resulted in a beating, a slap or a whacking of some sort. When the teacher asked you a question and you were unable to answer, this was perceived as stubbornness. And this drew reaction and the situation almost always reacted in beating. Our biggest problem in elementary school was this.”
Ahmet: “…sometimes the teacher would completely lose it. He would say ‘I keep explaining it to you and you still don’t understand?’ and we really wouldn’t. We would speak but also look him in the eyes. We wouldn’t know what he was talking about so we would keep quiet. This made us passive as students. We would try to remain silent most of the time.”
Sidar: “You are ripped out from your family and thrown into a completely new environment, a new language… Of course, it was extremely difficult. You cannot express yourself, feel like the underdog, you lose self-esteem. When we started receiving education in a completely new language, we started splitting from our own language. We are neither fluent in Kurdish nor in Turkish. Speaking one language on the way home and another on the way to school… There is an inevitable rupture in between. I still have the same difficulty nowadays.”
Ahmet: “Because I didn’t ask any questions in elementary school, I still remain silent until my buttons are pushed and I’m in college now. When a topic is being discussed, I prefer to remain silent. I reckon this comes from my elementary years.”
Osman: “When we entered school, we didn’t speak Turkish. We roughly started learning it by the age of 12-13. That means we started life 15 years in delay.”
Osman: “… you start from one point behind. A 10 year, 15 year of delay… They were able to communicate, the children of policemen, civil servants, teachers. Whatever they saw in domestic life, they only had to repeat it in class. They were ready and did not need any further effort while learning in school. We had to make a great effort.”
Lezgin: “We lived in the city centre. The building we resided in was assigned to us because of my mother’s profession. My mother once called for me in Kurdish. My playmates asked what she was saying. This was at the time of middle school and I replied: ‘She is speaking in French with me.’ Then they went ahead and told their parents that my mother was speaking in French and that we came here from France. The parents knock on our door to ask my mother about the situation. Thus my mother asks me why I said such a thing. I told her that I was ashamed. At the time, the building was predominantly consisting of Turks and almost all were speaking Turkish. In order to be accepted and prevent exclusion, I lied.”
The narratives shared above are from the research conducted by Vahap Coşkun, Şerif Derince and Nesrin Uçarlar of Diyarbakır Institute of Social and Political Research. The study is published as a book with the title “Language Wound”. The participants are real, though their names have been changed. The study’s most striking part are the narratives of 13 individuals who went through the educational system without speaking a word in Turkish.
Teachers who don’t speak Kurdish
The second group of the study are 10 teachers who were trying to teach Turkish to children who only spoke Kurdish.
Ayşegül: “When they are thinking, they think in Kurdish. They don’t know Turkish! That means everything is in Kurdish. Even their dreams… You see that there is no connection with Turkish in their everyday lives. It’s just a language taught in school. (…) When I was teaching the first graders, in a mountain village, the kids were reading pretty well without stumbling or pausing. But when I ask him what the story tells, the answer is ‘I don’t know’. That means he can read but doesn’t understand a single word he is reading. Once I gave an assignment, I told them to read a certain story. There is Ali, Ali’s grandfather has a walking stick kind of story… I asked the class consisting of 30 kids what a walking stick was and not a single person knew what it meant. I slammed the book. They were not able to understand! That is the extent!”
Bengi: “If she could, the child would understand me. Because she cannot understand, she doesn’t grasp anything. I only tell them what to do with signs or body language. Or I explain it to her Turkish speaking friends and ask them to pass it along. I have three students in my classroom who still don’t speak any Turkish. They are in danger of repeating the class. I can see from their faces that there is a great effort and desire to comprehend. But they can’t.”
Melike: “… all the teachers here sometimes ask the same question. Are they not capable of thinking straight? It is impossible to have 31 mentally deficient kids at the same time but I really don’t enjoy my teaching experience.”
Derya: “Sometimes you give away to despair. I worry about what will happen to these kids. They were not born under a lucky star. Linguistically, economically, family wise, environmentally, you name it; they were defeated right from the start. I was raised in the slums of Izmir, even I was luckier than them.”
Ayşegül: “You call for the parents to let them know that they also have to take care of their child educationally and to make them study at home. First of all, they also don’t speak Turkish; on top of that they also don’t know how to supervise a student.”
Teachers who speak Kurdish
The third group examined consisted of teachers who also knew Kurdish and were teaching Turkish to Kurdish speaking kids. You might say they were the “luckier” 12.
Hamdi: “… when I was assigned at Cizre, I taught a total number of 118 classes. Among these 118, there was only one student who could speak a rough Turkish and that was because he had to work as a house painter outside. The others have never encountered Turkish in their lives. Since we were in a rural settlement, TV is not so common. The only things watched are songs and folk songs. That’s it. Nobody really spoke the language. You absolutely feel like an alien in class. Nobody understands you. They constantly look you in the eye, trying make sense of what you are saying, trying to understand, not able to express themselves.”
Abdullah: “Some of our colleagues, just like secret agents, warned us not to speak Kurdish. They would assign other students as spies to go among students and spot who is speaking in Kurdish and would later inform them to the teacher. These spies even infiltrated households.”
Fourth and final group embodies 8 women, mother of children whose language at home and at school are different.
Meryem: “They live with Kurdish at home and Turkish in school. That’s why they get puzzled. They are in great distress. If their classes were in Kurdish, they would be much more successful.”
Xanim: “Sometimes their father would go to parent teacher meetings. As the housewife I wouldn’t. Their father would. They would ask him ‘why don’t you speak [Turkish] at home? Your kids are suffering a great deal.’ He would answer that this is our language. Our children know how to speak Turkish. They went to school until fifth grade. That’s why, this is our language, we are villagers.”
Naze: “To tell you the truth, because I couldn’t speak Turkish, I was not able to help them in any way. They sometimes told me that they didn’t understand and we were unable to assist. The bigger one and the smaller helped each other as siblings. If these were all in Kurdish, it would’ve been easier for them and it would’ve been better for me. I would’ve learned things too.”
This research aimed at investigating psychological, educational, social and linguistic problems that occurred in cases children of Kurdish mother tongue –who either knew very little Turkish or didn’t know at all– were pushed to learn how to read and write in a language they barely spoke and because they were not allowed to use their mother tongue. Along with that, it aimed at determining characteristics of such students and what their needs might be. Here are the results: Lack of communication, Starting off in Defeat, Failing a Class and Dropping Out, Stigmatization, Violence, Silence and Waiting for the Break Bell and those “little people” who are forced to act as informants. The book offers some strategies for resolving this situation. But speaking for ourselves, we didn’t bother to include these methods. We want you to initially think the following: If these were your kids, if you were these teachers or parents who couldn’t speak the language; what would you do?