Mandatory Turkish puts Kurdish pupils at disadvantage

In a village in eastern Turkey at 8.30 in the morning, around 20 children gather outside a small square building for the daily anit, the student pledge: “I am a Turk, I am honest, I am hardworking.”

It is cold, and some of the smaller children shiver while they repeat the lines after one of their classmates. Since 1972, the pledge ends with Ataturk’s famous line: “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk.'”

Yet not one of the children – or the teachers – is Turkish. There are an estimated 11-15 million Kurds in Turkey. In schools they have to speak Turkish. And that, according to teachers at this small, rural primary school, is where the problems begin.

Yusuf, the school’s headteacher, says the oath is mandatory. “Every morning I make my students tell lies. None of the children are Turks. Everyone here, including us teachers, is Kurdish.”

Kemal, a teacher for over 15 years, says that the school lacks space, educational materials, and another teacher. But the main problem, he thinks, is the language: “By law, we teachers are forced to speak Turkish [in class], but some children don’t understand. You put pressure on them; you basically treat them as if they were slow-witted, but the children in front of you simply do not understand because they do not speak Turkish.”

Article 42 of the Turkish constitution, ratified in 1982, two years after the military overthrew the government in a violent coup, states that “no language other than Turkish can be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens”. Turkey has refrained from acceding or fully complying with international treaties that guarantee the right to use one’s mother tongue in education.

According to a report published by the Diyarbakir Institute for Political and Social Research last March, Kurdish students who are educated in a language they do not fully understand suffer communication problems, trauma, feelings of exclusion and shame. They are less likely to succeed in school, and more likely to drop out early.

“They are disadvantaged from the very start of their education,” Yusuf says. “So much potential goes to waste. A child who might otherwise become a doctor or an engineer in the future is lost already in primary education.”

Compared with their Turkish classmates, it sometimes takes years longer for Kurdish students to learn how to read and write. “When you look at the statistics, students in Diyarbakir, Hakkari, Sirnak and other places where people speak little or no Turkish in daily life are those with the worst results. That’s no accident,” Yusuf adds.

Citing his own childhood experiences, Kemal says he tries to be as sensitive as possible to a student’s language difficulties: “As a child, I would have loved to answer the teacher’s questions. But I did not speak Turkish then, so I was regularly beaten.” Even though it is illegal to use Kurdish in a classroom, both Kemal and Yusuf say they are often forced to do so.

Since the recent introduction of pre-schools in the Kurdish region, the numbers of first graders that do not speak Turkish has decreased, but the lack of language education leads to different problems, Yusuf explains: “Some students know neither Kurdish nor Turkish properly. How are these children supposed to learn anything at all?” Many children speak only Kurdish at home, but never learn how to read and write in their mother tongue.

Turkish teachers working in the Kurdish regions complain about the lack of preparation during their training. “We don’t learn how to deal with children who do not speak Turkish, there are no textbooks dealing with multilingualism,” one guidance counsellor, originally from western Anatolia, said.

“I want to learn Kurdish,” she added. “My job is about communicating with the children and the parents, but how am I supposed to do that? How am I supposed to console a crying six-year-old through a translator? How am I supposed to convince Kurdish parents to send their children to school if I cannot make myself understood?”

Necdet Ipekyüz of the Diyarbakir-based Human Rights Foundation of Turkey said: “It is traumatic for an individual to have their own native language illegalised. If a language exists and lives, it will be used. There is no such thing as granting the right to use it.” He continues: “The language issue is the one thing that Kurds of all factions agree on. There are many different and sometimes contradictory demands when it comes to the Kurdish conflict, but the right to their native language is the red thread that unifies Kurds.”

Analysts do not think that the fear of separatism through native language education is justified. According to a recent Crisis Group Europe report, most Kurds prefer dual- and multilingual schools to a Kurdish-only curriculum. For Yusuf, the Kurdish conflict stands and falls with the free use of language: “Native language education is the only way to ensure peace. As long as there is no right to native language education, the south-east will not develop. The only way to prevent unemployment and violence is a solid and just education system.”

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