Mother tongue and the Constitution

As of today, the majority of the Kurdish population is in an agreement that the usage of mother tongue in education has become a “sine qua non”

The new constitution has a close correlation with the Kurdish issue. So much so that, one cannot possibly think of calling a legal document that shows no effort to solve the Kurdish issue and does not incorporate any measure towards this endeavour “a new constitution”. On the other hand, it is impossible to solve the Kurdish issue peacefully without the establishment of a new constitution that addresses Kurdish demands and ensures their resolution.

Ensuring the right to education in mother tongue on a constitutional level shines out as one of the most prominent demands of the Kurdish population. A study we have conducted two years ago regarding this specific issue had given us a chance to interview diverse Kurdish political groups. I’ve encountered that each group had very different convictions concerning the methods and tools that could be put to use to resolve the Kurdish issue. They also didn’t have a sense of congruity on the suitable administrative framework. But when it came to education in mother tongue, all these groups with their distinct opinions were suddenly acting in concurrence with each other using almost identical terminology to express a tantamount demand. The interviews showed that language as a bearer of culture was of utmost importance. They were also unanimously demanding the termination of the assimilation of the Kurdish people and culture and the establishment of mother tongue in education in order to transmit the Kurdish culture to the next generations.

Two important factors

I can state that the emphasis on education in mother tongue has become even more prominent in time. As of today, the majority of the Kurdish population is in an agreement that the usage of mother tongue in education has become a sine qua non. To clarify, I have to underline to important factors: First of all, “mother tongue education” and “the right to education in mother tongue” are two completely distinct things. If a community speaks a different language than the official one, then these communities have a right to teach their own mother tongue to the members of their community. This is what is meant by mother tongue education. State merely makes do with teaching kids their mother tongue very basically within the educational system. On the other hand the totality of the education system relies on the official language. Education in mother tongue entails going through all the processes of the educational system in their own mother tongue. The curriculum, educational documents, tools and equipment as well as the entirety of the educational process have to be in the mother tongue of the child.

Secondly, the right to education in mother tongue neither entails excluding the official language from the educational processes nor eliminates the obligation to learn and teach the official language of the country. In fact, countries that adopt this right include clauses in their legislations that implicitly state that all citizens are obliged to learn the official language as well as envisage the usage of mother tongue and the official language hand in hand. The aim of education in mother tongue is not only to equip the individual with the capacity to use their own mother tongue but also to foster multilingual individuals that are able to express themselves, live on and produce academic content in more than one language.

Constitutions from around the world

The studies I have conducted so far permitted me to observe that the following discourse is besetting and condescending for the Kurds living in Turkey: “What good will it do to the good Kurds if they learned math in their own language? But if they want it so bad, let’s include an elective Kurdish language course (which is only two hours weekly) to the curriculum so that those willing to learn it, may attend.” The Kurds are not demanding any kind of ulûfe [a sort of service pay that was primarily given to the janissaries during the Ottoman rule (tn.)]. On the contrary, they are demanding a right that has been usurped up until today, the right to education in mother tongue. Contrary to the prevailing belief, the Kurdish argument for education in mother tongue neither negates with the official Turkish language nor entails a disconnection or rupture with it. It demands the proper and efficient education of both languages. Thus, this demand should be taken into consideration and if possible, the new constitution should be drafted according to these demands. But, how is this possible? If we look at examples worldwide on how the educational language is decided upon, we come across three types of legal regulations.

The first one only indicates the official language as the language of instruction. We can take a look at article 42 of the current Constitution of 1982 as a prototypical example of this first type. This article makes sure that no language other than Turkish is taught as a mother tongue to citizens at any educational institution. Similarly, constitutions of both Georgia (article 85) and Portugal (article 9f and 74i) make reference to education in official language.

The second type includes those constitutions that make no reference to the language of instruction or education which include countries as Albania, Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, Japan, and USA etc. These constitutions make no reference to the language of education and it is decided by law. Turkey’s own constitutions of 1924 and 1961 show no reference to the language of instruction in the articles (80 and 21-2 respectively) that regulate right and duty to education.

The last type of constitution allows languages other than the official one to be used as a language of education. In order to meet cultural demands concerning language and identity, countries such as Argentina, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bulgaria, Colombia, Estonia, Iran, Malaysia, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine ensure education in mother tongue on a constitutional level. Generally speaking, these constitutions install education in mother tongue a right for the citizens and a duty for the state thus enabling education in mother tongue as a constitutional ruling.

There are two alternatives

Keeping these in mind, Turkey has two options ahead. Firstly, as suggested in the Özbudun draft (article 45), the constitution should not include any prohibitive clause and education in languages other than the official one should be regulated by relevant law.

A second way is to follow in the footsteps of Azerbaijan (article 45), Lithuania (article 37), Kazakhstan (article 37), Russia (article 26) and Slovakia (article 34) and include a right to education in mother tongue within the constitution itself.

I would personally prefer the second path. In my opinion, similar to the Azerbaijani constitution (article 45) “usage of mother tongue” should have a separate place within the constitution thus ensuring that mother tongue is used within public institutions (including educational ones). Constitutions are not written in the void. They are shaped by past events and sociological conditions. State’s approach so far has engendered a great deal of distrust towards the government among Kurds. Hence it is not sufficient to merely lift the bans in order to regain their trust. Securing these rights on a constitutional level and assigning the state as their mandatory protector is vital. Putting an end to language based discrimination and securing linguistic rights visibly in the constitution may play an important role in reconstructing Kurdish population’s trust.


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