Turks show growing interest in Kurdish language
Turks are learning Kurdish to show political solidarity, for research and personal reasons.
By Evrim Kurdoglu for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 02/01/13
Turks and Kurds have lived side-by-side for millennia, but relatively few Turks have gone out of their way to learn the Kurdish language. That's changed in the last decade, as Kurds' growing political assertiveness and the country's more open political atmosphere have inspired more Turks to take up the language.
Teacher Firat Sayan gives a lesson at the Kurdish Institute in Istanbul. [Evrim Kurdoglu/SES Türkiye]
Officials at the Kurdish Institute in Istanbul estimated that Turks accounted for 1 percent of their students 10 years ago, while the figure has jumped to 10 percent in recent times. In another sign of their surging interest, Turks fill half the seats in beginner's courses.
Fırat Sayan, a teacher at the Kurdish Institute in Istanbul, attributed the change to Turkey's evolving political situation.
"In 2004, Kurdish courses became legal with a decision of the Council of Ministers. This increased Turks' desire to study the language. At the same time, political fears around the Kurdish issue began to die down, because the media began to discuss it much more than they used to," he told SES Türkiye.
"As a result, Turks became more informed about the Kurds. They realised that they didn't know the Kurds' language even though they had lived with them for years. These factors had a positive impact on Turks, especially those with leftist tendencies."
Most of them are academics, leftists, or have some kind of a personal connection with Kurds. For researchers and activists, learning the Kurds' mother language is a powerful way to show respect for their culture and build trust, while for people with a Kurdish significant other, it can be a sign of long-term devotion to the relationship.
Ozan Balik, a student at the Kurdish Institute, registered for his first class after a demonstration on World Peace Day a few years ago.
"As a Turk, I wanted to understand the Kurds. They're forced to learn our language in order to live, but they're met with violence and prison when they use their own language," he told SES Türkiye.
"When I enrolled in university [in Adana] I started Kurdish classes at a local cultural centre. When I went one day, I learned that my teacher had been arrested. I was forced to give up the classes at that point, but when I came to Istanbul, the first thing I did was come to the Kurdish Institute here and start up again."
But despite the transformations Turkey has gone through in recent years, learning Kurdish can still be taboo. Many Turkish students hide their studies from their families for fear of upsetting them.
The institute collects interested students' phone numbers and notifies them when suitable courses are opened.
Sayan said he had an awkward interaction with a Turkish family one day when he tried to reach one his pupils.
"When I said I was calling from the Kurdish course, they were very surprised. They didn't know their child wanted to learn Kurdish," Sayan said.
In a sign of tightening bonds between the Turkish left and the Kurds, the family's reaction wasn't enough to dissuade the student.
"When we spoke with our student later, he [angrily] asked why we called. But he came back and learned the language."