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

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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]

    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."


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  • Anonymous translation missing: en_GB, datetime, distance_in_words, almost_x_years

    Congratulations for this nice work. I hope some day all people in Turkey learn both their mother tongues and the official language, Turkish. And I hope authorities understand the fact that Kurdish is a part of the linguistic treasure and that it can be used in many fields including education, science, culture, arts and literature.

  • Anonymous translation missing: en_GB, datetime, distance_in_words, almost_x_years

    thank you for this news..

  • Anonymous translation missing: en_GB, datetime, distance_in_words, almost_x_years

    I’m following newsbreaks closely, by not missing any one of them.

  • Anonymous translation missing: en_GB, datetime, distance_in_words, almost_x_years

    Why should a Turk be interested in Kurdish while there is our own Turkish language available?

  • Anonymous translation missing: en_GB, datetime, distance_in_words, almost_x_years

    Yes, Kurdish is very important in this society in my opinion, as a Laz person.

  • Anonymous translation missing: en_GB, datetime, distance_in_words, almost_x_years

    You’re publishing falsified news. You’re acting biased. Like the governing gentlemen, you too are trying to legalize the demands of the terrorists and to make out the people who martyr Turks and who become the tools of imperialists as if they are innocent, poor people. Now, I’m asking you: Weren’t you born within the land of this country? Haven’t you breathe the air of this country? Didn’t you eat the bread and drink the water of this country? Didn’t you go to the schools of this country? Didn’t you benefit from the hospitals, roads of it? People of which country in the world have done any single one of the billion of things that you’ve done to to your country and to your people? What benefit will trying to break up of the language of this country bring to you? It’s evident that you don’t know the history. Do you know why the Chinese have build the Great Wall? Do you know by which methods they’ve defeated the Turkish nation which they could not overcome in wars?Do you know why The Great Leader Ataturk has founded Turkish Linguistic Society and Turkish Historical Society and why he treasured them? If you knew that, you wouldn’t try to attrack the interest of Turkish nation into this area by publishing such a fabrication news. I don’t know whether my these writings will be published or not. The important point for me is to ensure the person who prepared this news to read them and this is enough for me. Regards.

  • Anonymous translation missing: en_GB, datetime, distance_in_words, almost_x_years

    I think racists are right. They should destroy every language and person that is not Turkish, right? The wise would understand what I mean.

  • Anonymous translation missing: en_GB, datetime, distance_in_words, almost_x_years

    As a Kurdish person I do not like the Kurdish lesson.

  • Anonymous translation missing: en_GB, datetime, distance_in_words, almost_x_years

    Everything aside, all states respect our history, our language and our name. This is worth everything. I’m a Kurd and I’m proud of it.

  • Anonymous translation missing: en_GB, datetime, distance_in_words, almost_x_years

    I am a Kurd, too, but these things sound like a show. Learning Kurdish instead of Turkish would not provide a benefit to anyone. I don’t know it and furthermore, I don’t feel the need to know it in this country. My children better learn English. They cannot communicate with people in Kurdish when they go to Europe in the future.

  • Anonymous over 1 year

    As I know there is not one Kurdish mutually intelligible language in Turkey, many Kurds claim that they do not understand other Kurds’ Kurdish. You can’t even show books which was written in Kurdish in 1500’s- 1800’s-1950’s. Kurds exist cause they are tribal people, many Kurds are already melted in Turkishness, the rest are uneducated people who apply endogamy.

Name: Anonymous - Have your comments posted immediately!

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