Preservation of indigenous languages: Kurdish allowed in Turkish schools

Preservation of indigenous languages: Kurdish allowed in Turkish schools

Ankara : Turkey | Jun 12, 2012 at 9:17 AM PDT
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The PKK has been fighting since 1984 to improve the rights of Turkey's 15 million Kurdish citizens

Throughout history, marauding armies invaded countries and oppressed the indigenous populations. One of the first things done to complete an invasion and dilute the population was to outlaw the use of their native language. Beginning in AD 43 with Claudius the Romans began the acculturation of Britain to Roman language and culture. In the modern era, similarly the Chinese are attempting to eradicate Tibetan identity and language with an influx of Han Chinese and their own language and culture.

The move by the Turkish government to enfold the Kurdish language into Turkish culture rather than eradicating it breathes life into the effort to promote worldwide diversity and preserve indigenous language and culture.

For the first time, schools in Turkey will be allowed to teach the Kurdish language as an elective subject, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says in a BBC report.

Erdogan told parliament the measure was "a historic step.”

Turkey has been fighting Kurdish rebels in the country's southeast for decades. Many Kurds have been campaigning for autonomy and cultural rights. Many of the Kurds fled Iraq to surrounding countries to escape genocide perpetrated by Saddam Hussein creating a nation of refugees.

The Kurds are considered the world's largest nation without a state of their own. Numbering approximately 20-25 million people, their traditional territory is divided among the modern states of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, with a small number in the states of the former Soviet Union. Just over four million of these Kurds live in Iraq, constituting about 23 percent of the population.

The Iran and Iraqi War during the 1980s and the Anfal genocide launched by Saddam Hussein is responsible for the murder and torture of men, women and children. The number of those killed remains unknown, but some estimate that somewhere between 300,000 and 1.3 million were killed during this period. Mass graves were still being discovered in Iraq in 2011.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in nearly 30 years of fighting between Turkey's government and the banned Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdish People's Party (PKK).

Tuesday's announcement is the latest in recent reforms introduced by Turkey to ease tensions with the Kurdish minority, who account for about 20% of Turkey's population.

Lessons in the Kurdish language will be granted in schools if enough students asked for them, Erdogan said.

Value Diversity

Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO shared the following message for the 2011 International Mother Language Day: “Information and communication technologies can be especially useful in promoting mother languages. We must harness the power of progress to protect diverse visions of the world and to promote all sources of knowledge and forms of expression. These are the threads that weave the tapestry of humanity’s story.”

Turkey is joining other nations that recognize and value the diversity of language. The Alaska Native Language Archive houses documentation of the various Native languages of Alaska and helps to preserve and cultivate this unique heritage for future generations. As the premier repository worldwide for information relating to the Native languages of Alaska, the Archive serves researchers, teachers and students, as well as members of the broader community. The collection includes both published and unpublished materials in or on all of the Alaska Native languages and related languages. The collection has enduring cultural, historic, and intellectual value, particularly for Alaska Native language speakers and their descendants.

In the contiguous United States programs like The Hupa Language, Culture and Education program began in 1963 for the purpose of preserving the Hupa language and culture of the Hoopa Indian Reservation. Hupa, also spelled Hoopa, is a Native American tribe in Northwestern California. At this time, the Hupa oral tradition is a part of the daily life of people living on the reservation. It was possible to visit an elder's home and hear a story handed down from the ancestors, much as it had been for thousands of years previously.

Today, Hupa language elders are bilingual. Some have traveled to other countries, and many have communicated with people from other continents. Today's Hupa language students live in a global community as well. They participate in electronic networking that includes e-mail, the internet, interactive videos and CD's, and extends worldwide.

Rather than decrease the value of the Hupa language, however, the worldwide basis for communication has increased it. For the Hupa language students, study of the Hupa language enlarges their range of communication.

There is interest in the Hupa language by many from outside the community. Bilingual skills enable Hupa speakers to share their language as a way of participating in international discussions.

The Hupa project is one of many for Native Americans who value their native language as do the Kurds, who now have the support of the Turkish government.

Kurdish rights, however, remain a sensitive issue. University-level language courses in Kurdish and other minority languages were introduced in 2009, a move widely welcomed by rights groups but still met with skepticism by some Turkish groups.

The European Union has urged the Turkish government to improve anti-discrimination laws for all minorities in the country and do more to tackle racism. Turkey is to be commended for making this incremental change to validate the Kurdish people and their language.


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The move by the Turkish government to enfold the Kurdish language into Turkish culture rather than eradicating it breathes life into the effort to promote worldwide diversity and preserve indigenous language and culture.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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