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My English, the Kurds’ Turkish and the Right to Language

Today’s Zaman by ORHAN KEMAL CENGİZ, 29/09/2010

I learned English on my own. When you learn a language after a certain age, you never become bilingual. The language you learn remains a foreign language to you. And you always remain a student.

If you have to use a second language for professional purposes, as I do, it creates a disadvantage, a difficulty that you have to cope with.

This difficulty, however, turned into an advantage for me in ways that I had never imagined before. The first one is with writing. Since 2007 I have been writing columns in English, and I learned to write in very plain language. I started to use stories and metaphors to explain my point rather than playing with words that I could only do in Turkish. I believe this “disadvantage” helped me a lot to become a better writer in my own language, too.

The second advantage of this “disadvantage” was that it helped me to develop empathy for the Kurds in Turkey. While I was in the UK I understood how it was to feel stupid when I failed to understand the complete meaning of jokes. Then I remembered how our Kurdish friends fell silent when we were joking cheerfully with Turkish friends at university. The possibility never occurred to me that they may have not understood our jokes. Their accent and many other things of course became more endearing to me when I had the same “imperfections” in another language.

Turkish is a “foreign language” for many Kurds in Turkey. I even heard from my educated friends that they only started to learn Turkish when they first started school. There is no “preparatory” class or anything like that of course. They learn Turkish while they learn other things.

Up until very recently, Kurdish had been forbidden in all forms of public life in Turkey. Even its very existence was denied. Kurdish, according to official explanation, was just a different dialect of Turkish. Proponents of this “narrative,” of course, also came up with many stupid stories to support this illogical theory. The most famous one is about the “mountain Turks” who walk on snow, and this sound echoed when they walk: “kart-kurt,” which is the source of the name Kurd and the Kurdish language, according to this “mountain Turk” theory.

Turkish and Kurdish may be as close to each other as English and Chinese. They come from completely different language families, and, except for some Persian and Arabic words that penetrated both languages, they have nothing in common.

So, Kurds not only had to learn and speak Turkish, but they also could not speak their own language. Speaking in Kurdish in public was not allowed. It was not possible to publish anything in Kurdish. Kurds were forced to forget their mother tongue. There were no Kurds, nor Kurdish, in Turkey.

Kurdish television and courses

With the coming of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to power and as a result of enacting EU harmonization laws, this total denial has been put aside. And some things that we had never imagined before happened in Turkey. Now we have a state-sponsored Kurdish TV channel, TRT 6, private Kurdish courses are allowed, Kurdish publications have been put into circulation and so on.

In today’s Turkey, no one advocates this “mountain Turk” theory anymore. However, bans and limitations on the Kurdish language continue. Private Kurdish courses are allowed but there are no Kurdish lessons in schools. State television broadcasts in Kurdish but private channels are not allowed to do that. Kurdish cannot be used in official communication or services.

Language rights are the key

We are now at a turning point in solving the Kurdish question; official and unofficial talks and communication continue between the government and Kurdish leaders. Obviously the official usage of Kurdish and education in the mother tongue are and will be key issues in these “negotiations” and in a possible reconciliation.

If Turks and Kurds continue to live together, this will happen on the basis of equal citizenship, not on denial and repression anymore. Recognition and respect for identity and the cultural rights of the Kurds is the only way to solve the Kurdish question.

Language is a fundamental right. Solving the Kurdish problem lies in the full recognition of this right of the Kurds. I hope the government will take other bold steps to fully recognize this right, which holds the key to a democratic and peaceful Turkey.

 

 

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