The politics of teaching foreign languages in Turkey

It isn’t often that you’ll see me unabashedly defend Tayyip Erdoğan over anything, but here goes nothing.

“Frankly, it’s about time”
There was a story in Al-Monitor last week that said that Erdoğan is under a little fire from Turkish secularists over a Ministry of Education plan to start offering Arabic electives to elementary school students as of the 2016-17 school year. To most Americans, the oddest thing about that sentence is the fact that Turkish schools offer foreign language courses to elementary school kids, whereas in America you can graduate college with nothing more than a year or two of bad Spanish or French under your belt, if that. But for a lot of Turks, the idea of teaching Arabic to children is a very politically loaded thing.

Right now, elementary students in Turkish public schools have the option of learning English, German, or French. This is reflective of the fact that modern Turkey has, virtually from its founding, been oriented westward, toward Europe, in its foreign policy, its national aspirations, its basic national self-image. Musfata Kemal Atatürk, the nation’s founder, changed the Turkish alphabet from one derived from Arabic to one based on the Latin alphabet in 1928, which, to say the least, wasn’t an easy adjustment for his fellow countrymen to make. Partly this was done because the Latin alphabet is a lot easier to use in a printing press than the Arabic alphabet (and also because, if you ask most people who have studied Ottoman Turkish, the light-on-vowels Arabic script is not especially well-suited to represent the heavy-on-vowels Turkish language), but the switch also carried an unmistakable sentiment that Turkey was a European nation much more than a Middle Eastern one. In fact, the whole history of language in modern Turkey is a fascinating and very political one.

One of the things that has marked Erdoğan’s dozen or so years at the pinnacle of Turkish politics has been what seems to be a real reconsideration of that Euro-centric orientation. He’s focused his foreign policy far more on the Middle East than Europe, and while part of that reorientation has been by necessity owing to the Syrian civil war (when you share a very long border with a country that’s collapsed into an almost five year long civil war, you have to adjust), it’s also the case that Erdoğan enthusiastically intervened in Syria in a way that probably wasn’t necessary from a purely national defense standpoint. In short, he wants to be a power broker in the Middle East. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for the Turkish establishment and the more urbane elements of the Turkish electorate, it’s a big shift, and it carries with it a lot of uncomfortable overtones about a resurgent “Ottomanism,” the rise of Islamism in Turkish politics (which Erdoğan has also undeniably championed), and so forth.

Erdoğan has already waded into these thorny linguistic waters, declaring last December that high school students should start learning Ottoman Turkish. (students in “Islamic” high schools are supposed to be learning Ottoman, and it’s offered as an elective in other high schools). His rationale is that learning Ottoman will help younger Turks maintain a connection to their Ottoman past, but secularists fear (again, not without cause) that it’s just another way for Erdoğan to undermine the secular roots of modern Turkey and install his brand of Islamic governance. This is especially problematic for Kurds, who are understandably miffed that their own, living language (the endangered Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish) has the same elective status in Turkish schools, even schools in predominantly Kurdish areas, as Ottoman, which has been defunct for almost 90 years now.

So the announcement that Arabic will be offered as another language elective, and to young children no less, is being seen as another attack on secular Turkey by Erdoğan. And to be fair to the critics, fourth graders following the Arabic curriculum will study “introduction to Arabic scripture,” which could seem a little ominous. There’s a fear that students will be “coerced” into choosing Arabic over other language electives, and that this will then be a back door to bringing overt religious instruction into secular schools.

My own view is that yes, that could all happen, and people are right to be wary of this proposal. But on the other hand, Arabic is a pretty damn important language for Turks (for everybody, really, but definitely for Turks), especially when Turkey’s foreign policy has shifted toward a more Middle Eastern focus. Ergo, it’s not inherently a bad idea for Turkish students to learn it, and frankly, speaking as somebody who has tried to learn Arabic, I’d say that the younger those kids can start studying it, the better off they’ll be. I admit that the whole “introduction to Arabic scripture” course is potentially problematic, but on the other hand probably 90+% of the Turkish population is Muslim (official statistics put it at 99.8%, but the official statistics count anybody who isn’t Christian or Jewish as “Muslim,” so there are some problems with that figure), and all Turkish students have been getting some amount of mandatory religious education (based on Sunni principles) since 1949, despite the fact that the Turkish constitution explicitly identifies the country as “secular.” This has actually gotten Turkey into hot water with international human rights organizations in the past.

So look, these kids are already learning about Islam, and I have a hard time believing that an elective that teaches them to read Islamic scripture in its original language is going to undermine secularism any more than those mandatory religion courses already do. And it is entirely possible to study Arabic scripture from a purely linguistic perspective without absorbing the religious message; hundreds (thousands?) of American college students do it every year, for example. It’s actually hard for me to imagine anyone learning Arabic without studying at least the Quran, in Arabic, at some point. Meanwhile, these Turkish kids will be given the chance to learn a language that can really be helpful in navigating Turkey’s contemporary environment at an age when it could really stick. Obviously if kids are coerced into studying Arabic as opposed to another language, that’s a big problem, but until the option is actually available to them, and until there’s some evidence of any coercion actually taking place, this just seems like a reflexive attack on Erdoğan.

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One thought on “The politics of teaching foreign languages in Turkey

  1. I can attest, from personal experience, that trying to learn Arabic from a combination of Rosetta Stone total immersion, Pimsleur’s “teach yourself Arabic in only six weeks with no appreciable effort,” and a little coaching from your brother the Moroccan scholar, beginning at age fifty, is very difficult. I agree that folding a bit of Arabic into the elementary curriculum would probably be a benefit to Turkey as a whole, despite the whole “lingering resentment over promises never fulfilled after 1922” thing that hangs so heavy in the air.

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