We Need Native-Language Education for a Democratic Citizenship

by Editor  Levent Pişkin* – TURKEY CONSTITUTION WATCH

Native-language education has become one of the most hotly debated topics of the constitution-drafting process. But what exactly does this issue entail? The republican regime and the nation-state have imposed an essentialist view of society by both de jure and de facto means. For years, the phrase “native-language education” meant only teaching Turkish. “Citizen, Speak Turkish!” campaigns were organized, while any questioning of the unified, state-led education system was forbidden.

According to the most recent edition of the Turkish Language Association’s Turkish dictionary, “native language” is defined as “the language a child acquires from its family or the society in which it lives.” The definition widely used in the social sciences does not differ to a great extent from that of the Turkish Language Association. A survey of their definitions might lead us to the following synthesis: “Native language” is “the language that a person acquires by skill and from the extended family into which he or she is born, is developed within that person’s social network, and enables his or her socialization.”

I will save what I have to say about education (or rather, government-regulated mandatory education) for later. Here I will confine my analysis to the demands being made for native-language education, the status of such demands in international law, and the way such demands have been perceived in Turkey.

After the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 and the switch to a parliamentary democracy was announced, 1924 saw the preparation of the republic’s first constitution. The Treaty of Lausanne, a document that we might view as securing international recognition for the Turkish state, was signed that same year. All Turks are quite familiar with the Treaty of Lausanne from our years learning the “national curriculum” and seeing it rehashed for us in every political debate; indeed, it is almost considered the “founding document” of the state. Of course, there is no harm in analyzing the treaty within the framework of state sovereignty, a basic principle of state law and international-relations treaty that developed as a result of the 1649 Treaty of Westphalia. But it is problematic to approach Lausanne as a text of domestic law, particularly one that almost supersedes the constitution itself.

In debates on native-language education today, the portion of the Treaty of Lausanne that is constantly underlined is the stipulation that “communities which do not have minority status have no right to instruction in their native languages.” So how was the notion of “minority” understood? Again, as everybody knows, the minorities listed in the treaty are “religious minorities.” (The extent to which the recognition of religious minorities by a secular republic is actually compatible with secularism is the subject of another debate.) What interests us in this context is the demand for native-language education by “ethnic minorities.” Article 39/4 of the Treaty of Lausanne recognizes the right to the “free use by any Turkish national of any language in private intercourse, in commerce, religion, in the press, or in publications of any kind or at public meetings.” Clause 5, meanwhile, recognizes the right of Turkish nationals who speak a language other than Turkish to use their own languages in court. [1] Yet the phrase that courts have used in their records to indicate a non-Turkish language in court—“an unintelligible language”—also gives us an idea about the state’s stance on native-language education as well. Ever since the establishment of the republic, the use of one’s native language in education has been demanded by a variety of ethnic groups, particularly the Kurds. These demands have been taken up by the state from a militaristic mindset as a problem of “security” or “separatism.” The process of making such demands has ended up in prison, in the broad sense of the term. Or, such demands have been considered “as good as answered” by the overt and covert ops conducted by military authorities.

The country’s recent history has developed within a framework of opposition between those who make demands for native-language education and those who oppose this with apparatuses of ideology and suppression. In 2002, more than 2 thousand students who petitioned for elective Kurdish classes at universities were kicked out of school. In 2006, the inclusion of a demand for native-language education in the bylaws of the Educators and Scientific Workers’ Labor Union was seen as unconstitutional and landed the union in a court case that threatened to shut it down. These are only two of the events that have occurred over the last ten years. Now the 68-day hunger strike, which centered on three demands (including native-language education rights), is over. Two different measures were taken, both insufficient, to address these demands. A draft law on the right to native-language defense in courts was submitted to the speaker of parliament on 13 November 2012. The law has now passed the Justice Committee, despite the opposition of the three minority parties [2] and awaits final approval. Whether it is enough is another issue. As for the demand for native-language education, it is only being kept alive by the Peace and Democracy Party’s [BDP] unapproved draft proposal raised in the discussions on the new constitution.

The thing that must be understood above all else is that the demand for native-language education is not a problem of “security, separatism, or minorities.” It is a problem of education and a prerequisite for having a democratic social order. [3] In this context, cultural diversity is one of the major social-justice issues being discussed today. It is necessary to approach the issue of difference or diversity within the framework of social justice and a democratic society. Though it has been attempted for years, it is not possible to overcome such problems with a militaristic or essentializing mindset.

Looking at the status of the right to native-language education within international agreements, we see that, unfortunately, the right to native-language education cannot easily be established within the framework of the Council of Europe or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE]. [4] The “Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities,” published by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in 1996, is one document on native-language education that has been agreed upon. [5] Yet this document has no force of law behind it. Outside the framework of the Council of Europe and the OSCE, the United Nations has produced agreements on the right to education. Through Turkey has signed these agreements, it has done so with reservation in respect o farticles ensuring the rights of those who may have a different ethnicity. [6] Turkey’s reservation in respect of articles related to native-language education rights has actually become a barrier to the application of Article 90/5 of Turkey’s 1982 constitution. [7] Still, even if Turkey hadn’t objected to these stipulations, we have to ask what the practice of the courts would be and take a look at court rulings on past violations of educational rights. What we can take from such rulings is that the relationship between the court and human rights runs in parallel with raison d’état. The Constitutional Court’s decision reversing the government’s removal of the constitution’s 10th and 42nd articles on the headscarf ban in higher education—a decision we can certainly call an abomination of justice, [8] certainly remains fresh in the minds of judges today. This decision, along with those regarding mandatory “religious culture” classes, [9] are just the most basic examples of the courts’ basic paradigm of preserving the status quo. In this context, we would find no difference if we were to compare these decisions with the court’s approach to Turkish identity (reinforced also by the army and the bureaucracy) and to the so-called “cement” holding this identity together: the Turkish language.

A number of studies have examined the effects of the lack of native-language education on children. One of these studies is a report called “Wounded Tongue,” published by the Diyarbakır Institute for Political and Social Research. [10] As outlined in this report, the imposition of Turkish-language education has psycho-social effects on those whose native language is not Turkish. The feeling that they have begun life with a handicap, a lack of self-confidence, a feeling of failure, as well as failing grades and dropping out of school are only a few of the many effects mentioned in the report. Furthermore, the report notes that, in their social lives, children are subjected to various forms of violence for speaking Kurdish and thus live in fear of violence, stigmatization, and more.

Students whose native language differs from the official language have negative experiences at school and in other social arenas and are subject to discrimination. In order to ameliorate and eventually put an end to negative experiences such as discrimination, it is necessary that a new regulation on native-language education be enacted immediately. Such a regulation, contrary to popular perception, would not be a regulation that would divide Turkey, but rather one that would strengthen the will of the people to live together in equality. Native-language education must no longer be taken as a security problem but actually protected as a right under the new constitution, because all languages and cultures are of equal worth. The new constitution should be drafted on the basis of cultural and linguistic diversity, because this issue is no longer merely a necessary, but a mandatory constituent of a democratic social order.

*TESEV Democratization Program – Judiciary, Law and Justice Project Assistant.


[1] For detailed information, see: Baskın Oran, Türkiye’de Azınlıklar [Minorities in Turkey], İstanbul, İletişim Yayınları, 2008.

[2] “Türkçe Konuşana da Kürtçe Savunma Hakkı” [The Right to Kurdish Defence, Even for Turkish Speakers], http://siyaset.milliyet.com.tr/turkce-konusana-da-kurtce-savunma-hakki/siyaset/siyasetdetay/30.11.2012/1635012/default.htm (Accessed: 4 December 2012).

[3] Fatma Gök, Bildiriler Kitabı-Eğitim Hakkı Bağlamında Anadilinde Eğitim [Collected Conference Papers: Native-Language Education in the Context of Education Rights], Uluslararası Katılımlı Anadilde Eğitim Sempozyumu –2, Ankara, Eğitim-Sen Yayınları, 2010.

[4] Gökçen Alpkaya, Bildiriler Kitabı-Avrupa Konseyi ve AGİT Çerçevesinde Anadilinde Eğitim [Collected Conference Papers: Native-Language Education in the Framework of the Council of Europe and the OSCE], Uluslararası Katılımlı Anadilde Eğitim Sempozyumu –2, Ankara, Eğitim-Sen Yayınları, 2010.

[5] “The Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities,” http://www.osce.org/hcnm/32180 (Accessed 26 December 2012).

[6] Examples include the reservations on educational rights made with respect to the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights or the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

[7] The 2004 amendments to the 1982 constitution brought human rights and the international agreements governing them to the status of regulations having force of law in Turkey. In case the agreements and Turkish law conflicted, the constitution would ensure the application of the ruling provided by the international agreements on human rights.

[8] Precedent No: 2011/36, Decision No: 2011/181. Official Gazette No: 28225, 5 April 2012.

[9] “Danıştay’dan tartışılacak ‘zorunlu din dersi’ kararı” [A controversial decision from the State Council on ‘Mandatory Religious Education’”], Hürriyet, 26 November 2012.

[10] For the full report, see: http://www.disa.org.tr/files/images/dilyarasi.pdf.

Editor | December 5, 2012 at 9:09 am | Categories: Analysis, Citizenship, Civil Society, Civilianization, Constitutional Method/Procedure, Human Rights, Levent Pişkin, Parliament and Political Parties | URL: http://wp.me/p2rMT2-fV