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By: Isik Tuzun, Education Reform Initiative
“Since the principal goal of education is to achieve the full development of the individual, literacy education has to be functional and culturally sensitive, because if it is not, it will not give the learner the tools to develop within his or her society. For example, national policy must take into account the linguistic context of literacy-building. Governments should sustain activities and develop policies that enable people to learn in a language that facilitates daily communication, as well as execute literacy programs that provide initial learning in the mother tongue and then add a second language, offer social, cognitive, psychological and pedagogical advantages.”
UNESCO, 2013, Paper on Literacy from a Right to Education Perspective, p. 22
Turkey has made significant progress in combating illiteracy in the last couple of years. According to 2008-2012 ABPRS[i] data, the number of illiterate citizens decreased to 2.8 million from 4.9 million. Currently, 4.22 % of the population (above age 6) is considered illiterate in Turkey, opposed to 8.22 % in 2008. Nevertheless, illiteracy remains a major issue that has been closely linked with gender inequality and longstanding regional disparities in the country. Women constitute the majority (2.3 million) of illiterate people, and illiteracy rates display significant diversity across regions, especially for women. There is a clear east-west divide. The regions with the highest illiteracy rates for women are Northeast, Central East and Southeast Anatolia, with an average of approximately 14 %. Ranging between 8 % and 10 %, illiteracy rates in Central Anatolia, West Black Sea and East Black Sea are also much higher than the country average. For the remaining parts of the country, all located in the west, the rates vary between 4 % and 6 %.
While shedding some light on the situation in general, these figures cannot tell the whole story, and it might be impossible to devise and implement policies that can ensure “quality education for all” in Turkey unless we have a better understanding of the whole story. Although exact figures are unknown and unfortunately not yet explored by the state, there is a sizeable population whose first language is Kurdish in the abovementioned regions where illiteracy rates are significantly high.[ii] It would not be unreasonable to argue that not speaking Turkish as one’s first language plays a part in problems associated with illiteracy.
Bahcesehir University (BETAM)’s analysis of Turkey Demographic and Health Survey 2008 data reveals the magnitude of the education gap between the population whose first language is Turkish and the population whose first language is Kurdish.[iii] The same study also suggests that it is the gap between the two groups of women that accounts for most of the difference. It is certain that different cultural, social and political dynamics are in motion, and Turkey has to pursue an ambitious research agenda to analyze and improve the current situation. On the other hand, it is also certain that a new policy direction is needed immediately.
In its 2010 policy brief titled “Bilingualism and Education in Turkey: Steps Towards Sustainable Solutions”, Education Reform Initiative (ERI), one of the leading think-tanks working on education policy in Turkey, emphasized that bilingualism was not only desirable but also possible if the right pedagogical conditions were provided.[iv] Besides promoting a child-centered approach to the issue of language choice in education and examining the advantages of bilingual education in general, the policy note draws attention to the potential benefits for girls’ education by referring to a 2005 UNESCO report authored by Carol Benson and based on evidence from the Asia-Pacific region.[v] Here are some of the main arguments elaborated in the report: “More girls enroll in school when they can learn in a language that is familiar to them… Use of the home language in school increases parent participation and influence… Girls in bilingual classes stay in school longer… Girls learn better and can demonstrate their learning in the mother tongue… More women may become teachers and, thus, role models for girls…”.[vi]
In brief, more child-centered and gender-sensitive policies need to be devised in Turkey if all citizens are to be provided with education services, through which they can fully realize their potential. Deliberations on the language(s) of instruction should move beyond the politically polarized debates and instead include a thorough assessment of what women and children whose first language is not Turkish experience and need.
[i] Address Based Population Registration System.
[ii] Konda Research and Consultancy estimates that the Kurdish population in Turkey constitutes % 17.7 of the whole population, corresponding to 13.4 million citizens. Please see http://www.radikal.com.tr/yazarlar/tarhan_erdem/turkiyeli_kurtler_ne_kadar-1130023 for more details.
[iv] Information on ERI and its publications on bilingualism and education are available at http://erg.sabanciuniv.edu/en
[v] The report is available at http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001420/142079e.pdf
[vi] p. 4-5.