Uğur Deniz / Istanbul
The days of the ‘coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic’ have led to permanent changes in education and training. One of these changes is distance or e-learning.
So, what kind of an opportunity does the e-education system offer for languages that are in the repressive grip of the state, such as Kurdish? Murat Bilgiç from Komeleya Lêkolînê ya Ziman û Çandên Mezopotamyayê (the Mesopotamia Language and Cultural Research Association/Med-Der), who started online education courses during the pandemic, and Gulsuma Demir from Kurdish Lessons, who provided online English-Kurdish lessons before the pandemic, share their experiences with us.
Due to the pandemic, the education system was interrupted in one key aspect: schools were closed and millions and millions of students around the world were left without classes. Classes began to be taken via distance and digital platforms.
The World Economic Forum has pointed out that the changes in education and training caused by the pandemic may now become a permanent feature. In other words, the distance education model has risen to prominence. Indeed, with a projected second wave of impact of COVID-19 in many countries, including Turkey, education is expected to continue online during the fall.
So, what kind of opportunity does such an e-education system offer for languages that are in the grip of the state, such as Kurdish? Does it really offer something meaningful?
Especially during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, many people and institutions started to provide Kurdish language lessons online. WhatsApp groups, social media channels and applications like Zoom (a cloud platform for video and audio conferencing, chat, and webinars) have facilitated these training courses.
‘Group’ as well as ‘one-to-one private’ lessons have been provided. Thousands of people have already participated in Med-Der’s online Kurdish language training programmes and courses.
Many institutions which had been conducting linguistic and cultural studies in the field of Kurdish had been closed in Turkey since 2015, when the “peace negotiations” had ended. Med-Der, however, is an institution which opened in 2017 after these closures. It has been conducting linguistic and cultural Kurdish studies ever since it was established.
The association, which organizes Kurdish language courses in Diyarbakır, Mardin, Batman and Van, provided training to 2,000 people in 2019. However, with the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020 in Turkey, Med-Der halted its face-to-face education and announced that it would begin online Kurdish language education courses in its place in April.
These training courses, which emerged as a consequence of the pandemic, still continue. Murat Bilgiç, a teacher at Med-Der, states that the pandemic has offered an opportunity for online training:
“We have been discussing alternative education methods for those who have not been able to come to the institution for a long time. At the same time, we were looking for new ways to use the technological opportunities correctly and benefit from these opportunities. With the coronavirus outbreak which has affected the world, we quickly prepared the online education infrastructure and started to provide online training”.
Med-Der provides online training through Zoom. The training courses are carried out on a voluntary basis and no fees are charged to the participants. Online courses in the Kurmanci and Kırmanki/Dimilki dialects of Kurdish are offered. Bilgiç added: “We are also planning to provide education in the Sorani dialect in the upcoming period. In order to participate in these courses, we accept online registrations on our own pages and create online classes related to levels of ability.
Bilgiç states that thousands of people are participating in these online Kurdish language classes: “The demand for participation by both genders is nearly the same”, he adds. There is a demand for participation from all ages and professions, and there is a particularly high demand for our courses from university students.
According to Bilgiç, one of the possibilities offered by online training is that this type of education transcends borders. “There are participants from various countries in the same class and they can be aware of each other. This allows us to assess things with broader perspectives”, states a member of Med-Der.
Interest in online courses is now already very significant. However, Bilgiç notes that there are still too many people who are unaware of the existence of such an educational opportunity. It needs to be appreciated that the Kurdish language can be learnt through access to a computer and the internet.
Kurdish Lessons is another online educational platform that provides Kurdish language courses. The Kurdish-English platform, which was established in 2017, was first called ‘I am Learning Kurdish’ and reached its trainees only via Facebook and Instagram. Kurdish Lessons, which opened Twitter and YouTube accounts over time, is now a platform that uses social media actively.
From this platform, Gulsuma Demir contends that social media accounts can effectively act as a bridge between those who want to learn Kurdish online, as well as teach Kurdish. “Our lessons continue with many people who found us on our social media accounts and contacted us”, she says.
Demir’s experience of teaching online is not new. It goes back to the summer of 2018 before the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic:
“My first student was a Jewish woman living in Israel. I had students before the pandemic, but since I teach foreigners and they live far away from me, nothing has changed much. But I can add that, after the pandemic, people living in Turkey and Kurdistan have increasingly turned to online courses. It has shown that there isn’t much need for face-to-face courses, and that language can be learned and taught through the network of computers and the internet”.
Demir currently has eight students from different countries, from the USA to Germany, from Israel to Ukraine. Lessons are conducted via Skype or Zoom.
“Since we do not have enough English-Kurdish material, I have to prepare materials before every lesson, but I do not complain about this situation. I think I am one of the rare people who really loves what they do”, says Demir.
He confirms that there has been a significant increase in the rate of participation in online training courses since the pandemic: “Because some of my students were already at home, they wrote to me asking if they could fulfil their wish of learning Kurmanji this way. It provided them with time to learn. Other people looking for new interests through online courses also found me”. Demir adds that most of his students are women.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of online lessons?
Whilst many universities around the world have completely turned to using online courses, does this provide a meaningful opportunity for the teaching of the Kurdish language?
“There are many advantages to online courses”, says Demir: “I think the first and most important thing is the ability to teach anywhere in the world. So, as a teacher, all I need is a computer connected to the internet and a little quiet space. Other than that, you don’t think of anything like time, leaving home or getting ready”.
Demir observes that one of the disadvantages of online courses is the technical structure it is dependent upon. “Problems such as a lack of internet connection and power cuts can lead to the cancellation of courses. In other words, it is an education that is not guaranteed, it depends and relies on key equipment and online infrastructure”.
He identifies another disadvantage in that it is not always possible to find sufficient internet access or coverage in small cities in Kurdistan.
“In fact, there are still children who never possess a computer. Or there are parents who do not believe that a lesson can be learned from a computer. For example, I went back to my family and had an online class in the room where my mother was present, and she did not understand that the other side saw me, heard me, and that we were exchanging information”.
However, Demir states that the idea of online lessons will be an advantage in the long term and it is now possible to learn whatever you want, anywhere.
Learning your native language is just a click away
The Kurdish language remains under constant pressure in Turkey, due to a formal state system that uses restraint and pressure on its use. There is no education in Kurdish in public schools. The Kurdish Language and Literature Department of Dicle University in Diyarbakır has also announced that writing a thesis in Kurdish is banned. The justification for this is that theses prepared in other languages are subject to the permission of the Council of Higher Education.
As to whether online learning can provide opportunities to challenge this repressive system, Bilgiç and Demir provide the following responses.
Demir: “It definitely does, and will continue to do so as long as we have access to the internet. The Internet can keep a language alive or kill it. And it’s easier to kill, so those who want to keep it alive should work harder and engage with more efficient projects on the networks which we call social media”.
Bilgiç: “This process offers some relief from the heavy effects of the pressures and restrictions that are placed on Kurdish education by state policies. If we can create the economic and technological infrastructure to facilitate online Kurdish language education sufficiently, we believe that we will achieve much better outcomes. Those who have not had the opportunity to study in their own language for any reason until now, those who are deprived of the richness of their own language, wherever you are in the world, this opportunity is just a click away. Let’s learn our language together”.