21st February marks the International Mother Language Day. Its nucleus was the protests that surged due to a Bengali and Urdu language controversy in 1952 in Bangladesh where four young students were killed on the 21st of February. This incident was followed by many years of unrest, and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in 1999, proclaimed February 21st to be International Mother Language Day to raise awareness of and promote linguistic diversity and multilingualism across the world.
The total number of living languages in the world is not known precisely. According to Ethnologue, approximately 7000 languages are spoken today. Yet, only 23 languages account for more than half of the world’s population. Institutional languages, which are the least likely to become endangered since they are used in education, work, law, mass media, and governments, make up only about 8% of living languages in the world. Roughly 3000 of the world’s living languages are now endangered, often with less than 1,000 speakers remaining. Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages died, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Today, however, every two weeks a language dies. You do the maths.
What about Turkey? The general consensus of opinion is that Turkey’s linguistic diversity is quite broad and thus rich. There is no updated data on the languages spoken in Turkey today though. The most recent data was collected in the 1965 population census according to which there are 36 languages spoken in Turkey. Yet, Ethnologue reports that 73% of indigenous languages spoken in Turkey are endangered as of 2021. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, there are 15 endangered languages in Turkey and 3 of them are already extinct.
Among these endangered languages spoken in Turkey are Adygean, Abkhaz and Kabardian spoken by the Circassians* who were exiled from the North Caucasus and settled in various parts of the Ottoman lands. Ubykh, which belongs to the same language family group, the Northwest Caucasian group of Caucasian Languages, is already extinct.
Circassians are among the largest ethnic groups in Turkey. It is estimated that more than 4 million Circassians live in Turkey today, which is higher than the Circassian population in the Caucasus. Their languages, though, remain officially unrecognized languages by the Republic of Turkey, in accordance with the 42nd article of the Turkish Constitution which states that no language other than Turkish can be taught or taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens in educational institutions.
Yet, during the European Union adjustment process of Turkey, various regulations were made to protect the mother tongues of different ethnic groups, including the lifting of the ban on naming children in minority languages, private language courses being opened, and publications in these tongues made possible. Furthermore, Circassian Language and Literature is available as a major degree in the Caucasian Languages and Cultures Departments of the Duzce and Kayseri Erciyes Universities. The elective language courses on Living Languages and Dialects in Turkish secondary schools were initiated in the 2012-2013 academic year and eight different languages including Adyge (based on Cyrillic and Latin Alphabets), Abkhaz, Kurmanji, Zazaki, Lazuri, Georgian, Bosnian and Albanian are offered separately for selection today. In 2004, Circassian broadcasting also began on TRT, but its broadcast life was short-lived. Circassian is not among the 42 languages TRT broadcasts.
All these developments are surely not only tangible contributions to the protection of indigenous and/or endangered languages in Turkey but also undeniably significant achievements in a context dominated by linguistic uniformity. Nevertheless, we must confront the demons and challenges facing them, especially in practice. First of all, let us make it crystal clear that teaching/learning any language only through these elective courses is not possible because of the limited weekly course hours (2 hours a week), inadequate course materials, and an insufficient number of teachers.
Furthermore, enrollments in the Living Languages and Dialects courses are quite low, compared to the other elective courses under the circumstances in which they are not promoted in the public sphere, the public in general are not sufficiently informed about these, parents, teachers and school administrators are nervous about such issues as course offers and pedagogical leadership due to reasons such as fear of stigmatization and being labeled, common negative attitudes towards and prejudices against these courses, widespread perception of these courses as ideological choices rather than a legal and legitimate right, and the like. In the same vein, Circassian Language and Literature departments, private language courses offered by the Circassian associations do face and struggle to overcome similar difficulties with mainly the support of civil society organizations.
In this context, the report titled “A Right Unclaimed: Elective Language Courses on Living Languages and Dialects in the Context of Language Rights”, which can be accessed at https://lazkulturdernegi.org.tr/_img/BrosurENG.pdf, provides a detailed analysis of the issues regarding the Elective Language Courses on Living Languages and Dialects with a particular focus on Laz language and almost all of the findings presented in the report can more or less be applied to Circassian languages. For a rather comprehensive review of the issues of linguistic diversity and linguistic rights in Turkey, the book titled “Language Rights and Linguistic Pluralism in Turkey”, which is based on the papers presented by specialists from different countries at a workshop series named “Linguistic Diversity and Language Rights” organized by The Study Group on the Cultures of Turkey at Istanbul Bilgi University with the contribution of the Network on Language Rights Monitoring, Documentation and Reporting (DHİBRA) conducting in-depth research on the linguistic plurality in Turkey should be viewed at https://turkiyekulturleri.org/images/proje/urun/Dil%20Haklari%20ve%20Dilsel%20C%CC%A7og%CC%86ulluk%202021.pdf.
Endangered Languages Network (TADNET), which was established in 2020 within the scope of the “Laz-Circassian Civil Societies Network” project ran by the Laz Institute and Istanbul Caucasian Culture Association, with the financial support of the European Union Delegation to Turkey, have also been working to investigate the status of endangered languages in Turkey and globally, analyze successful studies on these languages, distribute literature in this field, provide correct sources and information on the Laz and Circassian languages, and update developments on the endangered languages in Turkey,
The intent behind the proclamation of February 21st as the International Mother Language Day was to sustain and safeguard the linguistic plurality of the world. But is it happening in reality? You know the answer. Alack the day! Oops, happy International Mother Language Day!
* The term 'Circassian' is used here to refer to Abkhaz, Adygea and other North Caucasian peoples in an inclusive manner.
Yasemin Oral is an assistant professor of English language teaching at Istanbul University-Cerrahpaşa. Her research interests focus on criticality in language education, critical discourse studies, intercultural communication, and sociocultural aspects of language learning. She carried out her postdoctoral research at Canterbury Christ Church University and is currently working on her Erasmus+ project titled ‘European Researcher Development and Engagement for Interculturality and Equity’. She has also worked in civil society and is now the vice president of the Federation of Caucasus Associations in Turkey.