Kurdish is an Iranian language, part of the Indo-European language. It continues to be spoken predominantly in the territory of Kurdistan, the area with long historical associations for the Kurds that encompasses parts of present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Especially in the southeastern rural towns of Turkey, Kurdish even becomes the lingua franca for native speakers of Turkish (Yağmur, 2001).
While the Ottoman educational system retained the existence of different minority languages, what Atatürk and his followers expected was to take monolingual approaches to education. The issue of language education in the Turkish Republic was mainly influenced by Kemalism, which consists of two basic principles: secularism and nationalism (Çolak, 2004). The latter significantly influenced the development of the Turkish language, the direction of Turkish state education, and especially the status of Kurdish. For Kurdish, unification and assimilation were the most effective ways that the reformers practiced their ideology for a new state. Their effects have been profound because the government “excluded minority languages from the state school system […] for academic achievement and good citizenship” (Haig 2003, p. 140)
According to Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution, “no language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother language to Turkish citizens at any institution of training or education”. It is obvious that Kurdish has been, and still is, legally denied in the state education system at all levels of schools from elementary education to university. The campaign of “Citizen, Speak Turkish”, which started in 1930s, was resurrected after the aftermath of the 1960 military coup, and culminated in the 1980s (Cemiloğlu, 2009). Several educational institutes that advocate the minority language right were also closed due to the violation of the Turkish Constitution. Eğitim Sen, for instance, is a union of teachers and education workers in Turkey who claim the right of individuals to their mother languages under the framework of the education system, and was banned by the General Assembly of the Turkish Supreme Court in 2005 (Almairac, 2006).
In addition, Kurdish education in Turkey also faces problems that lead to unequal language education rights. During the 1960s, Kurdish children were sent to boarding schools where they learned Turkish rather than their mother tongue, changed their identity, and saw their indigenous culture as inferior and uncivilized (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2007). Although AKP, the current ruling party, took more positive steps regarding the Kurdish language right than any other governments in Turkish history, their policies are still criticized because of some weaknesses. As Turkey is engaged in the EU accession process, programs in Kurdish for children on radio or TV remain prohibited (Taylor & Skutnabb-Kangas, 2006). Even though the Turkish domestic law was also amended to allow the opening of private courses for different languages and dialects used by Turkish people in their daily lives, the Turkish government still always has a long-lasting concept that the use of minority language might strengthen the identity of minority groups, thereby leading to the separatism and putting the political unity in danger. Tollefson (2008) argues that the use of mother language has a positive effect not only on the acquisition of official language but also on the elevation of national self esteem, identity, and self confidence, but the development of Kurdish language education in Turkey would be still suppressed if the concept that promoting minority language education leads to the danger of national security still exists in the reformers’ mind.