Turkish Language Bewilders Syrian Children

An event for children in Istanbul 2016 (Enab Baladi)

An event for children in Istanbul 2016 (Enab Baladi)


On the one hand, a blond child is born to a brunette couple. Their case attracts the attention of media and triggers debate among doctors due to its uniqueness. On the second hand, a child is born to an Arab couple. The child says his first words in Turkish, and the only party that gets confused is the parents.

Fares, a three years old Syrian child, mixes Arabic, Turkish and English in a single sentence confusing his father, who seems unable to answer his child’s needs and who fears that his child might lose his mother tongue or might not have the needed focus for education in the future.

Fares and his brother Sayf Abu Sadaa (five years old) live in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. The two boys use three languages in their daily life and have the ability to pronounce words the way Turkish people do.


A Five Years Old Translator

The situation might look ideal for those who do not speak more than a language. However, the children’s ability to use three languages carries within it a dilemma for Syrians living in Turkey about settlement and the language which they would like their children to use saying their first words.

‘You cannot settle down here,’ that is what a number of the people who Enab Baladi has interviewed said in reference to Turkey. These people are either looking forward to Europe or Canada or hoping to go back to Syria once the war ends.

This feeling of not being able to settle down has an influence on the tiniest details of the refugee’s life. For example, you can find young people who have been in Turkey for three years, but they cannot even communicate with their neighbors, and all the Turkish words that they know are the ones derived from Arabic.

For Ahmad, the father of Fares and Sayf, the linguistic confusion is not an obsession anymore for Fares today can understand better that his father will be able to grasp Arabic only, so he speaks to his father in Arabic.

Sayf became his 30-year-old father’s companion to Turkish institutions, and his direct interpreter, who did not disappoint him. Ahmad resorted to his son’s knowledge of Turkish for the first time in tackling certain procedures in the Water Corporation.

Since language is a key element for education, parents get confused while trying to choose their children’s first school. Due to confusion, a number of Syrian children, observed by Enab Baladi, have gone to different schools before reaching the age of four; they went to Turkish or Syrian schools or Turkish ones, which teach English.

The migration experience is still recent; so many Syrian refugees in Turkey do not believe that they will not return to Syria. They do not want to repeat the models of the children of immigrants around the world, children who left their home country and lost their language and identity.

Syrian Children Don’t  Have Access to Syrian Schools

Family and educational consultant Noor Nahas believes that the issue is not as educational as it is political and economic. If we want to delve into ideals, it is better for children to learn their mother tongue, but the problem is that not all parents have the ability to pay high fees; some of the affluent people send their children to Private Syrian schools, and the more affluent group enrolls their children in international schools to learn English and Arabic.

In fact, the average middle class, the vast majority, cannot enroll its children in these schools, so the choice is Turkish schools.

The monthly fees of Syrian private kindergartens are between 350 to 500 Turkish liras (1 euro equals 3.9 lira); these fees do not include transportation and other school supplies. As for international kindergartens, the enrollment fees begins with 650 euros.

Enrollment in the Turkish private schools is not that different from the international ones. However, there are municipality and government kindergartens which charge people only a nominal fee; these schools mainly target Syrian families.

The children who attend a Turkish school need Arabic courses at home. According to consultant Nahas, standard Arabic provides children with a sufficient storage of words that give them a linguistic intelligence during their growth. Turkish language, contrastingly, is poor and 50 percent of its expressions are borrowed from other languages including Arabic.

Let Children Learn Both Languages

Inside the house, things get more complicated. There are two main difficulties. The first is when children learn Turkish words which parents cannot understand. This lack of communication influences children who think their needs are not met and that their parents are depriving them of the things they want.

The second problem, according to Nahas, is the parents’ behavior when they tend to impose on their children the use of a single language or when they start to clash with them. This happens when a child learns Turkish very well and uses it in speaking to the mother, who forces her or him to use Arabic instead. Another difficulty shows up when the older siblings master Turkish and the younger ones have not yet learned it. Here Turkish becomes a secret language for the older children which frustrates the younger child who becomes convinced that he or she cannot communicate or deliver the information they need.

The educational consultant concludes that it is better to learn the two languages and that parents should also learn Turkish to convey it to their children so they would not have difficulties in communication at school or on the street. She asserts that limiting a child’s education to Turkish language would lead him or her to losing their original identity for the sake of the acquired one, the Turkish one.

Learning both languages is an option that does not find a place in the space of the Turkish authority. The Turkish government has a program to end the services of the Syrian schools and to stop the schools totally in four years while students can continue their education in Turkish schools, according to the estimates of Ömer Faruk Yelkenci, the Education Director in Istanbul.

 Reasons to Integrate Syrian Children into Turkish Schools

The new policy began in Turkey during the academic year 2016-2017 and showed Turkey’s tendency to receive Syrian students within the Ministry of Education’s systems at the expense of closing the Syrian private schools.

On August 19, 2016, a circular, which Enab Baladi managed to get a copy of, includes instructions which regulate the process of integrating Syrian students. It also ensures that Syrian students will be having a psychological support and will not be subjected to discrimination considering their special conditions.

The Turkish official stressed that the students in the temporary Syrian schools, the way Turkey refers to them, will be gradually transferred to Turkish schools.

In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Yelkenci estimated that there are 55 Syrian educational centers in Istanbul. “[These centers] are not as independent as the used to be in previous years; rather, each of them has been linked to a Turkish school.”

Seven thousand students out of 45 thousand continued their education in Turkish schools in Istanbul while 38 thousand enrolled in Syrian schools before the decree has been implemented.

Out of the 55 thousand students in Istanbul, the number of students in the Syrian schools decreased to 26 thousand in correspondence with 29 thousand in the Turkish ones.

Sarkan Göre, the Deputy Director of Education in Istanbul, told Enab Baladi that the ministry will examine the schools of temporary education to keep the sufficient ones active and to transfer the students from the other schools to Turkish ones.

He said that Turkey aims to offer Syrian students the same education it gives to Turkish students.

The views of Syrian educators varied, some saw in the decisions a source of hope for accommodating a larger number of Syrian students who have been cut off from the educational process and a step through which they can receive a certified education. Others considered the decrees as a thing that will lead to losing a whole generation, language and culture.

Official Dispels Fears: Arabic Will Be Added to the Curriculum

Enab Baladi carried the argument to Mr. Arjan Demirji, Advisor to the Minister of Education of Turkey, who is also the coordinator of education for Syrian students.

Demirji attributes the start of integrating the Syrian schools into the Turkish ones to the length of the war and the inability to be sure of the possibility of the Syrian students’ return to their country due to the ambiguous political situation. Therefore, it is important for these students to experience the educational system in the country of asylum to integrate into the communities in which they live.

As for the fears and criticism concerning the situation in which children will be segregated from their identity, Demirji said that children should not forget about their background, culture, and religion. For this reason, we opened our schools to Syrian children starting with this year and showed a real sensitivity towards the reality of this issue, taking into consideration the need to revive their referential background and to activate the lessons of Arabic language, history and Syrian culture.

He also estimated that there are about 200 thousand Syrian students in the Turkish schools, in addition to another 200 thousand in the Syrian temporary educational centers.

Demirji revealed plans that aim to establish universities in Arabic for Syrian students to complete their academic education in their own language and spoke about special measures depended for teaching Arabic in schools. The most remarkable of these are a study of a book which an academic team is conducting and that will finish soon and  the addition of optional courses in the curriculum that enable Arab students to continue to learn their language.

Demirji tried to dispel the fear erupting from the idea that Syrians will be forgetting about their identity. “We are redressing that issue inside and outside the schools and that is the reason why there are civil community organizations for we are establishing cultural and youth centers out of the schools.”

The Most Appropriate Age for Teaching Children a Foreign Language

The views of scholars and experts differ on how children learn foreign languages, and their arguments contradict about the benefits and harm of taking such a step, although they all agree on the importance of learning a new language.

There are some linguistic theories which say that children’s first years are the best to teach them a foreign language, which helps to widen their horizon and their sense of innovation.

Jurgen M. Meisel, a linguist, believes that the best age for a child to start learning a foreign language is between three and five. At this age, children will be able to pick up the language’s sounds; accordingly, they will be able to master the pronunciation in a faster and a sufficient manner. However, a child’s chances to have the same abilities weaken when he or she is more than ten years old.

In linguistics, there is another tendency which says that it is the duty of parents to speak with their children in their mother tongue in the early years of their lives because talking to them in a language that the parents master firmly convey to them the feelings of love and sense of belonging.

Thus, we can understand that language affects the human’s psychological and social formation for a child’s early learning of a certain language might lead to a linguistic confusion inside his or her mind and a lack of mastery of the mother tongue, which will affect his or her subsequent identity formation.

The most famous of linguists, Noam Chomsky, supports the view that the first three years of the child should be allocated for learning the mother tongue so that in the future he or she will not have problems learning a foreign language.

The American linguist Leonard Bloomfield believes that the best age for a child to start learning a foreign language is between 10 and 11 years old and that education before this age is often slow and ineffective.

In this sharp conflict of opinions, children can only adjust to their circumstances and surroundings as much as possible, especially if they are refugees or immigrants, who are born in foreign communities to which the parents do not belong.

This production was supported by the Open Media Center with funding from the European Union.

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