In Turkey, Syrian children do not speak Arabic

A Syrian child attends an Arabic language workshop at Roya publishing house in Istanbul, Turkey - August 5, 2022 (Enab Baladi)

A Syrian child attends an Arabic language workshop at Roya publishing house in Istanbul, Turkey - August 5, 2022 (Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Reem Hammoud

Syrian refugees in Turkish cities are not forced to learn the country’s language, as is the case in European countries. For example, a family can be seen residing in Istanbul for five years, whose members are fluent in only a few Turkish vocabulary, no more.

While the language barrier between the refugee community and the host community was considered a reason affecting the stages of integration, other obstacles appear among the members of the same family, with children enrolling in Turkish schools and learning the language from their surroundings, which causes a gap in communication with their families who do not master the country’s language.

For a child born in Turkey or who entered it at an early age, the Arabic language is not considered part of his identity, as Turkish becomes the language of his communication with his surroundings at school and on the street, according to what experts and researchers told Enab Baladi.

Environment has the “biggest impact”

Syrian refugee children in Turkey prefer to use the Turkish language instead of Arabic after they exchange it for long hours from their classmates to their neighborhood friends while playing.

Enab Baladi has monitored many cases of families whose children mainly use the Turkish language instead of Arabic, which constitutes an obstacle to communication between the family and the child due to the different languages.

Khadija al-Asfar, a mother of five children, has this problem.

She told Enab Baladi that the school environment and friends had a major impact on her children’s orientation towards the country’s language, especially since the village in which she lives is on the outskirts of the Turkish state of Bursa, where many Syrians do not reside, which prompted the children to fully integrate into Turkish society.

Al-Asfar talked about what she described as “the danger of her children forgetting the Arabic language,” given that her 17-year-old son, Ahmed, studied in Syria until the third grade of primary school, but he cannot communicate, write, or read in Arabic, and uses Turkish entirely.

The mother indicated that her children face difficulties in communicating with their relatives in Syria because of their very slow speech and the difficulty of communicating in the mother tongue.

Tendency to learn the language of the host country

The doctor who specializes in family therapy, Omar al-Nimr, told Enab Baladi that the Syrians residing in countries of asylum suffer from the tendencies of their children towards the language of the host country, especially since they are learning it in schools, as is the case in Turkey.

Al-Nimr attributed the roots of the problem to the children’s use of the foreign language for long periods of up to ten hours, which is more than their practical use of the Arabic language, and indicated that it is sufficient to consolidate the foreign language in their minds.

For her part, educational consultant Arwa Alloush said that the main reason for children losing the Arabic language is the lack of Arabic speakers around them, compared to the number of Turkish language users.

Alloush added to Enab Baladi that the small number of children in the house plays a role in forgetting the mother tongue, especially if the family does not notice that their child depends on Turkish more than Arabic, and this will be reflected in the increase in Turkish words for him.

Manal al-Ahmad, for her part, pushed her daughter to mingle with Turkish neighbors and friends in an attempt to teach her daughter the Turkish language faster since they came to Turkey.

Al-Ahmad told Enab Baladi that her daughter began to learn the Turkish language alongside Arabic at the age of four, but the family, due to the preoccupation with work, did not notice that her daughter, Shahd, was using Turkish as her mother tongue until she mastered it completely.

Dr. al-Nimr says that one of the most important factors that lead to forgetting the mother tongue in childhood is the surrounding society, starting from school to friends.

He added that the family’s failure to use the remaining hours of the day to talk to their children and devote themselves to them is considered a negative factor in this regard.

Mülteciler Derneği published a report that included statistics for Syrian students in Turkey, of whom 938,138 continue their education in Turkish schools, while 432,956 children have dropped out of school, and they are deprived of their right to education, according to a previous statement of the Ministry of National Education in Turkey, for the year 2021.

What are the effects?

Some people view language as more than a means of communication, while others consider it an important part through which they correctly draw their cultural identity and belonging to society. The use of a foreign language as a mother tongue has far-reaching side effects and many social problems, according to Dr. Alloush.

The inability of parents to direct children to use the Arabic language, and to explain its importance to the family, may negatively affect the pattern of the relationship between the child and his family in terms of psychological and emotional aspects.

Manal al-Ahmad believes that the full use of the Turkish language by her daughter, Shahd, has led to a deterioration in the relationship with her, as the mother faces difficulty in learning and using the Turkish language, which forced her to enroll in an institute to learn Turkish, in order to rebuild the correct relationship with her daughter.

As for Khadija al-Asfar, she faces great difficulty in rebuilding the culture of Syrian society among her children, especially since they feel a sense of belonging to Turkey and do not even think of returning to Syria.

Al-Asfar quoted, during her interview with Enab Baladi, a sentence that her son Ahmed said, “I will never return to Syria. How will I return when I cannot speak Arabic?”

Regarding the consequences, Dr. al-Nimr said that the loss of the mother tongue has far-reaching effects and distances the child from the identity of his mother community, influenced by the culture of the country in which he resides, especially as he studies the history of this country, which subconsciously makes him feel his belonging.

Addressing language loss

Many families resort to awareness-raising methods to address the problem of the absence of Arabic, and the treatment differs according to the family’s vision of the impact of the child’s loss of his mother tongue and the existence of a suitable environment that plays a fundamental role in his desire to learn the language or his rejection of the idea, according to Dr. Alloush.

The child’s absence of motivation and desire to learn Arabic, as it is “useless” for him in his surroundings, makes him refuse to learn it, according to al-Asfar. Her children see that learning Arabic is useless in their daily lives, and they can communicate with their mother, who was forced to learn Turkish for this purpose, despite her limited vocabulary to date.

The educational consultant Alloush described the problem of losing the mother tongue as “not easy,” but dealing with it and avoiding it differs from one family to another, according to their view of its importance and its long-term impact on the child, and indicated that self-expression in the mother tongue is essential for the child.

Al-Asfar tried to prevent her children from communicating in Turkish at home, to no avail, especially since her children do not have enough vocabulary to form a clear sentence in Arabic, according to what she told Enab Baladi.

She indicated that she continued to try and explain the Turkish words in Arabic, with the aim of increasing their stock of the latter’s vocabulary.

One of the most important methods to address the problem is to try to create an environment of Arab society around the child, to enhance his Arabic vocabulary, and to open lengthy conversations and dialogues with him, according to Alloush.

The procedures mentioned by the expert aim to avoid “the child closing in on himself” and to create activities that support the development of his mother tongue skills, in addition to helping him learn the language through educational courses.

Family therapist Omar al-Nimr advises families residing in Turkey to train their children, starting from the age of three, on Arabic vocabulary with its proper pronunciation.

In addition to enrolling them in courses to learn the Holy Qur’an, to enhance vocabulary and consolidate it in the child’s mind, to form the language before joining schools, and to start mixing in Turkish society.

Parents are primarily responsible for the formation of the child’s mother tongue in its correct form, not in a poor way, by following various activities that encourage the child to love it and desire to discover it more, according to al-Nimr.

On June 10, 2022, the former Turkish Minister of Interior, Suleiman Soylu, said that “more than 700,000 Syrian children were born in this country,” according to what was reported by the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper.

Soylu pointed out that the Turkish government will introduce a mentality that enables children born in this geography to unite with their own geography.

The total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is about 3.5 million, and nearly 1,750,000 of them resided in the cities of southern Turkey, where the earthquake occurred on February 6.



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