Kurdish as a heritage language initiative

Kurdish as a Heritage Language
Challenges and Directions
Amir Sharifi
California State University , Long Beach
Sixth Conference on the Heritage Languages
Summer 2012
Kurdish community in Southern
California ( Two members of the Kurdish Youth
Kurdish is spoken by Kurds in Iran, Turkey, Iraq , Syria, Armenia , and diasporic communities of
Kurds throughout the world.
The language has been spoken even before recorded history for thousands of years .
Because of linguistic discrimination, Kurdish has faced many prohibitions (Skutnabb-Kangas 2003) for
almost a century. In Turkey, Iran, and Syria Kurdish medium schools are not allowed. To different
degrees , Kurds in Iran, Iraq , and Syria have suffered what has been termed as “ linguicide (
Hassanpour 2000)”. Many Kurds have been assimilated into the dominant cultures.
During the past one hundred years , Kurds have risen against language discrimination to defend
their linguistic and cultural rights . Catastrophic events such as halabja and enfal massacres in Iraq
under Saddam Hussien, linguistic denial and suppression of kurdish identity in Turkey, Iran, and
Syria, denial of the right to education in Kurdish with the exception of Northern Iraq where Kurdish is
the medium of education and minorities have their own schools , a great many Kurds have been
decimated; many have been forced into mass migration, displacement, and assimilation.
The first generation of Kurds in Southern California has not been able to avoid gradual language shift
as the indirect outcome of such exclusionary language policies and monolingual ideologies .
Because of the official status of Kurdish in Iraq and growing interest in Kurdish studies and
linguistics , Kurdish may be able to find its rightful place among heritage languages in Southern
The sizeable pockets of Kurdish diasporic communities in Southern California hope to receive a grant
from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to initiate Kurdish as a heritage language campaign
and program with the support of Heritage Language Institute at the University of California, Los
Focus of presentation
• A brief overview of the linguistic profile of
Kurdish heritage speakers
• Challenges of recognition and new directions
Kurdish Challenge and Directions
• Kurds in California are heterogeneous as they come from different
geographic areas, religious affiliations, cultural traditions, and
language varieties; as a result, they are multilingual and
• There are no studies of this community in terms of its
sociolinguistic ecology.
• As diasporic communities from different regions, Kurds continue to
use their language as a unifying force and defining feature of their
• As literary Kurdish grows in significance and the language spreads
through digital technologies, many Kurds in diaspora show a keen
interest in learning and learning about the literate practices of their
heritage language
• However, the younger members are in the process of language
Kurdish Population
Official LANGUAGE(s)
Number of Kurdish
6.8 million
15.4 million
Arabic, Kurdish
1.3 million
Armenian, Kurdish
Kurdish diasporic
Millions, no precise figure
Source: Izady (1992)
Number of Speakers
Major dialects: Kurmanji and Sorani
Northern Kurmanji ( 80%
of all speaker)
Southern Kurmanji (20% )
Europe : Over a million
U.S : Thousands
Kurds in 2011 Irvine Global Festival
Kurdish Population in Southern
• Precise figures not available but in thousands
• Distribution of language varieties :
• Los Angeles and San Diego: Over 80% Sorani
• San Francisco : over 70% Kurmanji speakers
Kurdish as a heritage language
initiative Context
• A relatively large number of heritage
speakers interested in attending classes
• They can also provide the required resources
for research
• The community is very vibrant and can
provide those who learn the language as
foreign language meaningful context for
Background/ Community Efforts
• The Kurdish language was offered by UCLA Department
of Near Eastern Studies in 1986 through community
funding but was discontinued after a year
• In San Diego, a community based school established a
weekend community school in EL Cajon with meager
resources and a great deal of dedication ; however,
ever since the teacher returned to his homeland, the
school is not operating
• In San Francisco there is a week end community school
Background/ Kurdish in the U.S
• Portland University, College of Liberal Arts
and Sciences: World Languages and Literature
• http://pdx.edu/wll/
• University of Maryland, Kurdish language
• Kurdish Studies and language classes at
Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU)
Background/ Kurdish in the U.S
• University of Arizona:The Critical Languages
Program (CLP), in cooperation with the
National Association of Self-Instructional
Language programs (NASILP), the U.S.
Department of Education, the National
Security Education Program (NSEP) and the
University of Arizona College of Humanities
• http://cls.arizona.edu/about.htm
New opportunities
• Growing significance of the language
• Now recognized as the official language
of Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of
• KRG has entered the realm of language
• Global business and political interest in
the language and culture in KRG
New opportunities
• Greater interest in heritage languages as a
• The U.S government’s interest in Kurdish
language testing development
• Growing interest in developing teaching and
learning materials outside the mainland
• Interest in Kurdish studies and linguistics as an
under studied field
• Collecting data on the sociolinguistic ecology of
the community in Southern California
• Survey and ethnographic methods (participantobservation, audio and video recordings, and
informal interviews)
• The surveys are being given to general members
and heritage language learners through mail,
email, and in person
• The researcher also participates in the
community’s cultural activities
Kurdish heritage language Initiative
• Request for your cooperation:
• I appreciate your help in conducting a survey on the views and
perceptions of the Kurdish community in Southern California about
the need for the recognition and establishment of Kurdish as a
heritage and world language. Your views are crucial to
understanding the needs and aspirations of the Kurdish diasporic
community. The survey will only take about 5 minutes of your time.
Your responses will be anonymous. By completing this survey, your
name will be entered into a drawing for a gift card for $50. To do
the survey, please follow the steps recommended.
• Instructions: Please answer every question that follows, adding
your additional comments wherever appropriate. The anonymity of
all respondents will be ensured throughout the process. The
community will be notified once the findings become available.
Kurdish heritage language Initiative
Survey excerpt
• Part 1/ Demographic Information
Gender (M/F)
Age (years)
Marital status( married, single. If you have children, how many and how old are they?)
Length of residence in the U.S
Country of origin
Level of education
First or primary language when growing up
Frequency of visits to your “homeland”?
Visit to Kurdish Regional government ( how many times if you have visited)
Kurdish heritage language Initiative
Survey excerpt
Part 2/Language Contexts
• 11.What languages are spoken at home?
• Kurdish
Other (please explain)
• 12.What language do you use to speak to your children or parents?
• Kurdish/English/ Persian
always Kurdish
more English than Kurdish
equal amounts of Kurdish and English
always English
Kurdish heritage language Initiative
Survey excerpt
• Part 3 Attitudes toward Kurdish language classes
• 28.It is important to offer Kurdish classes in Southern California for
• Strongly agree
Strongly Disagree
Don't know
• 29.If Kurdish classes become available, I will be taking them.
• Strongly agree
Strongly Disagree
Don't know
Challenges of introducing Kurdish as a
heritage language
• Political divisions and ideological
• Institutional impediments
• Pedagogical: Paucity of teaching and
learning materials
Organizing and Advocacy
• Organize and advocate community
involvement in the campaign for recognition
• Obtain the support of the National Heritage
Language Resource Center, the Center for
World Languages and Heritage Languages,
Department of Near Eastern Studies
• Urge KRG to initially fund the teaching of
Kurdish as a heritage language
• University of California, Los Angeles can
become a center for Kurdish language and
studies in the West Coast given the sizeable
pockets of Kurdish heritage speakers
• UCLA is uniquely positioned because of the
Department of Near Eastern Studies and the
Center for Heritage and World Languages
The Community Based Initiative
Campaign to urge
KRG to offer grants
The Foreign Language
Teaching Profession
Advocate and organize
To help Kurdish youth to maintain
their language and culture
To urge the community members to participate in
the advocacy efforts
Favorable Forces at Work
U.S Government
Emerging interest
In research on
Kurdish as a
Political and
Trilateral Collaboration for the
Establishment of Kurdish as a heritage
Kurdish Regional
UCLA Institutional
• The preliminary analysis will explore the role and identity of
the Kurdish diasopric community in Southern California in
connection with a community based effort to introduce
Kurdish as a heritage language because the first generation of
Kurds in California is in danger of language loss
• Preliminary observations reveal that for the Kurdish youth ,
Kurdish marks their ethnic identity and associates them with
the community here and the larger community at home
• The initiative by raising awareness of such a need will mobilize
community support that would encourage and urge Kurdish
Regional Government and heritage language centers to
support the establishment of programs to socialize Kurdish
heritage speakers into their language and culture
• Kurdish continues to be used widely in mostly sociocultual context
and relations in Southern California among older and middle aged
• The language is used for interpersonal communication and as a
marker of Kurdish distinct identity
• Gradually the Kurdish youth is losing its first language , a langauge
that for their parents index cultural and ethnic belongingness. Most
parents have not received an education in Kurdish either, thus
complicating literacy practices
• The current survey will study the status and direction of Kurdish as
a whole, particularly among first generation of Kurds who continue
to value their cultural and linguistic heritage
Hassanpour, A. (2000). The Politics of A-Political Linguistics: Linguists and Linguicide. In R.
Phillipson (Ed.), Rights to Language: Equity, Power, and Education : Celebrating the 60th the
60th Birthday of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas.(pp.28-33). New Jersey & London: Lawrence Erlbaum
Izady, M. (1992).The Kurds: A Concise Handbook. Taylor & Francis Publishers.
Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2003). Linguistic Diversity and Biodiversity: The threat from Killer
Languages. In C. Mair (Ed.), The Politics of English as a World Language: New Horizons in
Postcolonial ... (pp.31-53). Editions Rodopi.Amsterdam B.V.,New York.

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