Teaching the Abkhaz Language in Türkiye: A 70-Kilometre Daily Commitment

İrfan Okuyucu, Abazaca öğretmeni

Bianet — Abkhaz language teacher İrfan Okuyucu (Ahocba) highlights a significant issue with the "Living Languages and Dialects" course in schools: "The biggest problem is the shortage of teachers, and even when available, the pay is far from adequate.

As World Mother Language Day (February 21) draws near, instructors of "Living Languages and Dialects" courses recount their experiences to bianet, from personal struggles for their mother tongue to their experiences in the classroom.

Abkhaz language instructor İrfan Okuyucu (Ahocba) details his unwavering commitment over a year to his courses, enduring a 70-kilometre commute involving changes across three modes of transportation, at times waiting for a ride for up to two hours post-class, all while managing monthly travel expenses of 460 lira and earning a mere 60 lira monthly:

"The absence of teachers for the course is a critical issue, compounded by the fact that the pay (60 lira a month in 2015) is not enough to live on."

– Could you share some of your personal journey in preserving your mother tongue? What are some of the stories from your past to the present? How did you perceive the introduction of the "Living Languages and Dialects" elective course into the curriculum, considering your personal advocacy for your mother tongue?

– I originate from the village of Adapazarı-Hendek-Kalayık, a community of 70 households all descended from the "Ahchipsi" tribe of Abkhazians, who resettled from the Caucasus following the end of the Russian-Caucasian wars. This region, known to our ancestors as "Kbaada" and also referred to as the Red Meadow, was the location for the Sochi Olympics.

"Let this kid go to school and learn Turkish."

Before beginning primary school, I was completely unaware of any language other than my own. My initial encounter with Turkish took place in primary school. At the age of five in 1960, the village teacher, Salih Beşoluk, playfully inquired during a conversation with my father, "Kid, are you married or single?" (In Turkish, "Evlimisin" translates to "Are you married," only "ev" meaning "house." —Trans.) Lacking knowledge of Turkish and recognising only the word 'house,' I mistakenly nodded, believing he was asking if I had a house.

They laughed, and my father decided, "Let this kid go to school and learn Turkish." The teacher agreed, marking my entry into school at five. I recall no issues in primary school, but from middle school onwards, we were called by the nickname "Abaza" instead of our names, often facing derogatory terms like "thief Abaza" or "horse thief Abaza," leading to confrontations and solidarity among us. I completed Hendek middle school in 1969, Bolu Male Teacher's School in 1974, and Marmara University's Department of Physical Education in 1980, retiring in 2005.

That same year, I joined the Federation of Caucasian Associations (KAFFED) in Ankara for a course on teaching Adyghe and Abkhaz languages, achieving literacy in my mother tongue. Since 2005, under the auspices of the Sakarya Caucasian Cultural Association, I've been conducting "Abkhaz language" courses. Over the past five years, I have also taught "Abkhaz language" courses through Adapazarı Municipality's vocational training programs.

I took on the role of editor for the "Abkhaz Module-1, Module-2, Module-3, Module-4" textbooks for the "Living Languages and Dialects" elective course, sanctioned by the Ministry of National Education, and led the inaugural "Abkhaz language" class in Beylice village primary school, Hendek, throughout the 2014-2015 academic years. Furthermore, I developed a Turkish-Abkhaz, Abkhaz-Turkish dictionary incorporating 20,000 words for mobile phone usage, scheduled for publication as a book on February 21, in celebration of World Mother Language Day.

“Embracing the Beginning…”

– Can you recall your first teaching session? What was the setting like?

The initial elective class commenced in the 2014-2015 academic year at Beylice village, Hendek district, Adapazarı, realised through the significant efforts of Kamil Şirinel (Atrishba), the chairperson of the Hendek Caucasian Cultural Association. I conducted classes for 13 students, two hours weekly for an entire academic year. Acknowledging that two hours weekly scarcely suffices for mother tongue acquisition, we nevertheless completed the year without skipping any classes, embracing the philosophy that "something is better than nothing, and any contribution is valuable."

Over that year, I endured a 70-kilometre commute from Adapazarı, navigating three different modes of transport and occasionally waiting up to two hours for a ride post-class, all while managing monthly travel costs of 460 lira against a modest monthly wage of 60 lira. The following academic year, 2015-2016, saw me passing the torch to Yeliz Argun, a peer educated in Abkhazia, who, regrettably, also had to resign after a year. Throughout, I faced no issues with either the school administration or the students and found great joy in my work.

– Reflecting on the inception of the courses in the 2012-2013 period, what has unfolded over the nine years since? Is two hours per week for language learning adequate?

The elective Mother Tongue courses initiated in the 2012-2013 period, as previously mentioned, were limited to opening just one class across one school during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years within our province, with no further openings thereafter. Clearly, two hours weekly falls short of sufficiency; a minimum of four hours would be more appropriate. The critical issue remains the scarcity of course instructors, compounded by the reality that the salary offered (60 lira a month in 2015) is insufficient for anyone's sustenance.

Facing the Question: "Aren't You Turkish?"

– A minimum of ten students must request a course for it to be offered. In some schools, classes cannot be opened due to insufficient demand. How can we increase motivation? What drives the general interest in these courses?

First and foremost, the timeline for selecting elective courses appears to be misaligned. If my memory serves me correctly, the course selection for the upcoming academic year was expected to occur in the first 15 days of last December. Given that parents may not be planning for the next year so far in advance, many miss the elective registration period. A more logical approach would be to align this with the enrolment period at the beginning of the school year. The reasons behind the low demand are multifaceted; as representatives of the association, our efforts to inform and motivate parents often reveal concerns such as:

  • The worry among parents that certain biassed teachers may perceive their child as a separatist, posing a potential threat, or the fear of facing the question, "Aren't you Turkish?"
  • The centralised transportation system complicates the gathering of ten students who speak the same language in urban schools. This challenge would be mitigated if village schools remained operational, enabling the launch of at least 30 classes across the 69 Abkhaz villages in Adapazarı.
  • The rise in assimilation rates, fueled by urbanisation and a general lack of awareness.
  • Life's challenges lead parents to prioritise quality education, professional careers, and financial stability over their native language, questioning the value of its learning.

Offering free summer trips to the homeland for students enrolled in this course could serve as a compelling incentive, though finding the necessary resources remains a hurdle.

"Need for More Classroom Hours"

– As a teacher, what practical challenges do you encounter, such as with the course curriculum? How do students participate and react?

– Facilitating teacher-student engagements presents no issue for me, as my passion for teaching makes it a joy. However, resolving issues with textbooks and supplementary materials, creating both visual and auditory learning environments, and increasing classroom hours are essential steps. Enhancing participation requires collaboration with the homeland, through projects and summer camps that allow students to apply their learned mother tongue in a practical setting.

– What additional innovations could be introduced? What are your recommendations?

Establishing a partnership with the homeland could alleviate the teacher shortage, fulfil material needs, and enable students to apply their learning practically in their ancestral land. Achieving these objectives necessitates authenticity and sincerity, along with providing teachers a living wage.

In closing, I envision a world where all languages and the cultures they embody thrive in peace and harmony, in celebration of World Mother Language Day on February 21.

This interview was published by Bianet and is translated from Turkish.




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