Education in Mother Tongue for Children of Iranian Azerbaijani Turks

Habib Azarsina

Children learn best when they are educated in their first language, their mother tongue. In the case of children in Iran, this is true for about half of the school-aged children whose mother tongue is Persian, the official language of Iran. The other half speaks a language other than Persian at home. The focus of this article is the shock experienced by elementary school kids in some parts of Iran, particularly during their first year in school.

About one third of Iran's population is ethic Turks. Children of Iranian Azerbaijan face unimaginable challenges from their very first day in school. Let us try to imagine a scenario where, for example, in the U.S. state of Colorado, French becomes the official language. Let us assume there are enough French-speaking teachers to teach in the schools. American school children, who do not know any French, would start to learn this language from scratch. However, every school day, as soon as they leave school premises they would speak English again. They might do so even during their breaks. They would talk to their classmates in English. When they come home, they would speak with their parents and siblings in English, not French. They would talk in English at the playground, at the market, everywhere but on the school grounds. The next day they would go back to the French school and try to learn in this strange environment. Today, millions of school children in Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Balochistan face a similar situation. Arabs of Khuzestan province, the Turkmen of Golestan province, and all ethnic groups speaking a language other than Persian face the same dilemma.

The language of instruction in Iranian schools is Persian, the official language of the country, and the mother tongue of Iranians in the central and north-eastern provinces. However, in the north-west of the country, Turks(*) is the spoken language which is the mother tongue and first language of millions of Iranian students. I was born and raised in Urmia, the capital city of the province of West Azerbaijan. When I started going to school, I had the strange feeling of living in two different worlds. My classmates and other kids in school knew only Turkish. My teachers spoke to each other in Turkish. My parents, our neighbors, people on the streets and the merchants in the market all spoke Turkish. Yet, in classrooms we were taught a different language.

The first few days of first grade were the most difficult for both teachers and students. On top of the anxiety of being away from home, having to learn a new language was daunting. Teachers struggled to keep students interested in school. They would do their best to make us comfortable in the classroom. Our teacher would ask us to stand in front of the blackboard and tell a story – in Turkish as that was the only language we knew. Our textbooks would arrive a few days after school opened. After we received our textbooks, the instruction was bilingual. The teacher would say aab (“water” in Persian) loudly and then would explain that this is su in Turkish. We would continue this pattern for all other words, throughout the first year. We would be lucky if we could finish half of the textbook. These books were designed for kids who were raised in Persian-speaking families. For Persian-speaking children, learning was a much easier task than for Turkish children who (back then) heard Persian for the first time in the classroom.

Ditching school was routine. Parents would bring their kids back in tears. Many kids could not pass the first grade and had to go to summer school or stay in first grade for another year. Many students would fail in the second and third years also. In Iranian Azerbaijan, failing school was the norm, and moving up without problems was the exception. Many kids, and their parents for that matter, would give up at the end of the sixth year. Graduating from elementary school was considered an accomplishment. The ones who quit after elementary school usually took more than six years to graduate.

Later, in high school, I encountered a few Persian students in our school. However, some teachers were still struggling to have the subject matter understood by a majority of the students. I vividly remember our math teacher on the first day of school asking: “Raise your hand if you don’t understand Turkish.” Two kids raised their hands. Such students were usually children of military personnel or government officials who were stationed in Urmia temporarily for a year or two. The math teacher then told them they would be taught separately. He would begin instruction in Azerbaijani Turkish, explaining the complex math formulas in our native language and was able to achieve better results from us.

Having laws on the books does not necessarily mean that they are implemented. Iran’s central government made Persian the official language in schools and government offices in the Azerbaijan provinces of Iran. Yet Persian was only used in schools and government offices. In other public places, such as mosques and markets, Turkish was the only language heard. Today, in the age of computers and satellite television, only official documentation is in Persian, everything else is still in Turkish. Almost all government officials speak Turkish to their customers and to each other and it will surely remain so for decades to come.

Some daring teachers who witnessed the hardships of Turkish children wrote letters to local and central government authorities. Some, including Samad Behrangi, Jalal Aal-e Ahmad, and Ali Ashraf Darvishian, wrote articles and even books on the subject of educating school children whose mother tongue was not Persian. Samad Bahrangi, a Turkish teacher and author of Investigations into the Educational Problems of Iran, stood out as a vocal and resilient advocate. His book, which highlighted Behrangi’s experiences while teaching in villages of Iranian Azerbaijan, was reprinted several times after his tragic death in 1968. He also wrote children’s books in Persian which were set in Iranian Azerbaijan and in which the characters had Turkish names. Some of his children’s books, especially “The Little Black Fish,” won international awards.

Samad Behrangi promoted the right to education in the mother tongue for all students in Iran. His books were highly critical of the authors of elementary schools textbooks. Behrangi supported local education at least during elementary school years. He advocated for customized textbooks for different regions, putting forth that even in the case of Persian-speaking children, textbooks designed for children living in large cities were alienating for children living in rural areas. Today, there are schools, streets, and hospitals named after Samad Behrangi, but his brilliant ideas have yet to be implemented.

Elementary school children learn other languages quickly. Children who learn to read and write in their first language or mother tongue can then transfer those skills to other languages such as Persian and English. However, children also learn by playing and interacting with other children. When I was growing up, I did not have the opportunity to interact with children who spoke Persian. This remains true today in most cities of Azerbaijan in Northwest Iran. In urban areas of North America and Europe, kids often see other kids who speak different languages. They play with them and experience diversity by growing up among kids from different ethnic backgrounds. In my case, my neighborhood was homogenous (Turkish) and my hometown of Urmia was almost entirely Turkish.

I had the advantage of the teachings of my uncle who had spent years in Tehran and knew some Persian. He taught me the Persian-Arabic alphabet from a book for adult education. He motivated me, telling me I was a fast learner. He promised a bicycle if I learned the alphabet. I never received the bicycle but I am grateful for his encouragement to learn and for the important ability he gave me. My father spoke some Persian, but could not write well. Yet he could read Turkish books written in the Persian-Arabic alphabet.

Back then, Urmia had only one central library which was far from my home. I practiced the alphabet I had learned on a few Turkish books we had at home. Today, elementary school kids in the Azerbaijan provinces of Iran face fewer challenges. Their parents are more likely to have had some education in Persian and know Persian. Kids watch children’s television programs in Persian. There are libraries for children and teenagers closer to their homes. Kids can watch TV programs in Persian from Tehran, but they can also watch the often higher quality programs from Turkey and Baku, capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan, which are in Turkish. Satellite television provides more music, game shows, children’s programs, and movies in their mother tongue. But despite all this, they are forced to learn in a language that is not spoken in their homes or neighborhoods.

Demands for education in the mother tongue are stronger than ever. Oz dilinde medresh, Olmalidir her kese [“Everyone must be provided education in his/her mother language] is often chanted in protests by Azeri students throughout Northwest Iran and universities in capital city of Tehran.

While I am happy that I have learned Persian and I enjoy reading Persian literature, I recognize that children should not have to go through the painful ordeal that I went through in elementary school. Millions of Iranian Turks experienced the same harsh conditions during their childhood. I have heard horror stories from my friends who attended other schools in Urmia or other Turkish cities who were beaten for speaking Turkish during class or who were forced to pay pocket money as a fine.

Iran’s neighboring countries provide education in various languages dependant on the dominant language spoken. After assessing the situation in the region and evaluating current conditions, the Iranian government has become more receptive to the idea of bilingual education in areas were the dominant language is not Persian. According to Article 15 of the Iranian Constitution, teaching local languages alongside Persian is permitted.

Teaching in local languages has become a far less sensitive issue in the past decade. Iranians have been exposed to Turkish television (which is sometimes watched by Persian-speaking Iranians due to the poor quality of most government programming). They realize that education can be done in other languages too. Iranians abroad see their children go to schools in their countries of residence and learn a different language. These parents want to preserve the language spoken at home and the Persian-speaking families can sympathize with Turkish families in Iran whose children must be taught in a language that they do not speak at home. The topic of education in the mother tongue for children is no longer a taboo subject among Iranian thinkers and it is not rejected right away by Persian nationalists. They have become more patient and instead explain the importance of one official language as a foundation for national unity. I consider this a sign of progress and a step towards tolerance and acceptance of diversity. Schools should be a pleasant place for Iran’s children regardless of their ethnic or religious background. Kids should like their teachers and have happy memories from their early childhood.

(*) Azerbaijani and Turkish are interchangeable terms and have been used interchangeably throughout this article. They both refer to the language spoken in North-West Iran, which is also called Turk.