The Position of Mother Tongue in Human Societies

Hamid Dadizadeh

“Identity”, as P. Krostrity suggests, “is defined as the linguistic construction of membership in one or more social groups or categories”. (1999)4 Identity is the tool by which every human being identifies himself or herself on the planet earth.

Language and Human Identity: South Azerbaijanis, a Case Study

The “primordial and enduring importance of our mother language” has repeatedly been emphasized by the world renowned researchers and writers. Mother language is referred to as “the homeland of our innermost thoughts”.1 The interrelatedness of language with other human faculties and senses takes us spontaneously to the position to pay more attention to the dimensions of language in the history of human civilization. One can approach the mother language from a variety of perspectives (e.g. educational, sociological, psychological, artistic/literary, historical, political, and post-colonial).

This paper will shed light on the position of mother language on defining the personal identity of those students whose mother language has been marginalized.

Matsura Koichiro, UNESCO Director General has reiterated the importance of mother language education and encouraged the world academic communities to highlight this important issue in order to defend those languages that are at the risk of dying out.2 This paper will also emphasize on the importance of mother language education not only it is “the intangible heritage of humanity”, but the mother languages are rich sources of identity and personal wealth of each nation and its citizens. In our contemporary world, in order an individual citizen or a nation to be able to participate in decision-making, and other democratic process, to have his or her voice to be heard, or have access to a “fair share of power and resources (either material or non-material) _of their native land, he or she has to be able to speak out, to negotiate and try to influence. The mother language is an inseparable part of every child. In other words, it is implicitly interwoven with the individual’s identity of every child genetically. The structure, vocabulary, and resources of mother language are buried in the every individual. It is the responsibility of democratic societies to facilitate the potentialities of linguistic heritage of child to flourish and endow the individual child with a rich source of power to communicate with others and prove his or her identity without any shame and marginalization.

In the second chapter, this paper will examine the relationship of mother language with human identities with special referral to the Southern Azerbaijan where more than 20 million Turkish  speaking people reside. Iran, as a multilingual society has been practicing monolingualism in public education and in other aspects of the social life. The outcome of this policy however has resulted in deprivation of millions of Turks from learning in their own language and practicing freely their culture and cultural productions. Meanwhile, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, on their 2002 issue of the Human Rights report has clearly elucidated the status of “Turks’s” in Iran and ascertained the accelerating policy of assimilation of non Persian people in this country. For more clarification, however, a summarized list of the report from annex 111 shed light on this matter:

Denial of cultural autonomy;

Harassment and imprisonment of cultural activists;

The banning of the use of Turkish language in schools;

Changing or distorting Turkish geographical names.

The deprivation of marginalized minorities around the world has led Skutnab-Kangas to invent a declaration of children’s linguistic human rights, (1986)3, where he suggests that:

1-Every child should have the right to identity positively with her original mother tongue(s) and have her identification accepted and represented by others

2-Every child should have the right to learn the mother tongue(s) fully

3-Every child should have the right to choose when s/he wants to use the mother tongue in all official situations.

This paper will then discuss the meaning of identity and will explore the areas of internal and external identification with special reference to the educational system practiced in the Southern Azerbaijan of Iran.

What Do I Mean by the Identity?

“Identity”, as P. Krostrity suggests, “is defined as the linguistic construction of membership in one or more social groups or categories”. (1999)4 Identity is the tool by which every human being identifies himself or herself on the planet earth. That is why the ancient Greek philosophers believed that the only means of human distinction with other species is the language. We are embedded in our languages. With languages, we are being inherited a wide variety of characteristics and signs which distinguishes every single nation from others. Therefore, “language and communication are critical aspects of the production of a wide variety of identities expressed at many levels of social organization”, Krostrity1999. Identity is implicitly buried in human beings. And this is only human species that recognize and appreciate this identity. Identity gives meaning to human’s life. Identity is identity, there is nothing recognized as minority or majority when we speak of identity. The existence, presence and function of every human being in this universe are marked by his or her identities. The crucial component of this identity is language which composes the essence of human culture. It is with the whole branches of language production that human civilization has been extended through centuries and the artistic, literary, scientific and other precious human heritages preserved from fatal catastrophic events throughout history. Having said that, and keeping this in mind, one can understand clearly the deep concern and worries of UNESCO expressed on the press release no.2002-07 as following:

“About half of the 6000 or so languages spoken in the world are under threat. Over the past three centuries, languages have died out and disappeared at a dramatic and steadily increasing pace, especially in the Americas and Australia. Today at least 3,000 tongues are endangered, seriously endangered or dying in many parts of the world.”4

One of the endangered languages of our modern era is Azerbaijani language, the language of Turkic Turkish population of Iran. In the report of Economic and Social Council of United Nations, for the year 2002 we read:

“The Azerbaijani Turkish-speaking people of Iran (also referred to as Torks) are recognized as the largest minority and may indeed be the largest group in the country. It appears to be accepted that about 12 million of them live in the north-west and that in the country as whole there may be as many as 30 million. It is asserted that the Turks have lived on the Iranian plateau for thousands of years and that they predate the entry of Persian tribes to the area”.5

With the universal wave of enlightenment, Turks in Iran has endeavored to return themselves, make themselves free from the alienation and assimilation policies of the former and existing rulers. The Turkish youth and intellectuals have been attempting to convince the Islamic government to implement the Constitutional Law of the Islamic Republic and enforce the rules and regulations the founders have authorized. In chapter two of this Constitution, the article 15 clearly explains the ethnic composition of Iran as a multilingual and multicultural society. The article 15 reads:”

The state and common language and script of Iran is Persian. Documents, correspondence, official texts and shall be in this language and script.

However, the use of local and ethnic languages in the press and mass media and teaching of their literature shall be allowed, besides the Persian language”.6 But, in the real world,” in Azerbaijan of Iran, as suggests,

”the Turkic language has been banned from schools and government offices. Since the Turkic language press shared the same fate, there were no Turkic newspapers or magazines published. Students were forced to speak in Persian in schools, and in the face of using their mother language they were fined and whipped”.7

It should be noted that despite all restrictions and pressures, the Turkish writers and artists attempt to be active in the field of ‘identity struggle’ by publishing articles, papers and books in their native language. However, the progressive teachers and students of southern Azerbaijan have played a crucial role in running this ‘identity struggle’ forward and communicating with people about the related issues in the field of learning. In this study, I interviewed several teachers in Azerbaijan who have been actively and conscientiously involved in covert mother language retention and maintenance and adopted the mother language teaching in scientific subjects, such as chemistry and physics, I came across to amazing and perplexing results. I used qualitative research methodology by providing the informants by the questionnaire. One of my study participants, a physics teacher in Tabriz high schools, Amogli, who has been science instructor for about 18 years in secondary schools, passionately addressed me by saying that:

“Oh, hamid, you cannot understand how I enjoyed teaching physics in Turkish language, the mother tongue of all 99 percent of these students. I was not allowed to do this, but the principal closed his eyes and let me do what I wanted. My students repeatedly told me that they understand the science much more clearly and easily when they are being taught directly in their own mother tongue”8.

Mother tongue instruction has been repeatedly and emphatically encouraged by experienced educators and pedagogues. Critical sociolinguists like Jim Cummins and Skutnab Kangas (1988) has written extensively on this issue. As a citizen of Southern Azerbaijan, I would like to mention that the deprivation of mother language instruction in formal education in this huge province and among all Turkic speaking population of Iran has resulted in catastrophic human loss and brain-drain from Azerbaijan. Thousands of Azerbaijani intellectuals turned their back to their motherland, and because of linguistic marginalization which is a form of violation of basic human rights, were uprooted from their native home and succumbed to displacement in other parts of the world. The assimilationist policies of Shah Regime had resulted in some of Azerbaijan students who were living in outside provinces and Tehran, to deny their original linguistic identity. The severity of this denial was so deep that some try to change their birthplaces from their birth documents. But the course of history and universal wave of ethnic enlightenment and consciousness and thanks to the information super highway and amazingly high speed internet, the transition from “shame to struggle” is noticeable now among this population.

It is unbelievable that in the Southern Azerbaijan, restrictions are still being imposed on this issue regardless of the constitutional law which I mentioned above. But in the course of ‘identity struggle’, all hurdles are being removed naturally by democratic demands of ordinary people. Since” language, as Jorgaqi 9 suggests,” means identity and we identify ourselves with the words we express in our different languages”, the importance and effectiveness of this vital sign of human identity must be considered by the law makers. Jorgaqi, as an ordinary citizen who lives out of her country as an involuntarily displaced person and experiences the separation from her mother language, expresses her thoughts in a passionate way:

Mother language is your first cry in this world showing that you are alive. It is the nicest, most impressive and sophisticated tool which gives meaning to the world. She goes on saying that,” language is the direct expression of your culture.”

The reader will understand the sensitivity of mother tongue instruction in Southern Azerbaijan of Iran when s/he pays attention to the historical background of this ancient nation. William Douglass, the USA Supreme Judge in 1940s who had traveled the middle East, has written extensively in regards to Azerbaijani people, their aspirations, emotions and potentialities. We read in his book,

Azerbaijan is a historic place. Here Zoroaster lived in the sixth century and taught the unending conflict between good and evil. Azerbaijan, being from time to time out of mind an international high way, has seen the crossing of many races.10

Historically, the people of Azerbaijan have been extremely proud of their language and culture. While they have been exposed to multiple foreign invasions, pillages, lootings and occupation, this people have suffered a lot from absence of their formal language instruction. And though the modern education was introduced in Iran by M.Roshdiyyeh, an Azerbaijani scholar and philanthropist, the dominant power separated this nation from their mother tongue instruction. This long time deprivation, humiliation and racism have caused a widespread interest among the intellectuals and a clandestine movement for national identity among Turkish people and freedom-fighters.


1-Matsurura, Koichiro, director general of UNESCO, 2001,
His Speech on the Occasion International Mother Language Day

2-Cummins and Kangas, 1988
Minority Education, from Shame to Struggle, 14-15, multiculturalism Matters, Toronto.

3-Skutnab Kangas, 1988,
Minority Education: From Shame to Struggle, 19-20

4-Linguistic Diversity,
UNESCO Press Relewase, No.2002-07

5-Report of Economic and Social Council
United Nations, 2002, Commision on Human Rights, 58th session.

6-Constitutional Law of Islamic Republic of Iran,
Chapter Two, article 15

8/4/2003, pp 34-35

8-Excerpts from the questionnaire No.1, pp3-4

9-Jorgaqi, Suela,
Proud of Being Multi-Lingual, 2003.

10-Douglass, William,
Strange Land and Friendly People, printed in the USA, 1948, pp-38-39