Turkey’s National Education Ministry announced on Oct. 22 that elementary school students at second and higher grades will be offered Arabic as an elective course as of the 2016-2017 academic year.
The course for second- and third-graders will be limited to listening, comprehension and speaking, while fourth- and fifth-graders will also be taught to write in Arabic. The course is set to continue until the end of the eighth grade.
The decision highlights divisions in Turkish society about the secular foundations of the education system.
Ipek Coskun, an expert in educational studies at the Ankara-based SETA Foundation, said Turkish students need more foreign-language competency to comprehend the world around them.
Coskun criticizes claims that learning Arabic would Islamize Turkey’s education system.
“If that was the case, the United States would become one of the most Islamized education systems in the world, because district-level schools... can provide Arabic-language classes,” Coskun told Al Arabiya News.
Coskun said elective Arabic-language classes could contribute to Turkey’s relations with the Arab world, because modern standard Arabic is the fifth most common language worldwide, and the official language of some 26 countries.
Turkish cities such as Istanbul, Bursa and Trabzon are transforming into tourist and investment hubs for Arab countries, further increasing demand for the language.
“From another perspective, we’re hosting more than 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey whose native language is Arabic. To develop a mutual understanding, learning Arabic would become meaningful,” Coskun added.
Experts underline certain challenges, especially in terms of providing sufficient training on teaching methodology and material development, particularly considering Turkey’s poor record of teaching foreign languages, as it usually ranks at the bottom of lists for English proficiency.
Bekir Gur, an expert on instructional systems at Ankara’s Yildirim Beyazit University, says the Education Ministry should further invest in closing the gap in terms of qualified teaching staff.
“As a first step, the outcome of such a new initiative should be followed up in pilot studies, and according to the success and failures, the authorities should take the decision about implementing it on a larger scale or not. Otherwise, Turkey’s already unsuccessful foreign-language teaching capacity would be repeated again,” Gur told Al Arabiya News.
Istanbul-based Elif Dogan, owner of a blog about motherhood that is followed by tens of thousands, disagrees with the decision, voicing the concerns of secular segments of Turkish society in considering it another political shift toward Islamization.
“There’s an obvious intention to Islamize the country, and it strictly follows the previous attempts of the Turkish government in rolling back secular education for a pious generation,” Dogan told Al Arabiya News.
In the latest education reform by the government, vocational schools to educate Muslim clergy have been opened to secondary education. Previously they were limited to high-school level. In those schools, fluent Arabic is an asset.
In addition, contrary to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, Turkish children who are registered as Muslim on identity cards are obliged to take religion classes.
Dogan said she is not against Arabic per se, and finds it a very rich language. “But offering it at the primary-school level to pupils who just learn reading and speaking isn’t rational, considering their capabilities in adapting themselves to a totally different alphabet than Latin, such as Arabic.”
However, Gur says people who worry about Arabic but not English, French or German have become victims of Westernism.
“It’s a positive and democratic decision considering the demands coming from [conservative] families. From the same perspective, other languages such as Kurdish and Persian may also be offered as elective courses in Turkish schools,” he said.
National Education Minister Nabi Avci recently said some Turks “are allergic to Arabic,” adding: “Families and students mostly tend to prefer English as the elective language at school.”