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These Flashcards Can Help Children Learn Kurmanji Kurdish

Kurdish is the majority language of Kurdistan and is thought to have approximately 30 million native speakers. Of these, roughly 14.5 million can be found in Turkey, 5-6 million in Iraq, 6 million in Iran, and around 2 million in Syria. Kurdish dialects are divided into three main dialect groups: Sorani, Kurmanji, and Pehlewani. The majority of Kurdish speakers (~ 15-20 million) speak Kurmanji, also called Northern Kurdish, with most of these speakers living in Turkey. The second most widely spoken dialect is Sorani, also called Central Kurdish, spoken by an estimated 6-7 million Kurds mainly in Iraq and Iran. Sorani is also the Kurdish dialect with the highest number of educational materials published in it, since it is an officially recognized language of Iraqi Kurdistan. Finally, Pehlewani, also called Southern Kurdish, is estimated to be the language of about 3 million Kurds mostly in Iran and Iraq.

Although Kurmanji is the most widely spoken dialect group of Kurdish, few materials are available in the dialect, since it has only limited use in educational settings in Turkey. To ensure the dialect is preserved and others can learn it, educational materials must be developed that are fun and effective, especially for children.  

Linguacious® is hoping to address this issue. The startup, founded in 2017 by Victor D. O. Santos, PhD, and his wife, develops award-winning and innovative physical vocabulary flashcard games that allow kids to practice all four skills (reading, listening, writing, and speaking). With an Internet connection, users can simply scan each card with the Linguacious app to hear the word pronounced by a native speaker of the language. Now, the startup has made flashcards in Kurmanji Kurdish, and we spoke with Dr. Santos to learn more.

Dr. Santos and his family

The Kurdish Project: What made you decide to publish the Linguacious flashcard game in Kurmanji?

It would be very easy for us to prioritize publishing flashcards in the most commercially interesting languages, like most companies do. However, we strongly believe that it is precisely minority and oppressed languages such as Kurdish that need the most help in terms of availability of resources.

A friend of mine and former colleague from my PhD program is Kurdish. His name is Ahmet Dursun, and he is currently director of the University of Chicago Office of Language Assessment. When I asked Ahmet what he thought of publishing the cards in Kurmanji, he immediately saw the benefit this could have for the Kurdish community, especially those Kurds living in the USA. It’s precisely Kurdish kids living abroad that are at the greatest risk of losing (or simply not even starting to acquire) this beautiful language. We wanted to make our flashcard game available in Kurmanji as a way to give Kurdish kids encouragement to learn the language by having fun with our games and listening to a real speaker of Kurmanji Kurdish pronounce the words.

The Kurdish Project: How did you go about developing the Kurmanji cards?

Ahmet, my Kurdish friend and colleague, put me in touch with some native speakers of Kurdish who were willing to either contribute to the project or spread the word about it through social media and word of mouth. In a matter of weeks, tens of people (both Kurds and non-Kurds) had signed up through our website to be notified when the Kurmanji cards came out. I simply could not believe the awesome response I was seeing and knew then this was a much-needed product.

Two of the native speakers of Kurmanji who signed up through the website played a crucial role in bringing this project to life: Gulsuma Demir (“Gulê”, a graduate student at the Russian State University for Humanities) and her brother Bahadin H. Kerborani (a graduate student in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago). The two of them worked as the main consultants in a team that consisted of four native speakers of Kurmanji Kurdish. Gulê is also the voice that is heard on the Linguacious Kurmanji flashcards!

Bahadin H. Kerborani (left, Kurdish translator) and Gulsuma Demir (right, Kurdish translator and voice)

We can see in the map below where the four native speakers of Kurmanji who participated in the project come from:

The hardest part of the project had to do with the inherent diversity and richness of Kurmanji. Our Kurmanji flashcard deck features 52 Kurmanji words for common objects around the home, such as shoe, towel, pen, flower, window, show, and many more.

Some simple words in English for things around the home can have many different possible translations in Kurmanji, and different speakers will provide different translations depending on where in Turkey (or Syria, for example) they may come from. Therefore, Gulê, Bahadin and I had to compare the independent translations of all four native speakers (them included) and had long and very interesting conversations about the Kurdish language and culture, including even some fun moments where the two siblings would disagree! In the end, a decision had to be made about which word would be used in the deck. Since the purpose was to create a flashcard game in Kurmanji that was easy to use and motivating for kids, we decided to have just one Kurmanji word on each card.

The Kurdish Project: Will you develop more Kurdish flashcards in the future?

We would love to! If there is enough interest in these flashcards, we will be glad to develop more Kurmanji flashcards in different topics, as well as a Sorani version, if there is enough interest. In fact, anyone who is interested can sign up here to be notified when we release the Sorani flashcards and receive a 10% discount.

The Kurdish Project: Any final thoughts?

I would just like to say just how glad I am that we developed this Kurmanji deck! I have learned so much more about this beautiful culture and language during the process and got to know awesome people in the process. To all the Kurdish parents or parents-to-be who are reading this: you have an awesome culture and language. Keep it alive, and make sure to pass it on. There are many exciting things happening right now in the USA (such as the Seal of Biliteracy) that will make sure every language is recognized in this country and that kids who speak other languages will have advantages over others who don’t.

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