Arabic language sees unprecedented interest in Turkey

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Turkish and Arabic, while hailing from two very distinct language families, are intricately tied to each other through borrowed words. Turkey maintains historic ties with countries where Arabic is the main language, yet for years Arabic language education had been mainly been confined to religious education in the country. However, this has been rapidly changing in recent years.

“Arabic is heard everywhere in Turkey as it is the language of the Qur’an. It is also the language that brought to us the Islamic civilization and knowledge,” says Abdüs Samet Koçak, a research assistant at Istanbul’s Fatih Sultan Mehmet University and an Arabic instructor. It is “part of Turkey’s culture” as it is spoken by the Turks in the southern part of the country, Koçak added.

The 18th of December coincides with the day in 1973 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted Arabic as the sixth official language of the organization. Turkey observed several events in commemoration of the day. On Friday, the Department of Foreign Languages in Ankara-based Gazi University organized a program that included sketches, songs and poems recited in Arabic. Several events were held at various universities, imam hatip schools (which are at the forefront of Arabic education) and other civil institutions in celebration of the Arabic language.

“Students prepare for these celebrations with pride, just to get a chance to give a speech in the classical Arabic language,” Koçak told Anadolu Agency (AA). “No foreign language has ever received the same attention as the Arabic language in Turkey, which makes me think that the government does not consider Arabic as a foreign language in Turkey. Turkey has also opened the doors for Arab professors to work in public universities in an unprecedented move in the history of Turkish universities,” he added.

This year’s World Arabic Language Day theme – “Arabic Language, a bridge between civilizations” – was set by UNESCO as a call to reaffirm the important role of the Arabic language in connecting people through culture, science, literature and many more domains.

On Dec. 7, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Fatih Sultan Mehmet University and Doha-based Qatar Debate, a member of the Qatar Foundation, to establish an “Arabic Debates Center” in Turkey. The agreement also included the organization of the first National Universities Arabic Debating Championship in Turkey, which will be held Dec. 20-28 in Istanbul. “This championship attracted 20 teams from different universities in Turkey, which indicates the extent to which universities and students are interested in the Arabic language,” Koçak said.

During the last five years, Turkey’s different Arabic debating teams have won three international debating contests at the secondary school level organized in Qatar. The latest win was in April 2021, where Istanbul-based Beyoğlu Anadolu İmam Hatip High School won first place in the 5th International Schools Debating Championship, which was organized online due to COVID-19 restrictions. Emir Maruf Satır, a member of the winning team, told AA that participating in the Arabic debates “opened up broad horizons” for him and benefited him in several aspects.

“Arabic debating provided a chance to learn and improve my Arabic language skills and taught me the ways of group discussions, listening skills and collective thinking skills. This experience made me a broad-minded person, paying more attention to the issues of the world and the Islamic nation,” he said.

Satır, who was also awarded the Best Speaker prize in the debating contest, said even though he is still at the beginning of learning Arabic, he always seeks to participate in various programs related to the language, such as debates, activities and seminars. He also participated in the Islamic Cooperation Youth Forum (ICYF) Model OIC, which was organized in April 2019 in Istanbul.

Model OIC is an academic simulation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which aims to educate participants about current trends in theory and practice of international relations, effective communication and multilateral diplomacy.

“During the preparatory year at school, I went to Jordan for nine weeks in an intensive program to improve my Arabic language skills and practice it with native speakers,” Maruf said. However, with the large presence of Arabs in Turkey, especially in Istanbul, “I can now practice the Arabic language on a daily basis, especially in places where the Arab population is large,” he added.

The Arabic language is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, used daily by more than 400 million people.

Koçak said interest in Arabic language learning has increased in Turkey in recent years due to rapprochement between Turkey and Arab nations. He said there are a large number of schools that teach Arabic as a second language, in addition to the “opening of faculties of Islamic sciences and Arabic literature in many Turkish universities that offer a preparatory year in Arabic, too.”

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