When Esra Kırkavak moved to the United Kingdom, she began fretting that her son would soon lose his Turkish language skills.
Indeed, by age three, he was speaking a language that was a mix of mostly English with some Turkish. Kırkavak, a former journalist, soon found that many other Turkish migrants in her social circle were facing the same challenge; how to raise expat children who remembered where they came from.
In response, Kırkavak launched Fiyu and Pupa, two Turkish magazines aimed at toddlers and elementary school kids that are now read by migrant children across Europe.
The popular bimonthly magazines, a collaboration with the Turkish children’s literature giant Bir Dolap Kitap, are delivered to subscribers all over the continent. They feature children’s stories and games in Turkish that teach language and culture in a fun package.
“When you’re in Turkey, all you want is for your kid to learn a foreign language,” Kırkavak said. “We would worry about whether they’d be able to learn a second language easily. [Then] after moving to the UK, the native language issue arose pretty quickly.”
Tens of thousands of Turkish migrants abroad are concerned that life in the diaspora alienate their children from their native culture and identity, a challenge compounded by the growing number of Turks seeking life abroad away from political and economic instability at home.
The number of children under 14 who have migrated to another country from Turkey since 2016 has risen in parallel with a broader trend of citizens leaving in the last three years, following an attempted coup and subsequent upheaval in the country.
As migration increases, the challenges facing parents of young children multiply. Many say they struggle with teaching them their native language, an anxiety reflected in the growing popularity of Turkish language centres in foreign countries as well as activity groups and magazines for Turkish youngsters abroad.
Family matriarchs are at the forefront of the campaign to preserve their children’s knowledge of Turkish, with the 23,000-strong Migrant Mothers page on Facebook and the Fiyu and Pupa magazines playing key roles in the effort.
“When you look at migration stories, the men are often in the spotlight because they’re usually the first in the family to migrate,” said İrem Bezcioğlu, whose doctoral thesis examined in-home language learning among Turkish migrant families in the Netherlands. “But the invisible forces in the family who guarantee the children’s scholarly and social success are the mothers.”
The Netherlands is one of the most popular destinations among migrants from Turkey. According to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), more than 400,000 Turkish citizens live there, including 110,000 under 20.
“If the first generation to arrive is careful about teaching their children the native language and developing that skill, their kids show the same vigilance in their home,” said Bezcioğlu. “If it’s the opposite, then the second and third generations have a pretty hard time with Turkish.”
These issues could then affect their sense of belonging to their community and home country, and how they see their identity more broadly. For families, said Bezcioğlu, losing Turkish is akin to losing one’s foundational cultural and religious values.
This drives parents to try out different methods at home to maintain their children’s language skills.
“A lot of second-generation families will make a point of talking to their kid only in Turkish until they’re old enough to go to school,” Bezcioğlu said. “They also pay attention to not mixing languages, reading books as much as possible and having Turkish families and kids around. Some families will go to foundations or volunteer for Turkish lessons.”
Esra Pencereci, the co-founder of the Migrant Mothers Facebook page, lives with her husband and three-and-a-half-year-old son in Dublin. She said that the issue of children forgetting their mother tongue often came up as a key concern for members of the Facebook group.
“All linguists, pedagogues and educators agree that you should always respond in the native language, even if the kid responds in another language, and that the mother should always speak in the native language,” Pencereci said.
The responsibility for teaching children Turkish often falls with the family, she continued, because kids default to the language they learn in school and that is used by their peers. Often, Pencereci said, children think in both languages and simply choose the first words that pop up in their heads.
“You need to talk in Turkish regularly and to make Turkish a part of their lives with songs, books, cartoons or movies,” Pencereci said.
But she argued that parents ought to also learn the local language, in order to avoid cultural and emotional rifts forming between parents and children who prefer not to communicate in Turkish.
Seyran İnanç, a Turkish mother who moved to France with her spouse and daughter in 2016, said that the family made sure to speak Turkish at home. They moved to France because her nine-year-old daughter is a wheelchair user and needed an accessible school.
İnanç said her daughter did not have a hard time interacting with family members in Turkey, although she sometimes began speaking to them in French when she got excited.
But the nine-year-old had developed a deep connection to her mother tongue, evidenced by her emotional response to Turkish music, İnanç explained, adding, “She never experiences that when she’s listening to music in French.”