In the beginning of September, I attended the 17th International Conference on Turkish Linguistics that took place in Rouen – a beautiful small city in France – this year. I had joyful experiences of presenting my ongoing research, listening to the eminent linguists’ talks, seeing my previous lecturers again and meeting the linguists that I had not known before. There were many interesting talks and presentations on syntax, semantics, psycholinguistics, language contact, etc. I was so captivated by the two keynote lectures on language development and literacy that I have been reading about literacy in my free time. In this post, I would like to touch upon language development and literacy in Turkey with a special focus on socioeconomic status (SES).
In the keynote lecture entitled ‘Integrating cognitive and sociocultural aspects of reading in Turkish’, Prof. Durgunoğlu introduced ‘literacy’ as one of the most basic cognitive skills and foundation for all other academic endeavours. She noted that literacy is an ongoing process, and it has ever-changing nature due to the recent developments in the digital world. Literacy development, and more specifically reading comprehension, mainly depends on the oral language skills and decoding processes. Oral language skills include the ability of meaning-making of receptive and expressive vocabulary, the ability to activate the meaning of larger segments of speech, generate inferences and understand properties of discourse. On the other hand, decoding skills entail the ability to relate the symbols of the written language to the sounds in the oral language. She stated that even in decoding which is a fairly rapid process in Turkish that has transparent orthography, low-SES students are far behind their peers. For Turkish, decoding-related factors play a less important role in reading comprehension than oral language skills. In her study, she demonstrated that oral language skills were also strongly associated with SES.
In the other keynote lecture entitled ‘Socioeconomic status and language development’, Prof. Aksu-Koç stated that the quantity and quality of the input that children need for language development are influenced by SES. The far-reaching effects of SES can be seen in a lot of domains, including lexis, syntax, narrative production, the pace of acquisition, the use of language skills in general. In her talk, she showed the significant differences in language development between children with low SES-backgrounds and those with middle-SES backgrounds. She also emphasized that the SES effects are long-lasting, and the gaps do not close fully even at later stages in children’s language development. What also struck me is that the SES effects were not openly discussed or talked in Turkey in the past.
Even in its most basic sense, literacy is a problem to be tackled in Turkey. The World Bank defines the literates who ‘can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life’. Undeniably, literacy is a more complex issue fraught with challenges of regional differences and gender disparity in Turkey. The overall literacy rate has increased in recent years, and the gap in youth literacy rates is closing between females and males, but there is still a lot to do for the adult illiteracy. As can be seen in the table above, the adult literacy rate is problematic with the remaining gender gap. There have been education reforms, improvements in access to education, and effective adult literacy programs in recent years, but it seems that more action is needed to eradicate adult illiteracy.