A new language project based in Nicosia inspires hopes for an alternative channel of communal dialogue on Cyprus.
By Menekse Tokyay for SETimes in Istanbul -- 03/06/14
Participants in the Language Transfer workshop learned to speak Greek. [Language Transfer]
In a bid to bring the two communities of Cyprus together to practice their languages, the independent civil initiative Language Transfer is providing free workshops and downloadable audio courses in Greek, Turkish and the Cypriot languages.
The founder and director of the initiative, Mihalis Eleftheriou, is a young Cypriot linguist and activist who promotes the role of socio-cultural activism for improving person-to-person contact.
The project is in the spirit of a well-known Turkish proverb that says knowing one language makes you one person, two languages two people. The motto of the project is "free languages, free people."
The courses started on May 10th with a Greek workshop at the Cyprus Community Media Centre in the Nicosia buffer zone. Turkish workshops are planned for June. The project is also expected to spread across the island throughout the year to increase its audience.
The language courses, which aim to teach a new language in just 20 hours through efficient learning methods, will offer conversational skills and show participants how the languages are connected with each other.
Eleftheriou said that the aim is to get as many Cypriots as possible to be conversational in Greek and Turkish, and also to give them the skills they need as master language learners to continue to practice and perfect their languages.
"The method looks at the pluralism of our languages and how they are symbiotic -- that they don't exist without one another. We use this analysis of the language as a practical learning mechanism," Eleftheriou told SETimes.
"There are currently some volunteers being trained but we need more. For now I'm doing the teaching by myself, which also forms part of the new collaborators' training," he added.
Eleftheriou said that beyond their practical importance, languages also take people on spiritual journeys by allowing them to further empathise with each other by speaking one another's language.
"The project also will host language exchange events where people can come together to practice speaking with language facilitators. This should also lead to increased crossing of the buffer zone. People might move more to enjoy practicing their new language," he said.
Basma Badran, a Lebanese journalist and translator who has lived in Nicosia for five years, attended the programme to add to her linguistic background. She is fluent in Arabic, English and French, and also speaks Turkish.
"The language exchange program, with the free introduction to Greek, was a perfect opportunity," Badran told SETimes. "In only four hours, it explained how sentences are built, providing a structured way of thinking about a language, and rebuilding it step by step on our own. We were making our own long sentences at the end."
The first workshop allowed her to understand more of her Cypriot friends' conversations, the news, and radio announcements.
"Also on a professional level, I'm planning to start writing about Cyprus with both its communities and its divide on my blog. Thus, I'm also planning to take the Turkish workshops, as it would be more authentic to get direct sources of stories if I could understand and speak the languages of the country," she added.
Hakan Karahasan, an expert of conflict resolution and semiotics of culture from Girne American University in Northern Cyprus, said there is an important relationship between language learning and eliminating stereotypes.
Language Transfer founder Mihalis Eleftheriou (standing) promotes the importance of socio-cultural activism. [Language Transfer]
A Turkish Cypriot who also knows Greek, Karahasan said learning each other's language requires acknowledging those who do not use your mother tongue and realising that "they are human beings like you."
"Communicating with 'their language' inevitably makes them feel that you are acknowledging them," he told SETimes. "Besides, one understands the culture better and the way they express themselves. And when one speaks the language, no matter how 'different' you are, people give credit to your efforts and it is the first step for a dialogue."
He added, "In other words, it is not the sole factor for rapprochement but comprises the first step toward reconciliation because using the same language brings people closer, giving them the possibility to discuss their issues and inevitably, it can lead toward reconciliation."
Participants in the Language Transfer programme express their interest in learning Greek. [Language Transfer]
Chryso Pelekani, a citizen of Cyprus who teaches Turkish courses to undergraduate Greek Cypriot students at the University of Cyprus in Nicosia, said language exchange programmes can help alleviate ethnic divisions.
"In my experience I have noticed that students, before registering the classes, may have some negative attitude toward the Turkish language and the Turks, because of the past, but then as soon as they learn the Turkish language and the Turkish culture they start feeling much better and willing to continue to learn the language in order to be able to communicate with the Turkish Cypriots," Pelekani told SETimes.
Pelekani also said the learning the language encouraged students to make friends among the Turkish community in Cyprus to practice their language and to better know their culture.
"As a Turkish language section of the university, we organise a language café twice a year in order to give more opportunities to our students to use the Turkish language in a real Turkish café in the north side of Cyprus," she added.
What other kinds of socio-cultural programmes could help boost reconciliation efforts on Cyprus? Share your thoughts in the comments section.