2019 / 1 / 19
The Politics of Kurdish Language Testing in the USA
By: Nemat Sharif
The Kurdish Language: Kurdish is an Indo-European language comprised of at least 3 main dialects with multiple sub-dialects and regional accents. Geopolitical and social reasons have prevented the emergence of a unified standard Kurdish language, a unified -script- and until recently a standard Kurdish keyboard (thanks to Microsoft for standardizing ‘Latin’ Kurdish Keyboard).
Two main dialects, Sorani and Kurmanji, have emerged over the years partly because of population and partly because of political activism. Other dialects and sub dialects are no less rich in terms of literature and history, but perhaps smaller population. In Iraq, less than 10 years ago, the Kurdistan Regional Government, in a political decision adopted Sorani as the official medium of governmental communication, which also open Pandora Box in the struggle for dominance between the two dialects. Activism on both sides permeates all aspects of language endeavors. Sorani is the in the process of establishing firm dominance while Kurmanji is playing catch up despite its larger population in greater Kurdistan.
Speaking of friction/activism amongst speakers of major dialects of Kurdish is a sensitive issue. It is considered politically incorrect, as political parties do not speak of differences as it may frustrate blending and fusion efforts, and perhaps deepen political activism among the speakers of various dialects. I believe unless issues are discussed openly, there is no way to get passed them.
Test Administrators: The Kurdish community in the USA is still small in terms of population and recruiting qualified testing professionals is very difficult, and to find an objective one is near impossible. In the charged atmosphere who can put their biases and activism aside for the sake of common good! While unaware, testing companies are caught up in the storm of activism, but they bear the responsibility of hiring unqualified test administrators. No matter how well meaning a company may be, hiring an ‘agricultural engineer’, who never studied Kurdish´-or-a young graduate who admittedly have never lived in Kurdistan, to test/judge the language capabilities in many cases, of seasoned language professionals (i.e. translators and teachers) is wrong. Another example is the professor, who you might think was the most qualified among others, but unfortunately he was the most caught up in his activism. All boils down to the gold rush of contract dollars. Furthermore, the tester is a temporary employee who is mostly paid by piece work. Over the past twenty some years in the field, I am yet to see but one Kurdish test administrator hired by a company. In this case the hired Kurdish speaker to test Kurdish applicants, (un)fortunately he was released a year later for excluding speakers of one dialect regardless of capabilities, a stark case of activism. Students have no recourse whatsoever, and usually test material is not accessible.
Subjectivity of Tests: Early on usually there would be a one tester per person. And in the absence of objective criteria to measure student’s skills, the test result merely represented administrator’s view of the test taker. Test coordinators did not speak Kurdish. This is particularly true for oral tests. For example:
Use of foreign words on the test: On Sorani tests, the use of Arabic words is a vise, and it is held strictly against the student. On the Kurmanji tests, the use of Persian words is a vise, since more Arabic is used in Kurmanji, but more Persian is used in Sorani. The fervor of weeding out foreign vocabulary is well underway. This is simply because of geographical proximity to the areas where these dialects are spoken. Is English´-or-any other language free from foreign words? Indeed it is a sign of interaction of a living language with its surrounding cultures and languages.
After a decade of trial and error, the uses of paper and pencil´-or-computerized versions have made some progress, but not as one had hoped for. This perhaps brought some measure of standardizing test environment and methodology along with some documentation. Still there is no standard Kurdish test to measure student achievement. A student who achieves high grade with one company often does not pass another test administered by another company. Furthermore, it often depends on the grader who reviews the test.
Furthermore, the use of vocabulary from other Kurdish dialects and demonstrating an accent of other dialects indicating non-nativity to Sorani´-or-Kurmanji, which then stirs bias and activism immediately. Indeed a competent Kurdish speaker whether for translation, testing´-or-otherwise should be fluent not only in one dialect. At minimum, he/she should be fluent in both Sorani and Kurmanji, and be at least familiar with some other regional variations and sub dialects regardless of his/her native dialect. This is, in our view, is strength, not a weakness to be held against the student on the test.
In an attempt to bring Kurdish testing under control, few companies have separately developed their versions of Sorani and Kurmanji tests that grade skill levels comparable to Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) guidelines. ILR scales are not language specific. ILR doesn’t develop tests for any language, let alone Kurdish. Thus, we are back to square one. Kurdish students and job applicants for language positions, therefore, remain at the mercy of testing companies and there activist test preparers and administrators.
Finally, the trend is well underway that Sorani and Kurmanji are treated as separate languages in the world of business and international affairs. This is due in part to the slow progress of work done by Kurdish scholars, and in part to the lack of language professionals who can speak both dialects with high level of proficiency. Regardless of how frustrating this is to Kurdish nationalists and scholars who work to slowly bridge the gap, it remains a reflection of reality of the Kurdish language today.