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Taking the Laz language online, one project at a time: An interview with Eylem Bostanci

Rize, Turkey. Screen shot taken from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feXQb1HV024

The Laz language, or Lazuri, is one of Turkey's 30 minority languages — and one of its most endangered.

According to different sources, there could be anything between 30,000 to 200,000 speakers of Laz today, and most of them still live in the towns and villages of Artvin and Rize, on the coast of the Black Sea. A large proportion also emigrated from Batumi area to Marmara in the 19th century, after the Ottoman-Russian War.

From 1982 until the late 1990s, all minority languages were forbidden from being taught at Turkish schools, which significantly thwarted the use of Laz

While a 2002 law ensures instruction in minority languages spoken by Turkish citizens in secondary schools, still there are too few teachers available, and many schools actively discourage students from pursuing such studies.

Global Voices spoke with Eylem Bostancı, a project coordinator at the Laz Institute, an Istanbul-based organization dedicated to promoting the Laz language and culture.

Bostancı is ethnically Laz but grew up in London. Her journey to explore her roots began 20 years ago, when she came across a website through which she discovered other Laz people.

In the following years, Bostancı translated books from Lazuri to English, including a grammar book and a Laz-Turkish-English dictionary, and helped publish magazines in Lazuri.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Doğa Çelik (DÇ): How did you develop an interest in the Laz language?

Eylem Bostancı (EB): I am an ethnic Laz and both my parents’ first language is Laz. Yet, since I was raised and educated in London I could understand a bit but not speak Laz. The Laz language is a strong component of my cultural heritage and my roots. It was through an internet site that I met with other Laz people in 2001, writing articles and doing research on Laz by going into archives at the British Library. In 2002, I made a radical decision to move to Istanbul, Turkey, where I married my husband who is the first person to publish a Laz-Turkish dictionary in Turkey.

: Where do you think is the Laz language situated on the internet?

EB: Currently, there aren’t sufficient education methodology, materials and resources that can be easily accessed through the internet, which means that the education in these languages is not adequately supported. The internet is a strong medium that facilitates the widespread access to all materials and resources in Laz. Those materials prepared in the recent years are not compatible with the digital sphere, thus not user-friendly or easily accessible to those wishing to learn the language. Within the scope of the European Union project that we started in July 2020, we will be producing practical, innovative, easy to access and diverse podcasts, videos, and learning materials enriched by graphics and music so that children and the young people can learn their mother language. In addition, existing learning materials will be digitalized.

: How important do you think is the internet in preserving the Laz language?

EB: It is critical. We have organised a “Digital Activism” training recently, in which academics and experts in the field of endangered languages digital activism were invited as lecturers. Through digital activism and language preservation trainings aimed at the young people who are interested in safeguarding the endangered language as native speakers, activists or NGO members, we target to increase the capacities of the participants within the respective matter, and help them use social media efficiently and productively. The content of the training are the creation of visual material, the techniques and application of video activism, effective use of digital tools, citizen journalism, digital language preservation focusing on the mother language and cultural rights, preparing news text in the mother language. At the end of this activity, we will prepare a digital handbook intended for the institutions and activists conducting a rights-based study on the endangered languages and cultural rights.

: Do you have any digital projects?

EB: We are working towards creating a digital media platform by building content that involves news related to the developments for Laz and other endangered languages in Turkey and the world, information on the Laz language, culture and the history, learning materials, photos, articles, videos, interviews and podcasts. We are also working on producing cartoons in Laz for children. There is a rapidly increasing number of young Laz who consult the Laz Institute to find out about their language and culture in search of their ethnic identity and expressing their demand for expanded cultural rights and extended representation of their linguistic groups of people. We strive to meet the increasing demand from the Laz people for better accessible resources through concentrating on digitalisation. The Laz Institute website  and the TAD-Endangered Languages website that we have established during our latest EU funded project both contain the information and resources that are developed by us. We have also set up social media accounts for Laz Enstitusu and Tehlike Altindaki Diller (Endangered Languages) on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. In addition, in May 2020 we have  applied for Duolingo app to be available in the Laz language.

We will also create a Laz Audio Dictionary website and a digital “Language Map” of Laz and Circassian languages.  This will be an online map showing the cities, towns and villages where the Laz and Circassian languages are spoken in Turkey. The map will also include the ethnographic information, population number, and the original names of the towns and villages and the new names given by the state in the last 80 years. This map will enable users to make updates, allowing them to add new information. Thus, correct census data will be provided on these languages and the changed place names will be visible and easily accessible.  In addition, we are also working on Laz and Circassian language learning websites.

DÇ: Do you face any problems in trying to spread the usage of Lazuri?

We are experiencing some problems in communicating correct information on the Laz language. For instance, the Laz/Mingrelian languages are classified not as languages on their own, but as dialects of another language on Wikipedia, as well as many academic articles, wrongly being classified as “Kartvelian” languages, rather than solely “South Caucasian” languages. We have amended the information on Wikipedia several times, yet it has been changed back, making it difficult to deal with. Although the information in the already published non-digital sources are hard to correct, it is possible to interact with the online sources. We are now establishing an “International language preservation and promotion studies” network and contacts will be made with the internet sources, identified at the beginning of the studies activity, for the amendment of information and providing the accurate information (with relevant sources) on the Laz language.

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