PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania — Students at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania in the United States are learning Kurdish for the first time thanks to a course taught by Mohammed Salih, a PhD student in communications.
“This is an introductory level Sorani Kurdish course…” explains Salih. “The idea of the course came from the University of Pennsylvania’s Language Center. I was approached by them. I am the only native speaker of Sorani Kurdish here on Penn’s campus.”
Salih, 36, is originally from Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq where the Sorani dialect of Kurdish is spoken.
Students learn to read and write in the Kurdish alphabet that is similar, but unique to the Farsi and Arabic scripts. An estimated 10 million people speak Sorani, primarily in Kurdish regions of Iraq and Iran, and also in the diaspora.
The class meets twice per week. Some students are able to say basic Kurdish phrases after just a month of study.
“I work in Kurdistan. I am an archaeologist,” said Katherine Burge in Kurdish.
Others have never been to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq and have their reasons to study the language.
“I decided it would be a very unique and strategic thing to learn and to speak the language because it is not — even among scholars not many do,” said Adam Green who studies international relations.
Christy Perkins worked in the Kurdistan Region and in Mosul treating patients during the ISIS conflict.
“That’s what got me interested in learning Kurdish and when I heard there was going to be a course here, I thought it was a great opportunity because again there’s just not Kurdish language courses in the US,” she said.
Preserving the Kurdish language
has been piecemeal. Grammar and pronunciations greatly vary even from town to town in Kurdistan. Efforts to standardize the language have been sparked and sped up by the advent of the internet, so Kurds can effectively communicate with non-Kurdish speakers.
“It was really a very personal thing for me. Being a Kurd and coming from a culture whose language has been suppressed and oppressed so severely over decades,” said Salih, “I really saw that as a really important an interesting opportunity to be able to teach my own language to other people.”
University of Pennsylvania was established by Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. It is very highly regarded and the alma mater of Noam Chomsky, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, and US President Donald Trump among other prominent graduates.