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Language excellence at IU supports large Kurdish community in Nashville, Tennessee

Feb 16, 2024

Rebar Berwary teaching Kurdish Since fall 2021, IU has been sponsoring free Kurdish language courses at Nashville State Community College that are free and open to the community. Photo by Alan Poizner

Indiana University offers more world languages than any other university in the country, providing its students with the opportunity to become fluent in critical and less commonly taught languages.

Centers in the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies have used their Title VI funding from the U.S. Department of Education — which totals more than any other university in the nation — to extend this opportunity to community members of Nashville, Tennessee.

Since fall 2021, IU has been sponsoring free Kurdish language courses at Nashville State Community College for those who regularly interact with Nashville’s large Kurdish population or want to communicate with their Kurdish neighbors. Many participants work in high-impact professions like education, emergency medicine and social services.

Roughly 20,000 Kurds live in Nashville, making it the largest Kurdish community in the United States. The community began establishing itself nearly 50 years ago, with most immigrants fleeing persecution in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Rebar Berwary teaching Kurdish language at Nashville State Community College Rebar Berwary, the instructor for the course, is an elementary school educator from Duhok, Kurdistan, who has been living in Nashville, Tennessee, for nearly 13 years. Photo by Alan Poizner

Despite the longstanding Kurdish presence in the community, Nashville still had a need for Kurdish language resources. Luckily, one of the mandates of Title VI funding is to serve as a resource for Minority Serving Institutions and community colleges across the country, like Nashville State Community College.

These courses — which are supported by IU’s Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region, Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, and Center for the Study of the Middle East — use materials in Sorani, the Kurdish spoken by the Kurds of Iran and Iraq. They are completely free to anyone interested in learning the language and have so far attracted nearly 30 participants.

Indiana University not only supports the salary for the course’s instructor, but the Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region also develops the Kurdish language textbooks used as a basis for the curriculum.

In addition to publishing the Sorani textbooks used in this course, the center creates instructional materials for less commonly taught languages like Azerbaijani, Dari, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Mongolian, Pashto, Tajiki, Tibetan, Turkish, Turkmen, Uyghur and Uzbek. As one of only 16 Title VI Language Resource Centers in the U.S. and the only one dedicated to the critical languages of Central Asia and surrounding countries, the center also conducts research on the acquisition and instruction of Central Asian languages.

Benjamin Legg and Alexis Finet during a Kurdish course at Nashville State Community College Benjamin Legg and Alexis Finet, two instructors at Vanderbilt University, are participants in this year's course. Photo by Alan Poizner

“CeLCAR’s mission is to cultivate interest in Central Asian languages and cultures, fulfilling strategic national goals,” said Gulnisa Nazarova, director of the IU Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region. “We’re fortunate to have experts in Sorani and Kurmanji Kurdish at Indiana University who are committed to these endeavors. Developing Kurdish textbooks is crucial, acting as a vital bridge for passing knowledge across generations and cultural divides.”

Rebar Berwary, the instructor for this semester’s course at Nashville State, heard about the offering at her mosque when it launched in 2021. Berwary, an elementary school educator and mother of four, is from Duhok, Kurdistan, but has been living in Nashville for nearly 13 years. She said she is honored to be part of a program that is bridging gaps in her community.

“I had heard of the Kurdish course offerings when they first began as it caused quite a bit of excitement within our community,” she said. “Nashville has become a home to many Kurdish families, and having this class offered at Nashville State has helped our community feel seen and cement our presence.”

Most participants in the course are not Kurdish and have never interacted with the Arabic alphabet, which is used in Sorani. Berwary — who is fluent in English, Arabic, Sorani and another Kurdish dialect called Bahdyini — said she hopes her experience with these languages will help her connect with a range of participants in her course.

IU Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region

Benjamin Legg and Alexis Finet, two instructors at Vanderbilt University, are participants in this year’s course. Legg, who teaches Portuguese, said he enrolled because he is curious to learn more about the language and culture of people in his community. Finet, a French instructor at Vanderbilt, said he jumped at the opportunity to learn a new language. Finet said it’s also good to be in the role of a language student vs. instructor to be reminded what it’s like and possibly improve his instruction.

As one of the only universities in the nation involved in research, teaching and preservation of Central Asian languages, Indiana University is meeting strategic national security needs as well as strengthening communities.

“Language is more than just a way to communicate; it also reflects our values and history,” Berwary said. “By having these classes offered, the Nashville community is given the chance to not only learn the Kurdish language but also begin to understand the Kurdish people.”


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