BLIND SPOT > The most popular exercise in Turkey: Learning English


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Mr. and Mrs. Brown with their three kids before they went out to go to the seaside.

Mr. and Mrs. Brown with their three kids before they went out to go to the seaside.

Half of Turkey is trying to learn English. And the other half is trying to raise the money needed for this. In fact, learning English is a lifetime exercise for most Turks.

It is a huge sector. There are numerous English courses – some of them look like posh private schools – and then there are private high schools that focus on English-language teaching. Parents are spending fortunes for their kids to learn English, preferably starting at an early age, at kindergarten level. The state education system is also pouring huge funds into English teaching with the so-called Anatolian High Schools. There are preparatory schools that teach English at almost all universities. Study trips to foreign countries, summer schools, summer camps, Work & Travel arrangements and, indeed, studying abroad all have the same aim: to speak English fluently.

And at the end, you would think Turkish people would have mastered the English language. Well, not really. The reasons for this huge failure may be numerous but one good reason that comes to mind – supported by experts – is that we do not speak our mother tongue very well, thereby hampering our ability to speak a foreign language. One should be competent in his/her own language before starting to learn a second or third one.

In his column, “Why can’t Turks speak English?” Güven Sak says: “Turkey’s problem with English is a structural one. The country lacks skilled and fluent English teachers and the programs to train them. It isn’t just the curriculum but the building blocks of English-language education that are missing.”

Does this ring a bell for you: Mr. and Mrs. Brown went to the seaside? Many a people, a whole generation in Turkey, utter this sentence with mixed feelings. For the majority, they are a dreaded British couple from the textbook, “A Direct Method English Course” by E.V. Gatenby. This hyperactive couple went on picnics, to the zoo, climbed mountains and, indeed, frequently went to the seaside. They even went to Mexico and brought back “sombreros.” At the end of all these activities, Turkish students still could not speak English…

The “Mr. and Mrs. Brown” theme has found its way into literature also. Prominent Turkish novelist Elif Şafak has an articulate description of the phenomenon in her book, “The Saint of Incipient Insanities” (Araf), from the viewpoint of a character from Istanbul, Ömer, a Ph.D. student in political science in Boston.

“If high school kids back in Turkey spoke some sort of crooked English with maximum attention to grammar rules and minimum competency in vocabulary, part of the blame could be put on Mr. and Mrs. Brown, and rightly so as the world they depicted was so unreal and vague, the language they taught became unreal and vague, too, making it all the more difficult to speak English.”

No other words than Elif Şafak’s can better describe the impasse created by Mr. and Mrs. Brown: “The bad facsimile of a happy life taught in the Learning English series” and how desperate middle-class Turkish parents were, in their attempts to hear their children speak in English, meant that “out of the blue, in front of relatives and friends, they would force their children to speak English, to say something, anything, as long as it was – it sounded – English enough.”

Yıldırım Türker, in his last “unpublished” column, refers to the Turkish language today as “the life interpretation of which has turned into a primitive coding system that is impossible to be translated into any other language, only to be understood by those who share this culture.”

As a last note on our poor Turkish and poor English, Jenny White writes the following in “Why Turks Don’t Speak English” (kamilpasha.com/?p=5878): “Despite Turkey’s openness to the world and global commercial activities, English proficiency is lacking, especially in the younger generation. [There is a] lack of interest and the desire for a quick fix rather than the effort required to learn a foreign language properly.”


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tarry davis

11/18/2012 11:18:24 PM

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer english teacher in Turkey for three years. I taught in a small town orta okul and lise. I remember Gatenby very well. It was like something right out of the British Raj. Early on I found that my students were having difficulty learning English grammar because they did not understand Turkish grammar. I taught them the basics. It became easier to teach English. I later taught at Gazi Egitim training English teachers. They were very good. Just not enough of them.

mara mcglothin

11/18/2012 5:05:20 PM

I have met many Turks who speak English. Some speak only a few words which is well enough to conduct touristic business in the resort towns, while other have their MBA in English. A very wise man taught me that "you only do what you really want to do" and learning English is no different, whether you learn it in the USA surrounding by native speakers or whether you do it in school in Turkey.

Nikos T.

11/18/2012 3:16:18 PM

All my Turkish friends speak English fluently. Turkish schools should teach English as it is done allover the world. But then again, I would not expect much from a PM who is closing secular schools and opens Islamic ones.

BusSpotter R

11/18/2012 3:01:11 PM

Give the people of Turkey a break! Learning a foreign language is next to impossible when one is not constantly interacting with native speakers or at the very least people who are fluent in that language. @ K Elaine Kristin: I am fluent in three dialects of Arabic - I have never met a non-scholar in Turkey who speaks competent Arabic.

Carmen Kama

11/18/2012 2:04:03 PM

I need to point out very strongly that Work and travel is not for students to learn English language is is absolutly to work !!!! and if the students do not speak proper English , and they are not fully aware that this program is to WORK only !! under US law, that 's where problems starts when they are in USA .

Yıldız pascale

11/18/2012 1:21:25 PM

Well then, Turkish Government of Education should concentrate on providing Turkish children and youth with proper Turkish language education.........first, then start their foreign language education which could be English, German, French etc., etc.,

MR Somalia

11/18/2012 9:59:48 AM

Turkey wants to export Turkish, ban Kurdish and import English. Completely confused nation.

K Elaine Kristin

11/17/2012 11:40:53 AM

A student is only as good as the expectations of the adults in his or her life. Perhaps for many Turkish parents there is an emphasis on learning a language such as Arabic because of its practical use as a part of religion. Do Turkish parents see English in the same way? Definitely not in the same way as learning Arabic. Children are sometimes little blackboards on which their parents have written, “These are my priorities.”

Faruk Beisser

11/17/2012 11:12:52 AM

My friends, who are English teachers in Istanbul, will wholeheartedly support that Turks cannot properly learn English. They truly don't even speak correct Turkish, they always can't believe that someone can speak ''güzel'' Turkish when I open my mouth.
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