Why can’t Turks speak English yet?

Why can’t Turks speak English yet?

Diplomats are good at making comparisons to the past, especially if they are posted to the same place multiple times. I was recently talking to a foreign diplomat in Ankara who was also here about two decades ago. He spoke about the progress Turkey has made since his first time here -- how Ankara looks more urbane now and how its people are more confident.

“But there is one thing that has not changed” he added, at the end of his string of praise: “Turks still can’t speak English. There were very few who could back then and it seems their number hasn’t grown.”

So the question looms: Why can’t we learn English? And by English I don’t mean speaking with a high degree of proficiency; this is not Henry Higgins’ tirade in My Fair Lady. I’m talking about plain communication in English. Why does it just not stick?

Let me start with a few observations. First, I believe that there has been a regression in English education in this country for the last few years. In my past two years managing a university I see a general deterioration in the English-speaking abilities of high school graduates. I think that this is the result of the closure of English-preparatory classrooms in elite schools. This was part of the uninterrupted 8-year compulsory education system. The Ministry of Education made a huge mistake back then by scrapping a year of English-language education from the curriculum.

Secondly, I see that the ministry is now deepening the damage. While the current reform in the works will make the system more flexible, no one seems to be focusing on the regressing English abilities of our kids. To me, this curious silence suggests that the ministry does not see our poor English proficiency as a problem. In this age of globalization, their behavior amounts to nothing less than criminal neglect.

Third, the English proficiency of Turkish participants in the TOEFL exams, mostly college graduates, leaves much to be desired. Scores are available everywhere. The average score for students from Turkey taking the TOEFL exam is 77, the second-worst score in Europe, only better than Kosovo’s 74. If you compare Turkey to the Middle East and North Africa, it is just a notch better than Syria’s 76 and equal to Iran’s 77. “Not bad,” you might say. But consider the relative openness to trade and business of Syria, Iran and Turkey. Turkey’s economy is much more open and outperforms those countries, yet its education system lags behind.

Why can’t Turks speak English? 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.

Where my diplomat friend sees persistence, I see degradation. Nothing in this country stands still. Turkey is becoming more open to the world, yet I fear Turks are getting worse at communication.