Turkey Needs Better English to Boost Global Profile

By: Ezra Mannix, THO Non-Resident Fellow

When I was an academic ESL teacher at a private university’s English preparatory program in Istanbul, a familiar scene would play out during one of my lessons a couple times a year: I’d notice a diligent student — one not particularly interested in learning English — writing on papers in a Perso-Arabic script.

“What are you doing, Mehmet?” I would ask. “It’s my homework. I’m learning Ottoman Turkish, hocam [my teacher]!” I’d ask him to put it away. My job, after all, was to get them to focus on the learning the language he would need for his coming four years of university study and the one they would likely use in their careers.

I appreciated that a few students were taking on the challenges of learning a second foreign language while beefing up their English, but it also underscored a problem: Turkish students, already exposed to substandard English education in public schools, are being told by Erdogan and neo-Ottoman domestic scholars that the language ought to learn Ottoman Turkish in schools. All of this with its requisite tinge of late-Ottoman nationalism.

This is unfortunate, because what Turkish schools really need is better English.

I’m not saying that Turks should forget about their heritage. I’m not saying that Ottoman Turkish isn’t an important language which should live in on in academic circles, in literature, and through the diligence of university students who have a desire to learn it.

But in K-12 education, Turkey needs substantial improvements in quality ESL curricula and pedagogy. Turkey lags behind almost all European countries, 31st place out of 32 countries scored, in English-language proficiency.

There are limited school hours in the day, and we can’t teach everything, as proud as we are of our ethno-national histories. After all, there’s no clamor in British or American schools to learn Early Modern English, even though it was Shakespeare’s vernacular. It might be great for youth to know, but sacrifices must be made.

Most Turkish students learn English badly and for a long time.

It isn’t that students don’t have English classes. Many students in Turkey have English lessons for five, six or even eight years of compulsory education. This education, however, consists of rote rehearsal of grammar rules and vocabulary so they can answer multiple-choice only questions on exams, some of which aren’t even vetted by truly fluent speakers.

This is a problem on many levels for Turkey’s image abroad, relations with the global political community, and so much more.

Turkey can’t express itself, from the ordinary Turk up to Erdogan himself.

The media is one realm where this manifests itself. Dark Tourist is a Netflix alternative travel show hosted by New Zealand journalist David Farrier, who experiences places like radioactive Fukushima and crossing the U.S. Mexican border. One episode took the host to Cyprus, where he visited the abandoned idyllic Greek beach resort town of Famagusta, located in an uninhabited zone patrolled by the Turkish military since 1974.

The host interviewed a Greek Cypriot woman who described the heart wrenching experience of being forced out of her home as a girl, never to return, her neighborhood frozen in time, overgrown with weeds. Though she lived on another part of the island for most of her life, her English was excellent. Perhaps it’s simply because he didn’t care to, but the host didn’t engage a single member of the Turkish Cypriot community to surface another side of the story. Sure, it could have been journalistic laziness — and I don’t believe the Turkish military occupation of the northern part of the island is justified — but the relative absence of English speakers there who can speak about the issue makes it so the picture painted of Turkey and Turkish Cyprus, its history and its worldview, is by outsiders.

This is also the reason we have such high visibility small brain trust of Turkish urban, middle-class, private school educated millennials interviewed, blogging, and on social media about issues like Gezi Park. They learned English through non-state directed curricula or abroad, so they tell the story of Turkey through a particular perspective that means something to them, and the rest of the world is left to throw up its collective hands as to why Erdogan keeps winning elections and why there is pervasive mistrust of West.

Knowing English well works the other way, too.

It helps from the inside out, too. If English fluency is common among the Turkish general population in general, a whole new world of discussion, thought, perspectives and so much more opens itself. Instead of learning about the US or UK from often mediocre subtitles running across the bottom of the screen of their favorite foreign TV shows, Turkish students can learn about the world through articles, watch documentaries and low-budget shows on YouTube, and become regulars on news sites that tens of millions in the educated global audience read: BBC, Al Jazeera, New York Times, etc.

Then they might see that the Christian world is not (usually) rabidly Islamophobic, as Erdogan has suggested following the New Zealand mosque massacre (and has repeatedly done so). Knowing English might mean their worldview isn’t largely formed by Turkish dramas such as Kurtlar Vadisi (Valley of the Wolves), a TV thriller in which Israeli Mossad agents are depicted as operating in Turkey, literally snatching babies, and the CIA and the Kurds are behind a plot to destroy the country. The problem is not that the show is popular, the problem is when people begin to see this as reality and can’t find corroborating evidence in non-Turkish media because they don’t know English.

Of course, I am somewhat of a hypocrite: I’m American. I learned but two years of Spanish in high school. We’re woefully monolingual, a joke to the rest of the global north. But the unfair reality is that our language is the universal language.

(“Why did you learn Turkish, hocam? You know English. It’s enough because people speak it everywhere,” one of my students remarked.)

How to fix the English gap

Turkey needs to revamp its curriculum throughout state schools to focus on English as a tool for global communication, not a subject where mastering grammar rules is akin to memorizing mathematic formulas. Creative writing, oral presentations on topics of students’ choosing — coupled with learning about concepts such as bias — would help middle and high school students be prepared for global citizenship. It would help for teacher training to have educating English teachers with intensive, advanced English immersion. Millions of dollars needs to be invested for this to happen, and make a truly bilingual workforce, as South Korea has attempted to do since the 1990s.

I’m not saying that English is the magic bullet for success, but the world has always had a lingua franca, and now it happens to be this arrangement of letters you’re reading on screen.

When students who study English for eight years and enter university barely able to utter a sentence or write a simple paragraph about themselves, the consequences reach much farther than writing term papers or doing business abroad, it improves how the world perceives the country.

April 23 is Children’s Day in Turkey. Let’s honor them by improving the robustness of English education. Turkey’s place in the global community is at stake.

Meddah: A U.S.-Turkey Storytelling Project

Meddah is a storytelling blog at the intersection of U.S.-Turkey relations, managed by the Turkish Heritage Organization in Washington, D.C.

Turkish Heritage Organization

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THO is a young, independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization in Washington, D.C. dedicated to supporting the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.

Meddah: A U.S.-Turkey Storytelling Project

Meddah is a storytelling blog at the intersection of U.S.-Turkey relations, managed by the Turkish Heritage Organization in Washington, D.C.