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Turkey’s Language Problem

By Amy Guttman 2/8/2014
Istanbul streetcar. Photo: AP
Istanbul streetcar. Photo: AP

LONDON - Ever gone to Istanbul for a long weekend to take in the sights and a bit of Turkish delight, but struggled with the language barrier? Step outside the bazaar, and away from the Hagia Sophia, and you’ll see first-hand evidence of a recent study measuring English language proficiency in Turkey.

More than 95 percent of Turkish students can’t respond to questions spoken in English, even after almost 1,000 hours in the classroom to learn the language.  Those numbers were the highlight of a report released in March by TEPAV (Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey) and the British Council.   The figures made domestic headlines, but haven’t surprised Turks.

Emre Caliskan, a 29-year-old political analyst, graduated from university in Turkey five years ago.  He’s now based in London, where his English skills are put to the test every day.

“Two of my friends took English language classes at university, yet failed their tests. I studied English for about 15 years, and while I could read and write very well, I couldn’t speak very well. This is the problem; people can’t speak about everyday things.  Turkish people face problems communicating with the rest of the world.”

Some 60 percent of students think they’re doing better than they actually are.  Sixty percent describe their English knowledge as intermediate, yet their proficiency is much lower. That could help explain why, when I visited Istanbul two years ago on a reporting trip, many people agreed to be interviewed in English ahead of time, yet were unable to communicate in person.

Just look at the number of English language news sites in Turkey, compared to say, Iran, as proof of the under-developed English-speaking press, as well as an audience to consume it.

It’s an obstacle, Caliskan says, which has serious implications for a country with big ambitions.

“Turkey tries to be a regional player, expanding its trade relations, including East Asia, China and Latin America and their biggest challenge is with English.  Turkey’s human resources do not match its ambitions.  I think it will have a huge impact on the middle and long-term.”

One of the most obvious reasons is tourism. 

Tarık Yıldız is 25 years old and earns his living speaking English.  Guiding tourists through Gobeklitepe, an archaeological site in the mountains of southeastern Anatolia thought to be Neolithic sanctuaries, Yildiz says he learned his English not from school. He learned it from his clients.

“I had the same trouble learning English in school.  The method of teaching English is not target-oriented. I improved my English by practicing with tourists and foreign workers at Gobeklitepe.”

Beyond tourism, Caliskan says Turkey’s role in the world and the future of its youth relies heavily on the ability to compete in international markets, which begins with language skills and also shines a light on Turkey’s other potential deficiencies.

“It raises a question about education in Turkey – not only in English, but other subjects. The current education system in Turkey cannot compete with countries like India. India and Nigeria have well-established relations with third parties because they both speak English. Turkey can’t be socially integrated without English."

Caliskan even questions whether, with the broad gap in skills versus image, Turkey is ready to enter the European Union.

“To what extent can Turkey be included in the EU system with the lack of English language capabilities? Many Turks migrated to Germany and preferred not to speak English in order to protect their national identities, back in the 60s. Turkey has a long way to fill the gap, and more investments to make in its education system.” 

This is not a new problem. Three years ago, a similar study was released ranking Turkey 43rd out of 44 countries on an English Proficiency Index. Turkey came after countries like Chile, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia -- shocking numbers for a country with the world’s 16th largest economy.

Jason Price manages the English Language Programme for the British Council in Ankara, which co-sponsored the study. He says even though Turkey’s Education Ministry is taking steps to address the issue, it will take years before Turks see a turnaround.

“The Ministry are currently assembling the key stakeholders who they believe will be able to provide input into providing possible solutions. This is likely to be quite a long process so it is unrealistic to expect instant results. Once a plan has been drawn up and implemented we will only probably start to see positive results a few years down the line.”

Unsurprisingly, much of the delay is down to bureaucracy. Price says there’s no dispute about the need for reform, but rather how and who gets it done.  But, he says, encouraging progress is underway on a broader level. 

“We are in a period of substantial educational reform in Turkey. Over the last two years the age of compulsory education increased from eight to 12 years.”

It’s a good start. But, Caliskan says, for a country whose economy is based on exports, Turkey has a lot of catching up to do.

“There is no doubt that this model requires high-skill experts in business who can speak several languages.”

Slowly, slowly, if Turkey can cut through its red tape, and begin empowering its citizens with English fluency, it may just be able to live up to its global ambitions.



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Jaff | 2/8/2014
It is true, most Turks are embarrassing incompetent in the English language, including their engineers, tourists information people, airline staff, and even some doctors whose entire education is in the English language! Shame!
Bakir Lashkari
Bakir Lashkari | 2/8/2014
This is the big issue in Turkey, I do not care, that is it's own problem!
ahmad | 2/8/2014
well, Im a kurdish native. I had the same problem of them when I visited many companies in Hawler,I had the same problem because I didnt know Arabic. and no one talks about this. No one says why knowing Arabic is obligatory for kurdish people If they want to work;But kurdish is not obligatory for the Arabs it they want. shame on you Rudaw. you dont talk about the problem of the kurdish in their own country. but you bring into the spotlight something which is not a problem for us at all
Independence now | 2/8/2014
The issue does not concern us,at all.
Riha | 2/8/2014
Why an article about how stupid Turks are that they cannot learn languages easily? What is this article doing here.
Tags : Turkey, culture

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