I know the major news story in Turkey is the continued explosions and attacks across the country, presumably by the PKK, but those stories are all over the news, so I won’t repeat them here. I found the following opinion piece by Güven Sak in Hurriyet interesting about why it is that, despite Turkey’s openness to the world and global commercial activities, English proficiency is lacking, especially in the younger generation. The author suggests a structural explanation (elimination of English in the curriculum), commenters mention a lack of interest and the desire for a quick fix rather than the effort required to learn a foreign language properly.
I would add nationalism and its attendant navel-gazing and exceptionalism. Even Turks who speak English well who are getting graduate degrees abroad generally wish to study Turks in Turkey or elsewhere, not another people or country. And colleagues who have tried to do comparative work on Turkey (comparing Turkey and another country) have told me that if they tell their interlocutors that it’s a comparative study, Turks will refuse to answer questions because they don’t think they should or can be compared to anyone else.
Here’s an excerpt from Sak’s essay:
…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…