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Posts about being an education start up in Turkey! What we are learning along the way and what we have achieved.

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Apr 29, 2013 By Tags:,

“Why can’t Turks speak English yet?” They can…

Turks are learning English, but are they speaking it?

The whole world is trying to learn English, and Turks are no exception. As a teacher in Istanbul on and off for the last seven years, I have heard this question often from both foreigners and Turks: “Why can’t Turks speak English yet?”

Last year Güven Sak answered this in a short informative article in the Hürriyet Daily News. After several observations regarding the state of English in Turkey today, he bemoaned the lack of skilled English teachers and relevant education to train educators. It got me thinking.

Despite the obvious ongoing need for more well-trained teachers fluent in English, there is something else worth noting about Turks and their collective knowledge of English. For many, after years and years of English lessons at both school and University, the learning curve plateaus, then stagnates. Turks learning English put down their grammar books, complete their last gap-fill activity, and start life in a professional career. English simply sits unloved and abandoned in the attic.

Turks speak English: a dormant resource

To me, this is an enormous waste of a great resource. Among my adult students, almost all of them had watched their English stagnate and decline, never put into use during their professional career. For some there has been the odd holiday abroad when they could sputter a few questions to ask directions in Rome or Miami, though in general spoken English was a downhill slide once working life commenced.

The majority of my Turkish students, and especially those who had pursued careers requiring professional qualifications, continued to be more and more exposed to authentic English. My students who worked as doctors would attend seminars conducted solely in English, while those in engineering kept up with the latest developments through academic journals. Listening and reading, the passive skills of language, overtook the active. Turks could read and listen to English: they just couldn’t speak it. English conversation was frustrating and often an embarrassing situation for them, and their self-confidence plummeted when they spoke English to a native-speaker.

It’s a widespread issue. Turkey now has a huge number of citizens who in fact possess ‘dormant English’, a good understanding of the language that is, simply, asleep, unused and atrophying. It didn’t take much for me to realize what could help awaken it, and fast.

How to kick-start this dormant English in Turkey?

Internet use in Turkey is on the way up. Household broadband penetration is at 40% and rising. Turks are  becoming more confident about purchasing online. Turkey’s economy continues to perform well and thus economic opportunities are increasing for many citizens.

So why not seize this opportunity? Reawaken the English within Turks without waiting a generation for new teachers to be trained? With the Internet, why not give Turks access to English conversation classes with native speakers? There are a number of providers of online English lessons, offering easy access to native English speakers. For any Turk with a broadband connection, an exhausting evening or weekend commute to a physical classroom is no longer required. Let’s reactivate this passive knowledge and make English an active skill for the growing number of Turkish professionals who need global language and communication.

The Internet can’t provide a solution to all the challenges facing English language education in Turkey today. However, by leveraging the technology and communications infrastructure already in place, we think there’s an immense opportunity to fast-track the English that currently sits as a unused resource within the Turkish population. We’re already seeing great results. Motivation, higher self-confidence, and improved spoken English!

Are you an EFL educator in Turkey or a Turk trying to kick start your dormant English? Let us know what you think?

2 thoughts on ““Why can’t Turks speak English yet?” They can…

  1. Chris

    I mainly teach Spanish speaking students, but the issue is still the same. It’s much easier to remain in your comfort zone than get out their and practice speaking. I think the main thing is that they need to find ways to build their confidence in English and find fun opportunities to use it. That way they can continue to develop their skills without it feeling like hard work.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks for your response Chris.

      As you’re teaching mostly Spanish-speaking students, do you find that any of the confidence issues come from the culture, or education system of the students? For Turks, we suspect that most of them come through an education system that does not give a very high value to individual thought and expression.

      While education in the country appears to be improving dramatically in many ways, young people still lack confidence after exiting a system where it was important to have memorized a lot of information, while analysis and critical thinking took a back seat.

      Since Spanish-speaking students originate from a far wider geographic range than Turks, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how motivation and confidence varies between Spanish=speaking regions, if that is indeed the case, and also whether your Spanish-speaking students adapt quickly to online learning.

      Cheers,

      James

      Reply

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Time for culture-specific online language learning: English tailored for Turks.

TurksLearnEnglish.com is excited. We’ve now launched our online English language classes, designed specifically for Turks. For our first post, we’ll explain a little about who we are, what we’ve learned thus far and what we hope to achieve.

Our story is simple. After teaching English to Turks in the traditional bricks-and-mortar classroom, we, the founders of TurksLearnEnglish.com, realised there was opportunity to bring together our knowledge of teaching English to Turks with the benefits of an online setting. As you probably already know, English-language education in Turkey is a big business.  As you are probably also aware, online language education is a rapidly growing part of the wider ‘EduTech’ movement.

Our idea is simply to tailor online English lessons for Turkish native speakers, and we believe this ‘culture-specific’ approach to English language education has linguistic, cultural and motivational benefits. As founders, we have first-hand knowledge of teaching in Turkey, though we think a ‘culture-specific’ approach could work for any group of people sharing a strong common identity.

What do we mean by ‘culture-specific’ classes?

The Internet now provides access to English language lessons to anyone who has a decent Internet connection and a laptop. Livemocha is a successful example of an education start up offering language classes (and has recently been in the news for merging with Rosetta Stone). They offer everything from free ‘community’ exchanges between members to structured courses that can be purchased, and it’s not just for English – they teach a variety of languages.

For the most part, Livemocha is not culture-specific. Any given online class can contain students with vastly different languages and cultures.

Our approach for Turkey will be different. We are launching online English classes that contain only Turkish speakers, and teachers who have experience teaching to Turks.

Three primary advantages to culture specific online language lessons: Linguistic, Cultural and Motivational.

Linguistic advantages

It’s clear to anyone who has even the most basic understanding of Turkish, or to a teacher who has taught Turks, that Turkish exhibits some peculiar qualities.  When a classroom contains students with a common linguistic background, students’ needs are similar if not the same; the time saving is obvious. One student’s mistakes are relevant to all participants and this holds true for vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. Likewise, there are innumerable common mistakes to all Turkish speakers that make entire lessons on ‘Turklish’ an enjoyable and relevant learning experience.

Particularly beneficial is that students assist each other. A student with slightly higher verbal proficiency might assist with vocabulary, while another helps improve his classmates’ pronunciation. The classroom becomes a collaborative experience in which students become educators and where teacher-interference is reduced.

Cultural advantages

Turks, like many cultures, possess a strong identity. As a teacher of Turks for several years, I’m able to make some personal observations about the average Turk learning English.

First, Turks are not particularly confident students; however it’s very easy to motivate them. They are warm, friendly and love to tell an anecdote. Turks of all ages form an strong attachment to their teacher. Turks exhibit a wide range of (interesting) emotional responses in the classroom. The average educated Turk possesses a large body of received knowledge, which can sometimes inhibit the expression of an individual opinion…

Each culture can probably be described with a similar set of phrases. My point is that a collective set of values or behaviors work well if shared in the same learning environment. When a student group is homogenous a teacher can act more effectively. Cultural knowledge helps promote a comfortable class environment and to avoid discomfort and tension.

In Turkey, certain topics remain off-limits, from a cultural perspective. A teacher needs to encourage and motivate Turks, yet be careful not to belittle them in front of their peers, and to accept that self-discipline cannot always be expected. Turks may speak bluntly to another person but take offense when spoken to the same way. They love humor in lessons and Turks are a lot of fun to teach. As with linguistic issues, what is culturally relevant or irrelevant to one student is probably the same for all.

Motivational advantages

Most significant are the benefits of talking about issues of interest to Turks. Most Turks participate eagerly in discussions about the current flurry of Istanbul infrastructure works and the 2020 Olympic bid. Turks spend an inordinate amount of time with their families and they are happy to describe family events, which often make up part of each weekend.  It’s evident that a student needs to be interested in the topic at hand to maintain motivation, so TurksLearnEnglish.com also developed theme-based lessons rather than a curriculum, which allows flexibility during lessons to adapt instantly to student needs and desires.

So far, we’ve found that the culture-specific online classroom is a relaxed environment where students are ready to share. For a teacher with at least some knowledge of the students’ language and culture, it is also less time-consuming to make corrections that are often relevant to everyone present. Best of all, Turks seem as engaged in online lessons as in a physical classroom, and very much able and willing to build a positive learning relationship online.

We encourage discussion and look forward to hearing your ideas and comments!

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