Harbor at Bozcaad

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.

    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.



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