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    Turkey somehow cannot get beyond the beginner level in English

    Güven Sak, PhD18 February 2014 - Okunma Sayısı: 1305

    Teachers cannot go beyond the textbook, encourage students to read newspapers, or write movie critiques.

    TEPAV and the British Council recently carried out a survey on English education in primary and secondary schools in Turkey. My favorite part of the results is that 21 percent of primary school students believe that they are beginner level in English. These students go on to secondary school and continue to take English courses, but 32 percent of them think they still speak beginner level English. Time goes on, more English courses are included in the curriculum, but some part of students still think they speak beginner-level English. The rates are even higher in vocational schools. The rate of students who believe they speak advanced English is 10 percent among primary school students and half of that among secondary school students. The level of English education is not improving, but deteriorating. That’s what the figures say.

    In Turkey, we are unable to teach English. Our students take about 1,000 hours of English courses, but end up not being able to speak English. As companies increasingly require English, our young people have a disadvantage in the job market. They have fewer options and earn lower incomes. They are not given the chance to enjoy better life standards than their parents. If you ask me, no one can learn or teach anything, including English, with the current Board of Education. Turkey must completely reconstruct its national education system.

    Why are students unable to go beyond the beginner level in English? The reason is simple: the state assumes that English grammar is enough for learning the language, just as it thinks the Internet is only a  form of media, like the newspaper or television channels. Such is the state in Turkey: it has senseless obsessions stemming from ignorance. On top of that, it has a centralist apparatus such as the Board of Education. The worst type of centralism is the obsessed type. Students experience the same cycle of English grammar education for about 1,000 hours throughout their education. They learn it in primary school, then start over again in secondary school. The cyclical English teaching curriculum does not help them speak English.


    The second point is that English courses are taught in accordance with the curriculum and textbooks dictated by the Board of Education. Teachers cannot go beyond the textbook, encourage students to read newspapers, or write movie critiques. In this way, English becomes just another boring course requirement. No one wants to learn it. The Turkish kids who go to the foreign schools in Ankara and Istanbul, however, are able to speak English. I’m trying to say that it’s not in our genes, it’s because of the Board of Education.

    The name of the Board sounds innocent enough in English, as it does not include the word the “manners” as it does in Turkish, terbiye. Maybe we should call it the “Board of Drills and Manners” to give a better idea of how the system works. Under this strict construct, a typical English course in a state school in Turkey is like this: the teacher enters the classroom and starts explaining a grammatical rule. He or she asks a question to a student, and corrects the grammatical errors in the reply. The student, unable to say what he or she meant to say, ends up regretting he or she volunteered to answer the question in the first place. The teacher dominates the classroom participation and the students sit still. Exams test grammatical knowledge. Students do not have discussions in English on any issues or write any essays. They just learn grammar under strict discipline. There can be no surprise that Turkish university students cannot express their thoughts. What else can they do after the educations they have received? This would be the third one.

    What is the odd part of this story? Maintaining the Board of Education after having complained about the military for decades. It is bad enough to keep using the same name. So, does the new law on education foresee any revisions to this system? No. Turkey has no time to deal with issues as it is too busy brawling.


    This commentary was published in Radikal daily on 18.02.2014