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If you can’t teach them English, let them have iPads 24/04/2012 - Viewed 2300 times


I learned German in a Turkish public school. I took elective courses for five years, starting in the seventh grade. Today all I can say in German is “Ich spreche Deutch nicht.” [1] Needless to say, my German skills did not open any doors. Thank God I accidentally learned English and had the chance to connect with the rest of the world. If my failure to learn German has taught me anything, it is that there is a large number of people in Turkey who think they can speak English (or say that they can on their CVs), but are no better at the language than I am at German.

Another thing I have regretfully noticed is that Turkish statesmen are unaware that a proper English language education can change a child’s future. More importantly, they don’t realize that it is impossible to become the tenth largest economy of the world, raise exports to $500 billion, or become a regional power if people cannot speak English. Having advanced in their careers without being proficient in the language, perhaps they are assuming that the rest of society can somehow follow their example. But reality begs to differ.

Learning a second language is a complicated task. As one of the most untalented people ever at learning a new language, I spent 10 years attaining my present proficiency in English.[2] For me, English proficiency does not mean scoring well on tests, but rather the ability to solve problems, negotiate issues and, when necessary, argue on the phone (please note that I'm not talking about face-to-face conversation. I can even argue face to face in German if I need to).

Think of a Turk who is proficient in English. In addition to learning all about his or her profession, using all the relevant documents from across the world, he or she can engage with a Polish counterpart, for example, for bidding at an auction in Egypt. That person has a hundred times more  job opportunities than those confined to Turkish.

How many people are they who can argue on the phone in English who join Turkey’s labor market every year? Keep in mind that 60-70,000 new companies every year join the 1.3 million already established in this country. My guess would be 5,000 at best. I came up with this figure based on the English teaching capacity of secondary and tertiary schools in Turkey. According to a more scientific study, Turkey ranks 43rd among 44 countries in English proficiency, right after Kazakhstan, Borat’s homeland. [3]

In our country of 73 million, companies seeking to become regional or global players leap on the young people from this small pool of 5,000. Others either claim that unemployment is Turkey’s largest problem and try to grab state incentives, or seek out zoning benefits from the municipality.

In short, we have to understand how much we miss out on by failing in English education. For example, when complaining about the prevalence of the all-inclusive hotels system dominating Turkey’s tourism sector, we should first ask ourselves why we have not been able to teach English to police officers, nurses, taxi drivers and food service personnel who serve tourists. Similarly, when thinking about the reasons for why Turkey has such a small high tech sector, we should be looking at how many of our engineers can actually follow global trends in technology without translation into Turkish. Maybe Turkey does not have a global pop star because people like Tarkan, the most famous Turkish pop singer on the international stage so far, have to take mid-career English classes to make global debuts at the expense of losing their momentum.

Would it be that hard to raise English education at public schools to a reasonable level? I don’t think so. All Turkey has to do is to invest in English teachers, who currently do nothing but make students memorize their grammar books; start English education in the first grade; and allocate enough money to the issue. After all, Korea ranks 13th in the English proficiency index despite the Korean language is further apart from English than it is in Turkish, linguistically speaking. What prevents us from achieving the same?

I think the problem lies in the length of time it takes to learn English. If it had been a one-year task, we would most definitely have overcome the issue a long time ago no matter the material cost. Instead, we chose to allocate money to the distribution of tablet computers to each student free of charge, [4] thinking that the project will yield fruit immediately.

[1] This is how you say, “I do not speak German” with bad grammar.

[2] I have to say at this point that I studied at Kadiköy High School, the first secondary school that had two years of preparatory class for English education. We had the best English teachers in Turkey. But as far as the recent regulations suggest, the Ministry of Education decided to downgrade schools good in English education to the average instead of upgrading the average.

[3] Please see the below study, which neatly relates English proficiency to economic performance on the basis of Education First’s English Proficiency Index: http://www.tepav.org.tr/en/haberler/s/2537

[4] A project similar to Turkey’s Fatih Project, which aims at distributing I-pads to all students, was launched in Peru. Unlike us, Peru assessed the results of the project. According to the findings of the Inter American Development Bank study, computers did not contribute to the math and language skills of students. The study is available at http://idbdocs.iadb.org/wsdocs/getdocument.aspx?docnum=36706954

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