Reassessing English Studies in Turkey

By Umunc, Himmet; Raw, Laurence | ARIEL, January 2017 | Go to article overview

Reassessing English Studies in Turkey


Umunc, Himmet, Raw, Laurence, ARIEL


We were interested to read Don Randall's analysis of the present state of English studies in Turkey (see ARIEL 46.1-2), particularly his comments on language acquisition and how it dictates the ways in which learners and educators alike perceive the subject as a body of knowledge rather than a field of study. We appreciated his use of Thomas Babington Macaulay and Gayatri Spivak as tools for analysis that enabled him to make important arguments about colonialism and its legacy, even though Macaulay penned his "Minute on Indian Education" in 1835. In this response, we make some further points on the subject so that readers might better understand the complexities involved in teaching and learning foreign literatures in a non-English speaking country with no first-hand experience of colonialism.

While it is certainly true that English language education in Turkey has its shortcomings (with large classes taught by overworked educators), we doubt whether translation occupies as significant a place in the learning agenda as Randall suggests (51). In an extensive report published by the British Council in November 2013, the authors fore-grounded the major program of reform instituted by the Turkish government. Foreign language instruction in the Turkish school system begins in the second grade and continues throughout primary and secondary schooling, which altogether covers a period of twelve years (TEPAV 2). Although eighty percent of educators currently employed in the state sector possess sufficient professional qualifications, their learners lack the capacity to communicate and function effectively. The problem is pedagogic: classroom practice centers on learners answering questions orally (to which there is normally only one "right" answer), while much of their classroom time is spent completing written answers in textbooks or taking grammar tests (TEPAV 16). Although classrooms could readily be reshaped to accommodate communicative language teaching, many educators feel reluctant to do so because of a lack of confidence in their own speaking abilities (TEPAV 16). Official textbooks and curricula also fail to take into account the pluralistic needs of learners, leading to learners' disengagement with the subject; nor do educators have much say in the way English should be taught, as they are monitored by government-appointed inspectors demanding that the curriculum be implemented to the letter with little room for maneuver (TEPAV 17).

The deficiencies of this "one size fits all" system are extensive. While class hours devoted to English increase as learners move up through the school system, their self-confidence in their language ability decreases because they believe that practical abilities are considered less important than completing a series of predetermined tasks in order to pass examinations. Among vocational or technical school learners this sense of disillusionment increases because they regard themselves as academically inferior to their secondary school counterparts who are all on academic tracks. The TEPAV researchers discovered that this lack of confidence among all learners leads to a fear of making mistakes and being considered failures by their educators (18). Many younger educators share this fear, especially when they are subject to evaluation by inspectors, the majority of whom do not speak English. There is a need to reform in-service educator training based on teaching and learning English as a medium of communication rather than a set of grammatical processes (TEPAV 19).

In this kind of educational context, it is hardly surprising that language learning is dominated by notions of equivalence--in other words, the need to find the "exact" way of translating source material into target languages. This process is what Randall terms "translation": language is not perceived as a living organism but a series of structures that need to be learned parrot-fashion so as to render Turkish effectively into English. …

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