Deniz Bozer (ed.), The Birth and Growth of a Department: Department of English Language and Literature: 25th Anniversary, (Ankara, Hacettepe University, 1990): 157-67.
Güray Çağlar König

Foreign languages in Turkey
English in the educational system of Turkey today
The status of English in Turkey
English as a world language in Turkey


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English is used in many countries today either as a first language or as an alternative means for cross-cultural communication. Roughly 700 million people speak it. There has been an increase of 40 per cent in the last 20 years and a total that represents more than one-seventh of the world's population. In addition to over 275 million native speakers, there are millions who speak it as a second or foreign language.   English is fostered by English mother-tongue countries, non-English mother-tongue countries, third-world nations, and even the Soviet Union, the Arab World and mainland China, which are nations that have their own well-developed standard languages, and that normally oppose vanous political, philosophical and economic goals of the Engush mother-tongue world.  The official and non-official use of English in non-English rnother tongue countries is very great and is. still growing rapidly, particularly in the areas of technology, business, and mass media. English has become a major medium of international communication all over the world. Kachru states that "for the first time a natural language has attained the status of an international (universal) language, essentially for cross-cultural communication. Whatever the reasons for the earlier spread of English, we should now consider it a positive development in the 20. century world context."  Consequently, a large industry dealing with the teaching of English with very different objectives and at different levels has developed today both in English speaking and other countries. Language teaching has traditionally been divided into two as 'second' and 'foreign' according to the needs and objectives of the learners. The term second language has been applied to a non-native language learned and used with reference to a speech cornmunity outside the national boundaries of a country. A second language usually has an official status or a certain function in a country which a foreign language does not. A foreign language is taught in schools and outside school but there is not much opportunity for using it except in special circumstances such as travel abroad, communication with native speakers, reading of foreign literature and foreign scientific works. A second language is learned with much more environmental support as it is used within the country. Accordingly, the purposes and aims of second language learning need to he different than those of foreign language learning.  In recent years, the traditional terms in language learning, second and foreign languages, have been replaced by two new terms, international and intranational languages. International and intranational languages are differentiated from second and foreign languages. The latter pair of terms implies a specified speech community or communities as a territorial reference group for the language learner, whereas teaching a language as an intra- or international language requires no such linguistic speech community. Stern  states that the absence of a specified speech community as a linguistic and cultural reference group has important consequences for English language use and teaching. For him, the main distinction in the teaching of foreign languages should be made between international and intranational situations under the new circumstances. English as the primary medium of international communication in the world today has attained a different role other than a second or a foreign language. The increase in the use of English leads naturally to a demand for people with the knowledge of English. learning English has hecorne a part of basic education. Thus, English is moving away from the status of a national and colonial language to that of a world language. It is used nearly in all international communication. It has become a key to getting ahead in life all over the world, and teaching English is an important business and a major part of educational policies of governments.

Foreign languages in Turkey

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Language contact between Turkish and a number of other languages existed in very old times as Turks were basically nomadic tribes. However, traditionally the rnotivation to learn foreign languages has not been high. A number of experts with a good knowledge of foreign languages acted as intermediaries in communicating with foreigners. In general, these experts were the members of the minority groups under the Turkish rule. And the drastic change of Turkish under the influence of Arabk and Persian was not a consequence of a widespread knowledge of these languages, but was realised by a number of Islamic scholars who studied Arabic and Persian. As a result of the Islamic influence, lexical transfers entered Turkish as there was need for religious terms. However, the process of transfer was canied on to such an extent that by the 17th century a diaglossic situation was created within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Turkish, which was loaded with a great number of lexical transfers and even with morphological and some syntactic transfers, served as the high variety with an official function and was the language of education. The original Turkish was the low variety used for non-official domestic communication. As a result of the westernisation programme introduced late in the 18th century, French language and culture gained popularity and prestige; and words of western and especially of French origin were incorporated into Turkish at this time. However, the number of people with a knowledge of French was not high in this period either. Only a small group of elites learned and used French and it was through them that loanwords came into Turkish.
Language learning was the privilege of the elites, and foreign language teaching was predominantly under the control of minority and foreign groups.  A number of schools were founded in Istanbul during the Ottoman rule in which the medium of instruction was French, German, or English. They provided educational instruction for the children of foreign diplomats, tradesmen, minorities and elites. The majority of their instructors were native speakers, and the graduates acquired an adequate knowledge of the foreign language and the respective culture. They acted as interpreters for the Ottoman authorities in international, political and commercial relations. Even in the early years of the republic, foreign language learning was restricted to a limited number of specialists. Some of these people contributed to the preparation of dictionaries during the period of Turkish language reform. They were very helpful in translating technical terms into Turkish within the principles of language reform.
It was only after World War II that English gained popularity and prestige in Turkey. At this period there was a sudden increase in the motivation to learn English, and this tendency has continued since then. A great number of the loanwords that entered Turkish within the last 40 years are of English origin.  English loanwords are used in everyday conversation., on television and radio programs, and in political speeches. It is fashionable for young people to use English words and expressions in their everyday conversation.

English in the educational system of Turkey today

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English is one of the subjects taught in most of the government-sponsored secondary schools. French and German are the alternative languages, but the majority of the students elect English, and in most cases they have no other alternative. German has gained some popularity in recent years as a result of the close language contact through Turkish workers in Germany. Students are exposed to several hours of basic English instruction a week throughout the six years of secondary education; nevertheless at the end of this period the general level of proficiency is not very high. Attendance in foreign language classes is required during the university years as well, but once more, the success of these classes in general does not go beyond the acquisition of sorne professional vocabulary.
Besides these traditional government schools, there exist a number of private and government-sponsored secondary schools in which the medium of instruction for most subjects is English. Most of these schools are located in the bigger cities such as Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir, but in recent years such schools have been founded in other cities as well. Some of them have primary sections where instruction in English begins as early as the second year. Enrolment in these schools is subject to entrance exams, as attendance there is highly sought after. Among these schools, privately sponsored ones are in general open only to the children of wealthy families as the tuition fees are quite high. Such schools have a seven-year programme as opposed to the six-year programme of traditional secondary schools, and the first year is devoted to intensive language teaching.
Higher education is also available in two English-medium state universities. One of them is Bogazici University in Istanbul, which is actually a continuation of the former Robert College, an American enterprise up to 1973. The Middle East Technical University in Ankara was founded in the 1950s with English as the medium of instruction as it was originally planned to be a higher education centre of the Middle East. These universities have very high prestige and their graduates are readily hired both by the government and private enterprise, primarily due to their knowledge of English. Admittance to these universities is subject to the central university entrance examination organised from Ankara. Both universities offer preparatory English classes in the first year; during which intensive English courses are provided for those students who do not have the required proficiency to follow the classes in English. English has also become the medium of instruction in some newly-established private universities in Ankara and Istanbul such as Bilkent University, Baskent University (Ankara) and Koc and Bilgi Universities (Istanbul).
Under these educational circumstances, therefore, it becomes clear that there is a range of proficiency in the knowledge of English in Turkey ranging from people fluent in both spoken and written discourse to those who know only a few items of vocabulary.
More and people are aware of the fact that at least some knowledge of English is necessary to get ahead in life.  It brings high status to the individual socially, as well as extending job opportunitie. To give an example, graduates of English language and literature departments can easily obtain jobs in tourism, or the exchange departments of banks by virtue of their knowledge of English, while a number of economists who speak only Turkish are unemployed. Consequently, many parents, especially those from the middle class, do their best to have their children educated in one of the English-medium schools. They strongly feel that knowledge of English will be beneficial for their children. A big area of business has developed which concentrates on preparing students for the entrance examinations of these schools. Intelligence and aptitude tests are prepared to adrnit only the so-called brightest children. Admittance to an English-medium school, therefore, provides additional prestige to the individual.

The status of English in Turkey

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At this point we may ask what the status of English in Turkey is. It certainly  is not a second language fulfilling certain functions in intra-national communication. Turkish is the national and official language spoken by all Turks and the majority of the minority groups. It is fully capable of meeting the communicational requirements of Turkish society. However, there exist a growing number of secondary schools and universities in which the medium of instruction is predominantly English. And the demand for such educational institutions grows increasingly. Therefore, it would be appropriate to ask whether English is on the way to becoming a second language in Turkey, replacing certain functions fulfilled by Turkish today; or whether Turkish is incapable of meeting certain communicational needs, so that the necessity to adopt a new linguistic code arises. Knowledge of English is necessary for international relations which have become an essential part of daily life. There are growing cultural and commercial relations between Turkey and the rest of the world, and English is the primary linguistic means which connect Turkey to the rest of the world. It is not on the way to becoming a second language in Turkey; it certainly is a foreign language, but is the second most useful language after Turkish as it is all over the world today.
The popularity and the high prestige of English language in Turkey and in particular the increase in the number of English-medium schools and universities are viewed as a dangerous development for Turkish society and language. The use of English (and other foreign languages) as a medium of instruction in educational institutions has been one of the major topics of discussion in education in recent years. A number of intellectuals and scholars hold that such an intensive process of language learning will have a negative impact on Turkish language and further on cultural consciousness.  They criticise the use of a foreign tongue as the medium of instruction and stress the importance of using the native language in the national educational system. They hold that the reasons for having what they call "foreign education" are based on certain misconceptions developed in the Turkish society within the last 35-40 years.
On the other hand, they point out that knowledge of a foreign language is an indispensable prerequisite for scientific investigation. The scientist should have an adequate proficiency in a foreign language, yet the foreign language should have an auxiliary status in education. It is more important for the scientist to have the capacity to think in his own native language as one's native language is the primary means for creativity. Thus, they emphasise the importance of using Turkish as the language of science in Turkey. They express their concern about the low status of Turkish as the medium of education, and further hold that the neglect of the native tongue would harm cultural consciousness seriously and would subject us to the control of foreign forces. Sayili points out that such an intensive process of foreign language learning may lead to the development of a diaglossic language structure, somewhat similar to the unpleasant language situation during the Ottoman Empire.
Scholars are further sceptical about the common view that one can learn a foreign language only by attending foreign language-rnedium schools. They point out that this was the method used in the missionary schools during the last period of the Ottoman empire and that such a practice does not even exist in colonies today. All over the world modern methods of intensive language teaching make the acquisition of a foreign language possible within a few months.
Fishman discusses the sociology of English as an additional language in the world. He states that "English has surpassed the circle of Anglo-American econo-political control, and is being fostered both by its opponents and by "third parties".   However, no other language has ever been so simultaneously sought after and regulated, "so that it would grow", yet "stay in its place" (i.e. be used only in functions for which it was authoritatively desired)". He writes "if the continued spread and growth of English is some aspect of the current international balance of power, another such aspect is the recurring need to control, regulate, or tame that spread."
The common view shared by scholars dealing with the use of English in the world is that while its spread as a medium of international communication continues, its spread and function as an intra-national language will be more and more limited in the future. Local languages will replace English for this purpose.
Educators , on the other hand, point out that English is no longer learned as a culture-bound language, it is learned as an international language. They feel that it is no longer necessary in language teaching to concentrate on the cultures of the English-speaking world as was the custom in the past. Harrison points out that "learning a world language - like English - does not necessarily imply integrating with a culture and somebody who knows English has access to more variety whether cultural or technological, intellectual or pop, printed or taped".  Nevertheless, educators stress the necessity of an awareness of the individual's own culture throughout the process of language learning.

English as a world language in Turkey

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Thus, the concern of Turkish scholars and intellectuals ahout the future of the Turkish language seems to be reasonable when we consider the position of English in the world and the attitudes toward it. Different countries with very different social and political stances have taken measures to keep English outside the domains of their national affairs while they encourage its use for international communication. Under these circumstances, the developments concerning the position of English in Turkey seem to be exactly in the opposite direction. There is an increasing tendency to have English as the medium of instruction both at the secondary and high levels of education. Such a practice may lead to certain negative consequences. As the children from middle and upper class families have the opportunity and means for attending such schools in general and as the graduates of these schools are more readily employed by virtue of their knowledge of English, a growing social gap will be created in society.
From the linguistic point of view, on the other hand, an important negative influence on the use and structure of Turkish is not a necessary consequence. On the contrary, adequate knowledge of a foreign language can have and has actually had a positive impact on the Turkish language. There is, evidently, an urgent need for people with adequate knowledge of English due to the inevitable international connections in our time. And as discussed earlier, qualified language teaching is not very well developed in Turkey. Thus, schools with English (or French or German) as the language of instruction have been founded to educate high qualified specialists. Such schools are considered to be practical and economic as the student acquires a foreign language while s/he continues his secondary education or while s/he is professionally trained. In such secondary schools, Turkish language and literature classes have an important place, and most of the social sciences such as history and geography are taught in Turkish. English can under no circumstances replace Turkish for any use in intra-national communication. Turkish is fully capable of fulfilling the communicational needs of the society. English has a definite instrumental function as a means for connecting Turkey to the outside world. And this connection is vital to keep up with scientific and technological developments.
Research on bilingualism has indicated the positive impact of the knowledge of two languages on cognitive development. Bilingualism may favorably affect the structure and flexibility of thought. Studies in different parts of the world suggest that bilingual children may be potentially intellectually more advanced with respect to concept formation than their monolingual counterparts.  The widespread knowledge of English will by no means harm the structure of Turkish, as two languages have very different grammars. On the contrary, the transfer of some constructions such as certain kinds of composed nominals contributes to the improvement of the communicational capacities of the language. Some examples are the following: basbakan (Prime Minister), onsecim (preselection), onek (prefix), altyapi (infrastructure), uydukent (suburb), Halkbank (Peoples Bank).
Another consequence of the close contact between the two languages may be the flow of lexical transfers from English into Turkish. Terms which express concepts not present in the lexicon of Turkish may be incorporated into the language as loanwords. Such a tendency is highly unlikely in view of the language situation in Turkey. Efforts to provide neologisms to replace the already existing loanwords have been successfully carried on by the Turkish Language Association, linguists, the press and scientists, who prefer to use native terminology in their fields. More than hundred dictionaries of special terms have been prepared and published within the fifty years that Turkish Language Association has been active.  A great number of these terms have gained widespread usage in a very short time. In some cases neologisms and loanwords fluctuate in usage; however this should be considered a necessary phase of the purification process. New derivations are readily accepted and enjoy widespread usage in a short span of time. Some examples are: gerilim (stress), yeniden yaptianma (perestroika), aciklik (glasnost), yasadisi (illegal), iletisim (communication).
Turkish Language Association has undergone a process of reorganization after 1980, and in line with the new policy of the Association, the derivation and use of neologisms are not encouraged any more. Nevertheless, a natural process of lexical innovations has started, and there has been a flow of new words into Turkish parallel to the social and economic changes realised in Turkey in recent years, foreign elements are combined with native ones such as super emekli (the retired who are paid a very high pension), super luks daire (super  luxurious  flat), liberal-1es-tir-me (liberalise), popuIer-les-tir-me (popularise). Loan-translations have also increased in number. Native words are combined with derivational suffixes as in ozel-les-tir-me (privatisation), kutup-las-ma (polarisation).
A number of foreign words are used as well. However, the number of such words is not high in relation to the new derivations in the language. Some examples are resesyon (recession), rekreasyon (recreation), koordinator (coordinator), ernisyon (emission). It would be more appropriate to consider such words as international words rather than loan-words as they are widely used all over the world today.


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The establishment of a strong tradition of language learning in Turkey is necessary as a contributing factor to the development of the communicational capacity of Turkish. Turkish language reform is an historical process, which, to a great extent, is the result of language contacts with the major European languages. Therefore, what was achieved through the language reform which started in the 1930's is extended by the promotion of language learning today. Knowledge of foreign languages and in particular of English is an indispensable part of the modern world. And the only way to bring Turkish up to the levd of the communicational requirements of the modern world is through the interaction of knowledge of English with the derivational convenience provided by the Turkish language reform.


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