English Teachers and Teachers of English

This is a my first Zaman article. 16/03/10. It follows my impressions of the humility of Turkish teachers in the face of native speakers:

It is with a daunting feeling that one enters a new place of work, especially in a city in a country where one does not yet feel entirely at home.

As such, it is the coworkers’ duty to make sure their new colleague feels welcomed and immediately at ease in the new environment. Would you like çay?

Now, I’d only be repeating countless other expats were I to extol the merits of Turkish hospitality -- so let’s take that as a given and move on. Instead, I’d like to talk more about a more nuanced issue I have encountered here. Since arriving in Turkey almost a year ago, I have found it to be part of my job, upon face-to-face introductions, to comfort and reassure my Turkish counterparts in the language department. This is simply because more often than not they are severely more daunted by the prospect of having a native speaker present who will mark and grade their level of English.

They will introduce themselves: “I am an English teacher here,” they say (or sometimes “teacher of English” -- an odd phrase originating from the Turkish need to distinguish the language from the people). This would be straightforward enough, but I have found that this is almost immediately followed by the confession “but I mainly focus on grammar.” The nature of this subordinate clause is that of a defense mechanism. It is effectively a euphemism for “Please do not judge my English -- I’m only here to give the basics!”

Of course, this may only be a simple exercise in human courtesy, the implicit self-deprecation which is as common in Britain as anywhere else, but were I bold enough to tackle the hidden meaning directly, I would simply say, “Don’t panic.” We globe-trotting Anglophones do not come here expecting you to be versed in every one of the many irregularities, idiosyncrasies and plain contradictions inherent in the English language -- still less, every accent and dialect we use. This is a point that needs addressing via a comparison of the average Turk’s and the average Briton’s attitude to language learning.

Want and necessity

Many Turks will explain their less-than-Oxford-level English on the mind-numbing drilling techniques employed by their former teachers. “They focused too much on grammar,” I often hear, and to be fair to Turkey’s hardworking language department staff, this is not something that the teachers themselves are unaware of. However, the sheer number of examinations levied upon students from their very first year makes it almost impossible for them to deviate from linguistic dogma to be memorized for the week’s test paper (and forgotten in preparation for next week’s). Essentially, the onus is given to the teacher to teach well -- the desire to learn amongst the students is taken as fact.

In Britain the problem of teaching languages is of a different nature. Many Britons will blush when asked about their language learning abilities, but despite the fact that most secondary schools teach French and German, British teaching skills do not provide a scapegoat -- instead, it is the nation’s complete apathy toward the art of language learning that becomes the target. And note the wordage here -- it is considered an art.

French teachers in British schools are consistently undermined by the class clown (every class has one), who at various intervals between reciting “je vais, tu vas, il va, elle va” will pipe up and bemoan “Miss/Sir, why do we even have to learn French; everyone speaks English anyway.” This attitude used to boil my blood even as a student. For why on Earth, I thought, should one expect foreigners to learn our language if we don’t even have the common courtesy to attempt theirs? However, when I conveyed this story to a Turkish friend of mine, her answer was plain and obvious: “Yes,” she said, “Well he was right; why should you learn another language?”

In expecting her full agreement, I was making a very simple error -- the idea that English was our language. If that ever was the case, it certainly isn’t today. We live in a world where, if a German bank arranges to meet with its Czech-based counterpart, the meeting will be held in English -- regardless of both companies’ clearly superior knowledge of German. For any Turkish business with a Web presence, a page with an English translation can make the difference between boom and bust, and for those Turks looking to advance their careers closer to home (be it in the private or public sector), an English qualification is a highly sought asset, no matter how irrelevant to one’s line of work.

Essentially, English has become a lingua franca divorced of cultural context. It has catalyzed the world of economics, politics and social interaction in the unstoppable process of global integration. The class clown would duly note that this is likely to continue regardless of whether the British can count un, deux, trois.

The necessity is simply not there for us to learn, and thus language learning becomes a hobby for those with the time or money to pursue it, hence it’s class dimension.

Turkish students are more than aware of the benefits of English, and Turkish teachers know its study is a genuinely important one. Ask around any high school language class and the students will be ready to tell you their goals -- doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers (If these are mainstay goals and not whimsical dreams, then I fear Turkey will be overstocked with first-class surgeons in the next decade, not the worst problem a country can face). Their minds are focused on serious goals, which will keep them occupied with state evaluations well into their late 20s. Suffice to say that for teachers in Turkey, the pressure is on -- in a way that it really isn’t for language teachers in Britain.

Turkish students have no concept of learning a language for learning’s sake, which is what language learning has been reduced to in our country. It is not all work and no play. Many students are drawn in by American TV and music, but I generally feel that this just sugars the pill. To language learners and teachers from the Anglophone world, this is quite a shame. We have been brought up to consider language as something artistic thanks to the lack of necessity we have attached to it in our own countries, and we wish it was not constrained by the culture of point scoring and target setting preferred by education ministries, who even extend evaluations to the teachers themselves.

Thus, for the English teachers of Turkey (and the Turkish teachers of English), please understand that we humble English-speaking folk who arrive in your country as escape artists and open roaders, helping you in your studies in order to justify ourselves staying here longer, are not people of linguistic science who have come to check the machines, so to speak. We do not expect all English teachers to be perfect, as we are imbibed with the idea that language learning is an imperfect science that depends on one’s exposure to that language, and, however inaccurate our perception that our language is being utilized by the rest of the world just because we are the only ones useless at languages, it is this perception that means we have nothing but admiration for those who endeavor to learn and to teach it, even the boring grammar.

With English taking over more and more university departments as a language of instruction in Turkey and entrance exams giving the language even greater priority, the feeling of learning for necessity may be replaced by learning out of pure obligation, and it will be interesting to see how the Turkish language learning ethic evolves as a result.

1 comment:

  1. I've found very little (genuine) humility when it comes to, or involves Turkish English teachers. Every time my schedule was (unbeknownst to me) changed or adjusted, I'd find myself in an empty classroom, then only later to find myself the one blamed for what later was revealed to me as an utter disregard by the staff to inform me of even the most routine of scheduling changes. The education directors were seen as me to be a pathetic sort.
    Therefore, it was the students themselves that eventually offered up (after I inquired of course) the information I needed to properly orient myself for the next bombshell that the coordinators would often create, after the fact of being left in the dark by the administrative staff time after time.
    But this only after I realized they (the students themselves)were the REAL ones to ask. You see, I needed to know certain things in advance and not in the rear.
    The Gülen community has an agenda period. They often subject their students to sub-standard teachers for the sake of appearing as if YES! we have native (English)speakers.
    After the speakers are in place, I've seen very little in the way of support(there are some, but few exceptions). And as I implied, the blame for their ineptitude would always land on the "foreigner".
    Keep in mind that this whole scenario poisons the whole process. And that my friend is where the shame lies, in the lackadaisical attitude of the staff paired with the predatory nature of the "academies" supplying the schools within the up and coming community (the Gülen community) native speakers.
    Basically they left a bitter taste in my mouth with their behavior.
    Although the students themselves were nothing short of wonderful and many times charming.
    This bitter taste also applies to the agencies that are as phony as plastic when it comes to "providing" the Gülen schools with anything short of a warm body to fill their English teaching seats. Leeds and Oğuzhan come immediately to mind. Such is the Hizmet I suppose.