Teaching undergraduates in English was supposed to herald a glorious new era for Turkish universities by opening their doors to the brightest minds from around the world.
Visiting international scholars would raise the bar for students and domestic academics alike, with the latter encouraged to publish in prestigious English-language journals, thereby pushing universities higher in the rankings. Meanwhile, an influx of overseas students would enrich the classroom experience and provide a useful revenue stream to help universities take their place on the international stage.
But the introduction of English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI), an official policy supported by the Turkish government, has also, rightly, generated much criticism.
For many Turkish scholars, educators and intellectuals, this policy represents a grave threat to Turkey’s language and culture, with some 110 of Turkey’s 187 universities now teaching in English in some or all of their departments, according to a University of Oxford study in 2016.
More persuasively, many also argue it obstructs the progress of cognitive and learning skills among students asked to operate in a second language. Unable to express their views in English, many students struggle to analyse and interpret study texts, leading them to stay quiet in class and avoid intellectual discussions. As they become passive in classrooms, it is understandable that they resort to rote learning for examinations. Others admit to using a mixture of Turkish and English to communicate in class, leading to an unintelligible bilingual discourse that is neither one language nor the other.
Of course, this issue is exacerbated by poor English language skills; according to last year’s English Proficiency Index, Turkey came 73rd out of the 89 countries rated and finished far lower than any European state.
In short, it is quite clear from the data collected from examination papers that teaching in the medium of English does not facilitate or improve the students’ learning and understanding of their academic subjects; on the contrary, it deprives them of knowledge and skills that they would have received in their own native Turkish.
This problem is worsened by the fallacy among policymakers, rectors and university administrators that “teaching in English” and “teaching English” are largely interchangeable. In fact, they are entirely different educational processes that require different pedagogical approaches. Teaching undergraduates in English requires a high level of proficiency that cannot be acquired by simply sitting in lessons.
Focusing on this issue alone perhaps ignores a deeper malaise in Turkey’s education system. Teaching in Turkish also requires radical improvement at every age level; according to Programme for International Assessment (PISA) tests, a 15-year-old Turkish school student’s performance in reading comprehension and problem-solving skills is well below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average, ranking 32nd among 34 OECD countries, and below basic competence levels in these areas.
Considering the failure of these pupils to master Turkish, it would be quite unrealistic to expect proficiency in English, let alone the successful completion of a degree taken in English.
This failure to teach basic Turkish to primary and secondary school pupils means, however, that efforts to teach a foreign language to university-entry standard will also founder. Effective native language teaching is the most powerful means to enable foreign language learning: it provides language awareness, knowledge, skills and the capacity to study autonomously. It is the master key to foreign language learning, the tool that equips students with the most complete means of accessing the English language. Put simply, achieving a high level in your native language is essential if you want to learn another language.
Turkey cannot ignore this problem any longer. Its policymakers have dodged the issue, failing to provide either written guidelines about how to teach in English or an inspection scheme to ensure quality. Bolder measures are perhaps required.
There is a serious language problem today in Turkey’s educational system owing to policy blind spots that pervade all levels of education. It is having a devastating impact on a country whose young population is one of its most valuable assets.
To enforce teaching in English within universities is sadly to inflict more damage on the minds, thoughts and creativity of future generations.
Sinan Bayraktaroğlu is a former lector in Turkish at the University of Cambridge and was founding director of the Centre for Languages at Sawston Hall, Cambridge
Print headline: Teach Turkish first