Why can’t we speak English?

by Nesrin Gökmen

The article below was written for Turkish Education System and School Management course. As you all know, we, as Turkish learners of English, still have problems with speaking. In this article, I tried to define the problem and talked about what might be the reasons behind it and finally made some suggestions to overcome this problem. I know that it is a bit formal piece of writing. Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading it.


neden+ingilizce+konu%25C5%259Fam%25C4%25B1yoruz[1]Foreign Language Education has always been an important issue in education. From the beginning of the Ottoman Era, foreign languages are taught for military, economical, and social purposes. Because of the different conditions of specific eras, many languages such as Arabic, Persian, French, German and English are given much more importance than the other languages. In time, English gained more significance and took place in our curriculum in Turkish Education System. The events around the world triggered this situation. The most influential factors are British colonialism, USA’s capitalism as economic, military and technological force, the effects of disintegration of Soviet Union on globalism. English has been taught in schools shortly after the proclamation of the Turkish Republic.  For example, TED College has begun to incorporate English in their curriculum in 1927. Then METU (Middle East Technical University), Boğaziçi University started to use English as a medium of education around 1950s.

Although English is in our lives for a long time, why are we still having problems to teach it properly? Most of the students who have completed their 8-year basic education end up knowing nothing about English at the end. Even after graduation from high school, we can see that students can barely know something. If we consider that we began to learn English in 4th grade, much earlier now, time is long enough for somebody to learn English. What I mean by learning is not the grammar rules for sure. Maybe, the source of the problem is trying to teach only grammar and nothing else. At the end, all our efforts go down the drain, because grammar rules serve only for the test examinations. This kind of evaluation is just in the surface level. This is again based on memorization technique in our education system. Students don’t need to produce anything and they are forced to learn English as if it is Math or Chemistry course. Memorizing grammar rules in English resembles keeping Math formulas in mind and students form sentences by putting the words in their right order according to Subject – Verb – Object order. They are focused on the form rather than the meaning, which constitutes the biggest problem in English language teaching in Turkey. Students aren’t encouraged to produce the language, they do know the structures but they don’t know when to use them. When they aren’t aware of the function, they cannot express themselves and communicate with people in English.

Another problem about English language teaching in Turkey is the mispronunciation and lack of speaking skills. We make so many fossilized errors and we don’t even know that we pronounce them incorrectly. For example, I had a teacher who has just graduated from the university in high school. Her pronunciation of some words was so different that I thought she was the one who make mistakes. What I want to say is that it is very difficult to break the habits, so if something is mislearned, there are some instincts and feelings which prevent you from accepting the correct version of it. Teachers focus on teaching only grammar and they ignore the pronunciation and speaking. The teachers have chance to speak English only when they teach a new word or something. Hearing the words for once or twice is not enough for students to acquire them, so students need to produce something in English classes, and the teachers should give feedback and work with the students cooperatively. That’s why I think that native teachers of English should have a place in English Language Teaching at least for the correct pronunciation skills. However, the reason why we don’t have native teachers dates back to the post-republican era, because at those times when there were still schools of minorities, Turkey didn’t want the students to be assimilated, so it is decided that Turkish people should teach English in order to prevent the enculturation.

If we summarize Turkey’s general situation after the post-republican era, it was underwhelming and unpleasant. There have been reformist actions and innovations which made the country ready for the republican era. However, after the demise of Ataturk, the things got complicated. Although Turkey didn’t go to the World War II, she stayed on alert. The people and the authorities have concerns about the war’s effects on Turkey and involvement in the war. The military coups which took place in 1960 and in 1980 caused Turkey to fall behind. They were seen as black mark in Turkey’s history. The time period between these years wasn’t easy for the public with night curfew, martial law, communist and fascist actions. Universities are seen a place of anarchy. In 1984, terrorist incidents began in Turkey. In 1993, Alevi people were massacred in Sivas. There was nothing, but turmoil at those times.

Foreign language education in secondary and high schools was made mandatory in 1989. However, the education reform in 1997 obliged 8-year basic education, and consequently it is decided that the foreign language education should start from 4th grade. As I mentioned earlier, FLE has always been important since the Ottoman Empire even though the languages are different. Therefore, the chaotic atmosphere in Turkey delayed the inclusion of foreign languages to the curriculum. Automatically, they didn’t adapt it to the current curriculum well. Also, the techniques and methods were so old-fashioned that they didn’t aim all the skills in English. Grammar Translation Method which focuses only grammar structures was a faster and easier but not productive method to implement compared to communication focused methods.

What I suggest for the impracticality of the language teaching in Turkey is making alterations in the curriculum by eliminating or minimizing the explicit grammar teaching. When students focus on meanings rather than forms, students can see the logic behind the structures. It looks like it depends on the teachers but actually MONE (Turkish Ministry of National Education) is responsible for that. It gives schedule and curriculum and they expect the teachers to cover up the topics in a short time. In order to finish the topics at one semester, teachers rush and there is no quality teaching at the end. There are many topics which are too hard to cover in one semester or year. In the beginning of a new academic year, the teachers get over the topics because they weren’t learnt well back in time. Rather than revision, it seems to me that they are teaching it again. If the schedule contains fewer topics and more activities, the students have the chance to internalize the topics. Therefore, the topics in English should be reduced and distributed to a longer period. Also, the current curriculum doesn’t have time for games and activities but it is proved that they learn English better with these tools. Also, we should wait enough to see whether the changes work or not, because they keep changing the system constantly, so we never have the opportunity to check if it works.

Nesrin Gökmen’s blog: http://reflectivediariesfromaninternteacher.blogspot.com.tr/



2 thoughts on “Why can’t we speak English?

  1. Pingback: Neden İngilizce Konuşamıyoruz?

  2. I definitely agree on the curriculum part. I am an English teacher and I have been teaching English for 6 years now. I wanted to make a difference I tried not to speak Turkish in my classrooms but then parents complained about me to the headmaster. I’m not complaining I’m just saying if the curriculum has less topic but more communicative approach,I’m sure we will get over this. I would be even happy if MONE bans English teachers speaking in Turkish with their students not even outside the classroom. But in order to this the curriculum needs to be more communicative and with less topics. For example even i try to speak more in English in my classrooms and I’m always falling behind then the exams come and my students fail so im forced to change to the classical method (even though I’m still fighting not to change).


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