Many schools in Turkey, and the opinions of many teachers that work here, usually agree that Turkish should not be used in the classroom. This tends to be a necessity as few teachers actually ever bother to learn the language anyway. While there are many problems related with the usage of Turkish in the classroom, I tend to side with those that say it should not be categorically banned and that it can be used to benefit the students in a number of ways. Foreign teachers should take the time and effort to learn their students’ language, so they can interact more fully in the country they are living in and use it to benefit their students in the class.
The problems with using Turkish in the classroom are many and well justified. Because of the dissimilarity between the languages and Turkish students’ obsession with literal, word-for-word translation, it is often best just to do away with Turkish entirely as a way to encourage thinking in English. If Turkish is allowed in the classroom, student talking time also goes down as they will be more prone to converse in Turkish than in English. And, of course, using the students’ native language should be banned in multilingual classrooms. It’s unfair to students to translate into one language but not others and will create a negative learning environment for those students that feel left out when the teacher translates into a language other than theirs.
Despite these objections, I have always agreed with something I read in Jim Scrivener’s Learning Teaching back during my TEFL course days. He said that the students’ native language shouldn’t be banned in the class. Instead, we, as teachers, should make our classrooms a place where students speak English because they want to, not because they are forced to. Motivation is one of the most important elements in the language classroom and if we constantly harp on students to stop speaking their language in their own country,, this can be not only discouraging, but insulting as well.
As an alternative to categorically banning Turkish, I think it is much better to create engaging lessons that make the students want to learn English. Additionally, the reasons for and benefits of speaking in English should be made clear to the students. Gentle reminders or signs encouraging the use of English around the room are helpful in this regard. As teachers who speak the students’ language it’s also important to never use their language to translate yourself. If a student speaks to you in Turkish, play dumb or tell them you don’t speak Turkish in the classroom. Always provide a positive model for your students. I’ve seen too many teachers try to use halting Turkish to (usually incorrectly) translate words or sentences for students.
With that said, there are several occasions where the use of Turkish in the classroom can be very helpful. I think the first and most obvious is the relaying of instructions for lower levels. Any student feels uncomfortable if they don’t know what’s going on and you can waste a lot of time re-explaining things when the students don’t understand. However, I’m not saying we should automatically give students instructions in Turkish. The students need to get used to following instructions in English and learn the language associated with it. We need to remember to always give simple instructions, one at a time and ICQ (instruction check question) them with the class. Many teachers often ignore this simple, but incredibly important technique. In addition to that, we must always demo the activity. If the students see the demonstration as you give the instructions it contextualizes the language and makes it easily intelligible. What I propose is that, as a final sort of ICQ, students explain the instructions back to you in Turkish. This way you practice the English, you get to be certain the students understand, and the students feel comfortable knowing what they are doing. As the class progresses and students become more comfortable, relaying the instructions back in Turkish can slowly be phased out.
Turkish is also useful for classroom management issues. While it should be obvious if you are angry or unhappy with a particular behavior, many students might not understand why, especially if it stems from cultural differences. Here would be a good time to explain to the students clearly what the problem is and what behavior you’d like in it’s place. Along these lines it can be a very good idea to explain classroom rules and expectations in Turkish on the first day. This way you know everyone is on the same page and a student can’t claim later that they didn’t understand .
Because most language learners do not understand how to learn a language, especially in Turkey where the education system creates students with skill sets and classroom expectations very counterproductive to language acquisition, it is quite helpful to explain methodology and reasons for some of the things you do in the classroom in the students own language. (Wooh, quite the sentence there .) Think back to your training days. Did you expect language teaching to be the way it is? Like most people, you probably thought you needed to know the students’ language, that the teacher should be up front doing a lot of explaining, and that study was more important than use. If you didn’t know what to expect in a language classroom, how can you expect your students to?
Another important use of Turkish, and one I think is the most valuable, is establishing rapport with the students. If you speak Turkish, it shows the students that you’ve taken the time to learn their language or at least are willing to make the effort. It’s a sign of respect. They will also be much more willing to trust you when you claim a Turkish way of saying something is wrong in English. I guarantee you that when you tell a student the correct way to say a Turklish phrase they will not believe you. They often think that you don’t understand what they’re trying to say and that you’ve put something different on the board. Believe me, it happens all the time. Another great way to establish rapport is to use Turkish in a humorous way from time to time. Make the students laugh and show them that, while you won’t speak Turkish with them in general, you appreciate their language and culture and aren’t completely against its use in the classroom.
One thing that I have found is really helpful in my classes is a set time each week where you will speak Turkish with the class for 10 or 15 minutes. It’s basically a big feedback session. Students can voice any concerns they have about the class, explain what they like and don’t like, and you can discuss things like methodology or good study habits with them. This really seems to help students because they know there is a time set aside each week where they can speak Turkish. It makes them more relaxed about speaking English the rest of the week. Also, many students are reluctant to discuss their problems in the class because they are embarrassed or unsure of their English. There’s a lot you can learn from students when they are speaking in their native language.
The last thing I use Turkish for is translation gaps. Generally, I’m dead set against translating words for students as it reinforces the idea that you actually can do this, which, from Turkish to English, is rarely possible. What I do find beneficial, however, is translating chunks of information or highlighting important differences. For example, one translation lesson I always do is the difference between “someone has/had/will have…” and “There is/are,was/were/will be…”, etc. Because Turkish doesn’t really use “have”, they use “There is/are” structures, students find this very confusing. Students can translate sentences into Turkish and then, covering up the previous translation, translate them back into English. This enables students to notice gaps between the languages AND it reinforces the idea that literal, word-for-word translations are not recommended. It draws the students’ attention to the need to look at chunks of language meaning and to notice differences between the languages. Another great difference that I always use a translation exercise with is defining vs. non-defining relative clauses. Turkish makes no distinction between the two, so it’s important to illustrate that, while they are translated the same, there is a slight change in meaning in English. You can refer to my Challenges Faced in the Speaking Turkish Classroom – the Language section for more ideas about where this might be appropriate.
In the end, while I always encourage the use of English in the class, Turkish definitely has its time and place. As long as Turkish is used judiciously and guidelines are clearly set as to when it’s acceptable or not, you will find that your students’ understanding will increase, their motivation will increase, and you’ll learn some things you might otherwise not have.
Is there anybody else out there who uses Turkish in the classroom? In what ways do you use it? What benefits or drawbacks have you seen with it’s use?
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