Challenges Faced in the Turkish Classroom

Image

Teaching English isn’t easy and there are additional challenges to be faced in the Turkish classroom that you might not encounter in other countries.  I’ve listed some of these obstacles below along with some suggestions on how to combat them.  Also, check the Lesson Plans page for specific lessons that address some of these issues.

Turkish Education

There are several obstacles to overcome when dealing working in a Turkish classroom.  The biggest problem and hardest one to really resolve is the habits learned in the Turkish education system.  Turkish education is a completely teacher-centered, rote-memorization system.  If you are teaching beginners, your students’ expectations of the teacher’s role in the classroom will be exactly opposite of what current communicative practice dictates.  In the Turkish system, the teacher is always the center of the class.  The teacher talks and the students listen quietly.  They only speak if spoken to.  The teacher exists as the font of all knowledge and no thinking is required of the students, only memorization.  For this reason, many Turkish students believe that this is how all teachers should act.  If you walk into the class and start trying to elicit words, put students in groups, or increase student-talking time you will most likely be met with silence, confusion, and frustration.  The students probably expect you to expound upon the book, occasionally ask them a question or make them produce a sentence, and give them some fill in the blank exercises.  If you are not doing these things then they may well think that they are not learning.  Students can get angry, refuse to participate in the class, and complain to management.

For these reasons, many students will often not understand the advantages of group work, the need to speak English in class, or the need to repeatedly practice the same structures over and over.  You might assign students a task and give them ten minutes to do it.  If left to their own devices, students will discuss and solve the situation entirely in Turkish and then translate a final one or two sentence solution.  This is the closest approximation to what they would do in a Turkish classroom.  Constantly reinforcing and explaining the importance of using English in the class helps to combat this problem.  Correcting students either during or after the activities so they feel like they are learning and improving also helps tremendously.  Another idea is to Pre-teach necessary language and write useful phrases on the board for students to use during the task.  Try to always make clear what the goal of the task is and constantly emphasize that the true task is speaking English as much as completing the task..

Informing students of the importance of using structures over and over, how there is always something more to learn, and how they don’t have the chance to practice outside of class all reinforce the need for practice in the class.  At one school I worked at, we had to share classes with another teacher.  My shared teacher taught reported speech using the traditional grammar method.  I then came to class the next week and spent two hours reviewing and revising the grammar point using context-oriented, task-based activities.  The class was very weak and they really struggled at first and slowly improved throughout the lesson.  During the feedback session we discussed what point we had been practicing.  After some thought, one student answered, “Reported speech.”  “Great, yes!” I replied.  Another student immediately let out a big Ufff and explained that they had already learned this grammar point last week and demanded to know why we had just wasted two hours on it.  Of course, this was the same student that was having tremendous difficulty producing reported speech correctly and in the right situations.  This is a possible student attitude you may see in class.  Once the teacher has talked about a topic and they have written it in their notebook, that point is considered to be learned and to be over and done with.  This student was rather problematic and confrontational for a Turkish student, but you can be sure, if one student says it, then others are thinking it.  This happened in the 2nd week of the course and the class had had no previous experience with learner-centered or task-based learning and it’s a good example of your students’ possible preconceived views.  Giving reasons for everything you do in class involves the learners more in the class and you can work with the students and ways to move forward in the learning process.  At the same time, in that class I had a number of students thank me for the same lessons because they felt that they finally understood reported speech.  As they explained, they had learned how to manipulate the grammar, but they had not understood how or why to use it in the previous teacher’s grammar explanations.  So just as many students will see the values of student-centered forms of instruction as those who won’t.

The primary way to combat the above problems is to slowly transition the students into a more student-centered learning role.  Starting out as the teacher they expect you to be makes them comfortablle.  Being the focus of attention and follow a PPP (Presentation, Practice, Produce) lesson format at first can forge some common ground.  It will make the students feel comfortable and slowly you can start including more communicative activities and task-based teaching styles.  Give it time though and feel the students out.

Another thing to do is to constantly explain and discuss your methodology with your students.  If your Turkish is good enough, feel free to devote maybe ten minutes now and then to explain methodology and field questions from the students.  Other options are to have Turkish staff members come into your class or get your school to implement “Learning How to Learn” activities or prep classes for students.  If all else fails just slowly explains things as much as possible in English.  Even with beginners you can ask questions like “Who needs to practice English, me or you?” or “Do you get to practice more English in groups or by yourself?”

Also, whenever you get into methodology, it is a great idea to reference research and books and write them on the board.  Turkish students put a large amount of faith in any research that has been written in a book.  If you can reference the author and book title for a particular point you are making, students will be much more open to the idea.

A practice which I find extremely helpful with Turkish students is signposting.  Signposting is the act of writing on the board your goals for the class such as type of language, grammar, or vocabulary to be learned during the class.  It’s always advisable to put up specific grammar elements that are practiced during any activity as Turkish students assign a lot of importance to grammar.  Even if the goal of your lesson is focused on language of compromise for example, it would be a good idea to signpost 1st conditional & language of compromise rather than just language of compromise.  Students will feel better about the lesson and feel like they have learned more, which increases student motivation and satisfaction.

Another issue with Turkish education is the single-minded focus on memorization.  Standard operating procedure is to memorize random information for exams and then forget everything.  Students generally memorize rules and small pieces of information.  For this reason your students will generally be obsessed with grammar rules and structures in English as well as memorizing the English translation of Turkish words.  Many students are not familiar with and have not been informed of the need for using English to learn and the extreme importance of context.  Furthermore, the flexibility of language and its variation from place to place or time to time is especially troubling to many students.  They want to learn a rule that can be applied across the board and exceptions or regional differences often make them angry.  It is not unusual for a student to challenge you in class and say something like, “It should be “The family is” not “The family are.”  Of course both are correct.  It’s simply an example of British vs. American English.

This is one of the hardest things to change in the Turkish classroom. You have to design activities and highlight features of English that illuminate the importance of context and you have to show students that using the language in class will increase their proficiency at a much faster rate than memorization.  To be honest, this is something I always find quite frustrating when dealing with Turkish students.  Many students have had English lessons since at least high school.  This means that the majority of students come to your class with a minimum of four years of English under their belts.  Despite this, most of them can’t speak a word of English yet they wish to continue with the method that failed them in the past.  It’s more about comfort than it is about practicality.  As I always tell my students, “Use it [English], love it, live it.”

Related to the problem of memorization is the lack of critical thinking or lateral thinking skills with many students.  Because the education system focuses on the  memorization of rules, students often fail to understand concepts and fail to apply skills or methods outside of issues taught.  For example, almost every student knows that you eat soup in English rather than drink it as in Turkish.  Yet, this will not stop your students from translating everything else word for word.  They may have memorized the translation of a collocation, but they will not apply the fact that direct translation is rarely possible to other situations.  A good example is an intermediate student I had.  One day he comes to class and tells me there is still something he doesn’t understand in English.  He says he knows that sen translates as “you” in English, but he still doesn’t know how to translate sizSen is singular “you” in Turkish while siz is plural or polite, a distinction that does not exist in English.  Despite having been through 6 months of education at our school and many classes in university and high school, the student was still trying to literally translate something he should have realized wasn’t (literally) possible a long time ago.

Turkish exams also do not help in this regard.  On a Turkish exam they do not ask for the most important or relevant information.  They test you on the most random information to check your memorization skills.  If there is a footnote about a little-known figure from Ottoman history mentioned in your book, then you better know it.  If your teacher mentioned the fact that Freud liked spinach for dinner as an aside, then you better memorize it because it will be on the exam.  I once had a new teacher at university who was from China.  He used to do the same thing on his exams and it would infuriate me.  He would ask the most useless questions.  Many Turks are conditioned to this situation and so often don’t get the chance to develop the ability to analyze and qualify information.  Everything is taken at face value and all information contains equal weight.  As an example, it’s quite common to have students who are doctors or biologists in your class and, despite years of medical training, they will still inform you that moving air from a fan will make you sick.  They memorized a whole lot of information, but never applied those scientific modes of thought outside of what they were taught.

Generally, students here are familiar with sorting information, organizing ideas according to the dictates of Western logic, or supporting arguments (especially if they don’t agree with it).  If a student reads something or hears something in class it will often be taken and accepted at face value.  There is rarely critical analysis done to determine the validity of an idea or viewpoint other than the opinions previously held.  There is little to no essay writing done in schools, even at the university level.  Speeches and debates are also rare.  Students are not encouraged to present ideas, only receive them.

All this makes your job as teacher that much more difficult.  You have to teach students basic study habits and how to learn as well as English.  Incorporating lessons on good study habits and giving them advice will help in this regard.  I find using inductive teaching methods helps students come to conclusions on their own.  It helps to build the skill up in your classes.  Taking time out to explain differences between exams at your school and exams at their schools is another good idea as is asking probing questions that encourage the students to think and form opinions.  When you teach a concept, showing many situations using the same concept can demonstrate to students that it can be applied in in others situations as well.

Exams & Cheating

Along the same lines, you will probably need to teach your students how to take your exams.  Explaining the format of your exams and telling the students beforehand what you expect them to know will make the students much more comfortable.  Also, explaining what you want your students to do in various sections and demonstrating similar questions types on the board are a good ideas.   Turkish students rarely read directions.  In many Turkish schools, the teacher always explains the entire format of the exam before it’s taken, so students aren’t used to reading the instructions.  The best example of this I have is one time I gave a student the answer key.  Answer Key was written at the top in big bold letters and instructions for the teacher were given below.  In addition, answers were highlighted in bold script. Despite this, the student still failed the exam.  He never bothered to read the instructions nor did he make the connection between many of his correct answers and the bold script.

Before exams, I recommend a practice exam and giving students test-taking strategies.  These have probably not been taught in school.  For example, students should read the questions first and then do a reading.  If you don’t tell them, they will usually do it backwards and most likely run out of time on the exam.  Telling students to make logical guesses definitely helps in my experience as well.  On many Turkish exams, students receive negative points if they answer a question wrong rather than leave it blank.  You need to explain that guessing can only benefit them on your exam, not hurt them.  The last thing to help out your students is to pre-teach some of the unknown vocabulary.

Cheating is a huge problem among Turkish students.  Like many non-Western cultures, cheating is often considered normal and acceptable.  It is even viewed more along the lines of helping at times.  If a Turkish student is older than you, it is painful to watch them struggle.  Cultural norms dictate that you help this person by giving them the answers.  Also, especially among friend and lovers, you need to avoid getting smeked.  smek means “to be put out with someone”, but the meaning goes much deeper in Turkish culture.  For example, if I have a girlfriend and she is in my class, regardless of how bad her English is I must pass her or the relationship is most likely over.  In Turkish culture, you do whatever you can to help out friends, family, and lovers or they will smek you and quite possibly end the relationship.  This is a very serious subject in Turkish culture and needs to be dealt with carefully.  A final problem with cheating is that it’s quite accepted in Turkish schools.  Here is a typical Turkish school story.  My wife’s brother had to write an advanced review about sports therapy in English to pass his class.  Now, the teacher knows that most of the students don’t know English.  His own English isn’t very good either.  However, he gives the assignment knowing that students will have to cheat to pass the class.  Students have two options, they can find something online and copy it, or they can pay someone else to translate or write it for them.  Again, the teacher knows this is what will happen and he will accept their papers regardless.  In fact, if the student does write the article themselves they may receive a lower grade than the students who paid to have it translated because theirs will have more mistakes.

A good point to keep in mind is that when teaching a language, you are also teaching a culture.  Prohibitions against cheating and plagiarizing need to be explained to the students.  You can even make it a lesson and discuss the reasons for it or the differences in perspective between cultures.  Clearly outlining the rules before the exam is another useful tip .  If the rules come from the teacher’s authority, they are much more comfortable not helping others cheat as long as the rules are explicitly stated.  If at all possible, put students in rows and move friends and family away from each other.  Turkish students will try anything to cheat such as, going to the bathroom and texting friends, hiding answers under clothes, or simply speaking Turkish if they know the teacher doesn’t understand.  I find that clearly stating the rules before the exam and then subtracting 5 percentage points from their exam score if they speak does an excellent job of preventing cheating.  Write their name clearly on the board and the points lost.  I guarantee no one else will speak once that happens.  I used to just give zeros to anyone that cheated, but it created so many problems with students getting upset because “I hadn’t stopped the students from cheating.”  In the students minds it’s actually your fault for catching them and not saying anything.  Amazing I know, but many students absolutely abhor taking responsibility for their actions.  Also, unless you say something to them during the exam, in Turkish schools, the student cannot be punished for cheating.  Even if two students have the exact same answers, the teacher must have proof from during the actual exam.  Students will assume the rules are the same at an English course.

The Language

Turkish and English are nothing alike.  Unlike many Indo-European languages they do not translate into each other very well.  Oftentimes, completely different constructions will need to be used to express the same idea.  This is why it’s of utmost importance to get your students conditioned to thinking in English as much as possible.  Remember, your students  usually won’t apply concepts.  This means that, even though English is an SVO language and Turkish is supposedly a SOV language and the students realize the grammar to be fundamentally different here, they will still think the grammar translates directly in other situations.

Almost every single mistake your students make is a direct result of literal translations from Turkish.  This is to be expected and encouraging the use of English at every turn gets students to start to developing an awareness and understanding of English.

You can refer to my student’s section to check a list of the most common Turkish mistakes.  Some other basic differences that teachers should be aware of are:

General Differences

  • Turkish is an agglutinative language.  Most non-content words, tense formulations, and pronouns are attached as a string of suffixes to the back of words. For example, hizmetinizdeyiz literally translates as service-your-in-we-are.
  • In Turkish, the grammar is very flexible.  Subjects, objects, and verbs can often go in many different places and this can, but doesn’t necessarily, change the emphasis of the sentence.  For example, in Turkish I can say I love you, love you I, you love I, etc.  For this reason, basic sentence structure needs to be pushed in your lessons.  Students should always be made to use sentences, especially at early levels.  Even though short answers can be used in natural spoken English these should not be encouraged during accuracy activities.
  • Like many other languages, the subject of the sentence in Turkish is often dropped because it’s indicated by the verb.
  • Pronouns are used quite differently in Turkish in general.  They often use the possessive pronoun as the object of a preposition among other things.  They also think about pronouns very differently.  They don’t see pronouns as separate words, rather they see them as the same word with a different suffix depending on the situation.  For this reason, students can have trouble grasping all the different pronouns and when to use them.
  • There aren’t really helping verbs in Turkish.  The short answer to the question, “Do you want a cola?” would be answered with, “Yes, I want” in Turkish.  This is why students fail to use helping verbs for short answers.
  • Also, to be polite, in Turkish you agree with the speaker.  So the answer to the question, “You can’t swim, can you?” is “Yes, I can’t swim.”
  • Turkish does not generally use articles.  While there is an equivalent for “a/an“, it is not used in the same way or as important as in English.  There is no equivalent for  ”the“.  When “a/an” is used it is used after the adjective and before the noun, so the sentence would be “I have red a car.” Articles should be stressed from the beginning.  Otherwise students believe they are unimportant and they are hell to correct at upper levels.
  • There is no adjective order in Turkish.  “I have a big red car.” and “I have a red big car.” are equally correct in Turkish and depends on if I think big or red is more important.
  • Plural nouns are not generally used in Turkish.  If a plural meaning is understood from a number, quantifier, or context, plurals will not be used.  This is why Turks often say, “I like cat.” or “There are a lot of tree.”
  • Countable and uncountable nouns are largely the same, but there are some differences.  In Turkish bread, different meats, and fruit are countable nouns.  Clouds are uncountable in Turkish.  The distinction between “How much” and “How many” is not very important in Turkish.
  • In Turkish you usually use double negatives, so you would say, “ I don’t never swim.” or “No mushrooms aren’t left.”
  • Possession is handled very differently in Turkish and if you ever study Turkish you will come to realize that everything is possessed in the language.  In Turkish, both the possessor and the thing being possessed gain a suffix.  In Turkish car is araba.  If I want to say Nick’s car I would say Nick’in arabasi?.  Notice the suffix on both Nick and araba.  Turkish students will often confuse this and may say things like Nick’s car’s.
  • Also, objects possess their sides.  In English we use “of” for this.  In English I’d say, “Put it on top of the table”.  In Turkish I would say “Put it to the table’s top” or “Put it to the table’s under,” etc.
  • Turkish uses possessive adjectives much less than English.  In English we would generally say I forgot my keys.  In Turkish it’s very common to say I forgot keys.
  • There is a verb for “have”, but it is rarely used.  In Turkish “I have a cat” would be “There is my cat.” (kedim var)  Because this is different in Turkish they have trouble conceptualizing that it is simply a normal verb in English.  Also, in school they are usually taught the British “have got”, which is technically a present perfect structure.  For this reason you’ll often hear sentences like “I haven’t a cat” or “Have you a cat?”  You need to show that “have” is actually a verb and, like any verb in English, it needs a helping verb for questions and negatives.  If they want to use “have got” point out that “have” is a helping verb here and that “got” is the main verb and that it’s technically a present perfect structure with a present simple meaning in British English.
  • “In”, “on”, and “at” are all represented by the same word “da/de” in Turkish.  Students often need help with the rules and uses between the three.
  • As far as the Turks are concerned, in the present simple, he, she, and it do not require the verb “be” or olmak in Turkish.  In very formal situations it would be represented by dir, but it is not used in normal speech.  For this reasons Turks will constantly drop “be” from he/she/it sentences and make sentences like “He tall” or “It big.”
  • Emotions in Turkish are almost always verbs.  For this reason Turks will not use “be” with an emotion.  They will make sentences like “I afraid cats” or even “I afraided cats when I was a child.”
  • Turks often believe that present simple sentences with the verb “be” are actually a different tense from present simple sentences with other main verbs.  They have a very difficult time understanding when to use “be” and when to use helping verbs like “do”.  This gets especially confusing for them when they learn present continuous with “be” as a helping verb.  The differences in structure between the tenses needs to be constantly highlighted and the relation between sentences with “be” and sentences with other main verbs in simple tenses need to be examined.
  • In Turkish, the verb “be” is used in every single sentence, except he/she/it sentences where it is usually simply implied.  For this reason, many students will use “be” as a helping verb for absolutely everything.  For example, “I is walk to school in the morning.” or “I was walked to school yesterday.”
  • There are no real modals in Turkish.  Talking about ability, possibility, obligation, prohibition, etc have completely different constructions in Turkish.
  • The word for “can” and “might” (abilmek) are the same in Turkish, so these are often confused.  However, “can’t” and “might not” are grammatically different in Turkish (ememek and meyebilmek).
  • Turks are obsessed with phrasal verbs.  Actually in Turkish, every verb requires a different particle for an object ending, so they have something similar, but it rarely helps them understand phrasal verbs.  My take on phrasal verbs is that they are like any other verb only they appear in pieces and it’s ridiculous to fuss over them.  I tell students that, if they come across a phrasal verb, look it up in a dictionary like any other verb.  I find that if you do not make a big fuss about them, your students won’t either.
  • Because Turkish requires particle endings on their objects, students will often transfer these over to English.  In Turkish, I would say, “I’m afraid from spiders” or “I got married with Jenny.”
  • False Friends (Note:  I’m having difficulty getting Turkish characters to show on my page, so, if the character won’t display, I’m using the English alternative at the moment.  The Turkish “s” and “i” are not displaying at the moment.)

-         “Mama” means “pet food” or “baby food” not “mother.”

-         “Sempatik” means “nice or kind (personality trait)” not “sympathetic.”

-         “Apartman” means “apartment block” not “apartment.”

-         “Cip” means “jeep” or “van.”

-         “Sef” means “boss”, not “chef”.

-         “Personel” means “personnel” or “staff”.  Turks often confuse this with “personal”.

-         “Bisküvi” refers to various snack crackers or cookies, not “biscuits.”

-         “Prezervatif” means “condom” not “preservative.”  Teenagers will often resort to bouts of giggles on this one.

-         “Kolonya” refers to “hand sanitizer” not “cologne.”  This one really confuses students.

-         “Parfüm means “perfume”, but it is used for both men and women’s product in Turkish.

-        “Aroma” means “flavor”, not “aroma.”

-        “Miting” means “demonstration” or “protest”, not “meeting”.

Tenses

  • There is no present perfect tense in Turkish.  Present or past simple tenses are used instead.
  • There is no future perfect or future continuous tense.  Future simple tenses are used instead.
  • In many places where English uses present simple, Turkish uses present continuous.
  • Turkish uses the present tense for future possibility, polite requests & offers, promises, and ability on occasion.  All of these functions have equivalent structures that mirror the English ones, so students don’t have too much trouble with these.  The most common mistake you will hear is probably, “I don’t see the board” rather than “I can’t see the board.”
  • Past Perfect in Turkish can refer to things that the speaker considers to be far in the past.  For example, “I had played football” is acceptable without a second past if a) the event is far enough in the past or b) you want to emphasize that the event is completed and you are done with it.
  • Conditional sentences are actually separate tenses in Turkish.  There is a word for “if”, but it is rarely used.
  • There is an additional tense in Turkish for when the speaker wishes to refrain from taking responsibility for a statement (i.e. info heard from someone else, info they don’t remember or aren’t sure about, new info).  Equivalents in English would be structures such as “apparently”, “it seems that”, “as far as I know” etc.
  • Along with some other differences in conditional usage, 2nd and 3rd conditionals are often formed in the same way in Turkish.  Turks will often have trouble distinguishing between the two.

Relative Clauses

  • There are no relative pronouns in Turkish.  In Turkish you will say “Beni seven kiz” or “the girl loving me” rather than “The girl who loves me.”
  • There is no difference in Turkish between a defining and non-defining relative clause.
  • There’s no difference between adjective clauses and adverb clauses in Turkish.  “That’s the place which I was born in” is the same as “That’s the place where I was born.” – Dogdugum yer orasi.
  • Most verbs as direct object, relative clause and noun clause constructions are actually possessed in Turkish.  For this reasons students will say things like, “He wants my going.” rather than “He wants me to go” or “My best food is pizza.” rather than “My favorite food is pizza.”

Pronunciation

I just found a really nice site outlining probable pronunciation mistakes at Telephone-English (this site seems to have disappeared sadly).  For an academic discussion of Turkish pronunciation issues try this journal article.

This can be a huge problem for Turks, but is nowhere near to what you might face in an Asian country, and needs to be addressed as early as possible.  Natural English speech patterns should be encouraged right from the beginning.  The Turkish language is phonetic.  It’s pronounced like it’s written for the most part.  This is probably the biggest block to learning English for Turkish learners.  If I was a linguist I’d research this, but Turks who have learned Japanese or Italian claim they are very easy languages to learn.  I bet the sole reason for this is because they are also phonetic; one letter represents one sound.

  • There are only 13 vowel sounds (plus a long “a” in many Arabic words) compared to English’s 23.  In English, long and short vowels change the meaning of the word, for example, fat and fate.  In Turkish it simply changes the emphasis.  This is a major obstacle for Turkish learners, as they will constantly try to apply the limited number of Turkish vowels to English words.  They also generally fail to use long vowels.  This difference between the languages should be pointed out and emphasized from the beginning.
  • Turks often hate pronouncing contractions.  Actually, a similar phenomenon is observed in Turkish.  It’s useful to show them this.  For example, ne oldu will become n’oldu or ne yapacagim will become n’anpicam.  Turks also tend to think that, if they pronounce words separately, it is more polite and more correct.  Turks love it when you speak Turkish according to the rules (which nobody does) and they think it sounds great.  They transfer this idea over to English.  The problem is, if they speak properly in English, they come across as cold, too formal, and as having a poor level of English.  This fact needs to be explained to the students.
  • In a related problem, Turks think that, because English is written as separate words, it needs to be pronounced that way.  That’s why it is so hard to get students to say thinks like “Whaddya doin?” because they are convinced everything should be said separately.  In Turkish, if it’s said together, it’s usually written together.  You need to explain to students that, while English is written as separate words, unstressed words are shoved together and pronounced as one word, very similar to Turkish.  The only difference is we don’t write it that way (except on MSN and other chat services).  Ways to combat this are to have your students say sentences quickly, in a normal English rhythm from the get-go.
  • Don’t speak slower for your students.  You should always grade your grammar and your vocabulary, but you need to speak at a natural rate.  Otherwise you only reinforce the false assumptions students have already made about the language and they will not be able to understand English speakers when they meet them in the real world.  For another teacher’s point-of-view on this, check here.
  • Because Turks pronounce everything in their language they have trouble with unpronounced letters.  Things like unpronounced “t” sounds at the ends of words cause problems in understanding.  While it is perfectly intelligible if they pronounce them, and possibly preferable for speaking with some foreigners, it really hurts their listening skills.  For a fuller discussion on this refer to my blog comment on Jamie Keddie’s blog.
  • There is no “th” sound in Turkish and learners often can’t differentiate between “t” and “th”.  They also find it very embarrassing to stick their tongue between their teeth to make this sound.  You should point out the important differences between words like “taught” and “thought”. Also, be very willing to be a clown and overemphasize sticking your tongue out to make the sound.  Students are always more willing to do something if the teacher makes a fool of him or herself first.
  • While there is a “w” that occurs in some Turkish words, it’s not technically a letter.  Turks have no trouble producing the sound, but they sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between “v” and “w”.  Because they don’t hear a difference, they sometimes don’t produce one.  They will pronounce “vet” and “wet” the same way.
  • Turkish students sometimes have a problem with the “ng” sound at the end of words.  This is why students will often write things like, “I need a think that keeps paper together” or “I thing he’s tired.”

Culture

Turkish culture is still predominantly patriarchal. Female teachers will find it more difficult to gain the respect of their students in the classroom.  This is especially true if you dress in more revealing Western style clothes.  As a woman it is recommended that you wear long pants or skirts and shirts that do not reveal any cleavage, preferably with longer sleeves.  Turkish men are less likely to trust a female teacher and will very possibly have control issues.  If you are even the slightest bit attractive be ready to be asked to dinner, on a date, or for your phone number.  Unbeknown to most Westerners, this is actually an insult.  They do this because they think you are easy like they see on TV.  A large percentage of Turkish women are virgins before marriage, so anyone who is assumed to be experienced is considered disreputable.  If a Turkish man really likes you and respects you, he will be incredibly timid and will not make any advances until he has established a strong friendship first.  Nothing goes beyond a request for a date though.  There is rarely harassment by men of women in the classroom.   Should an occasion occur, one comment by management will end any such problems.

Men also should to dress nice.  Turkish students have little respect for teachers that come in jeans and a wrinkled shirt.  In American culture this may be the sign of a laid-back, friendly teacher.  Here it’s simply unprofessional.  Turkish teachers dress formally and it’s advisable to do the same if you want respect from the students.

Along similar lines, you should not embarrass men in front of women, especially younger women, as it might upset them and cause problems.  Older men especially may be fearful of speaking or making mistakes in front of younger women, especially if the woman is a better speaker.  Of course, this all varies from person to person and often depends on which city the student is coming from.

In Turkish education, books are incredibly important.  What the book says must be true.  If you say something in contradiction to the book, they will start to doubt you.  As a teacher you need to be capable of explaining any differences between what you teach and what the book says.

Turkey is a fairly closed culture when it comes to free speech.  Insulting Ataturk or Turkishness is a jailable offense and happens quite often.  Almost anything can be interpreted as an insult to Turkishness.  Never say anything bad about Turkey or Ataturk.  For example, I was once discussing Ataturk with a friend.  I said that Ataturk often got drunk.  While it is common knowledge that Ataturk drank a lot of raki and this fact is easily accessible even in many Turkish history books, it is considered an insult to say that he got drunk because “proper” Muslims don’t get drunk.  With one conversation our friendship was over.  Not only that, but the 5-year friendship between my girlfriend and this friend was also over because she refused to break up with me over it.  Ironically, I heard the exact same type of story from another friend who lives here.  In this case it was two Turks arguing and a 10-year friendship ended.

Turkey is a Middle Eastern country with many Middle Eastern values.  The group is always valued over the individual.  Many things like religion or politics are not discussed due to the fact that they could destabilize a relationship.  Many Turks cannot discuss religion or politics in Turkish.  They find these subjects very difficult and are often scared to voice their opinions and for good reason.  While things are better now, many people still remember journalists or dissenters being killed or thrown in jail for speaking out.  I have had good discussions on these topics, but you must have rapport with the class, everyone must be very comfortable with each other, and you have to monitor the discussion carefully.  Particular issues to avoid are Kurds, Armenians, Ataturk, Alevis, the headscarf issue, Israel, Islam, and the war in Iraq.

Honor is extremely important in Turkish culture and, like all Middle Eastern countries, much of a male’s honor is tied to his female relatives.  Never ever joke about someone’s mother, sister, or significant other.  Even the phrase, “Your mother is beautiful” is considered highly offensive and can be cause for a fight.

Many Turks quickly become aware of the fact that most teachers of English actually know very little about teaching and did not study it at university.  Turks place great importance on their departments and it’s often very difficult to get into a particular department at university.  It’s all based on a nationwide testing system.  If you didn’t study ESL teaching at university in their minds you shouldn’t be teaching.  To gain the trust and respect of your students you should always be prepared before you enter class.  Be sure you know what you are teaching and that you understand it.  Anticipate questions from the students and have answers ready.

Starting in high school, Turkish students can act very chummy towards their teachers.  Many foreigners and also many Turkish teachers see it as a form of disrespect, but it’s pretty normal here.  Be very careful with becoming too friendly with students.  Befriending students is always great, but it can come with some difficulties you should be aware of.  Once friendship is established they may stop listening to you in the class.  Turks usually don’t make a distinction between a professional relationship and friendship.  You cannot be one thing in the class and another outside it.  If you try to adopt the role of teacher in the class after becoming friends, you may get smeked and things could become very negative in the classroom.  A Turkish student would be incredibly upset if their teacher they were friends with failed them in the class.

Turkish students are very sheltered as well.  Most of them live with their parents until marriage, which is usually to around their late 20’s or 30’s.  Turkish students often do not have much in the way of life experience.  Life is much simpler and quieter here.  Because of this, Turkish students are rather adverse to working for anything, much like students anywhere in the world :P .  Turks under the age of 30 have had few to no responsibilities in life.  The family provides everything.  You can be sure that most of your students are not paying for their course themselves.  It’s coming out of their families’ pockets and so they don’t value it as much as if the money was coming out of their own.

If the family is rich or influential enough, students also have not had to do any work in school.  One call to the principal from dad and the student will pass the class.  Don’t be surprised when you gets students that feel they are entitled to pass your course regardless of their performance.  Many richer students feel that the teacher or the school should cater to their every whim.  If you have a student like this in your class, it’s important to establish authority quickly and stay in control.  Make sure your manager is aware of the situation and will back you up.  Should a student complain and the school cave in to his or her demands you will be undermined in the class and any chance you have of establishing authority in the class will be shot.

The Language Schools & Their Teachers

The language schools themselves are often a problem.  There is a lack of administrative competence and no communication between native staff & foreign staff, management & teachers, sales & teachers, etc.  Many schools don’t have enough resources for their teachers.  Often there is no Internet or multimedia in the classroom, there is no paper for photocopies or it’s limited, or there’s no ink or markers to write on the board with.  Management probably never gives trainings or does observations.  All these are the hallmarks of a typical language school in Turkey.  Even a good teacher can have a tough time in places like these.

Other teachers can also be a huge problem here.  I think most developing countries are plagued by this.  It’s the nature of a business where teachers are in high demand, short supply, and little training is needed to get hired.  There are the usual drunks or burnouts that come here from their home countries where they just couldn’t cut it, but can find a good paying job (at least enough for beer and cigarettes) here because they can speak English.  Many others are just kids backpacking their way around the world with no real interest in providing a quality education.  Even the teachers that are motivated often just don’t have the training or knowledge.  Most people are coming off a crash TEFL course that may or may not have actually taught them anything.  Then they arrive at a school that does no training, has few resources, and offers no constructive criticism through regular observations.  Then, three, five, ten years down the road you wind up with a teacher that believes they’re on top of their game, but, in fact, haven’t improved since the beginning and are still making the same rookie mistakes they did on day one.  The schools and the nature of the business is as much to fault for this as the individual.  Even if a teacher has a 4-year teaching degree, they have often learned teaching methodologies that are counterproductive in a language learning environment.  Often the toughest would-be teachers to teach in a TEFL course are those who have an actual teaching degree and have already taught.  They’re too set in their ways and have trouble adapting to student-centered teaching approaches.  I always tell myself to never be too confident because there is always someone better than me that knows more.  I can always improve.

As a teacher you should ask yourself a few questions:

1.  Am I actually putting effort into my lessons so that my students, who are paying thousands of dollars, are actually learning English?
2.  When a class isn’t doing well, do I take a step back and try to revise my teaching strategies?
3.  Do my students often work in groups?
4.  Are my students the center of the class and in control of their own learning?
5.  Are my classes fun, interesting, and relevant to the students’ lives?
6.  Do I work to improve my teaching through reading ELT literature, networking with other teachers, and experimenting in the class?
7.  Do my students come to conclusions about grammar and language on their own in my class?
8.  Do I correct the students errors?
9.  Do all my activities have clear goals, both for the students and as regards language learning in the class?
10.  Do I use a lot of fill-in-the-blank worksheets?
11.  Am I doing most of the talking?
12.  Do students only speak because I asked them a question or made them give an example?

If you answered, “No” for 1-9 or “Yes” for 10-12 then you should probably reconsider your ideas about teaching.  There are many ways to improve your teaching.  Read ELT blogs and websites, subscribe to ELT magazines, attend conferences, talk with and observe other teachers, get your DELTA, etc.  One of my favorite quotes about teaching is, “I’ve got a lot to teach, but even more to learn.”  It takes a lifetime to learn to teach and it’s never too late to start learning again (hopefully you’ve never stopped).

Work with your schools as well.  This can be difficult in Turkey I know, but get them to subscribe to magazines, purchase books on teaching, create lesson share folders, hold workshops, do trainings, make observations and give feedback, etc.  On your own, it can be difficult, but if you can get other teachers on board perhaps you can make some changes.  You can also refuse to work for schools that aren’t worth their salt.  Don’t re-sign contracts with bad schools.   Not everything has to be taken lying down.

Conclusion

There are certainly a number of obstacles to face in the Turkish classroom environment, but if you are aware of and prepared for them, it’s not so bad.  Turkish students can be very fun to teach once they understand how your class works and what they should be doing.  Your school and the other teachers there will play a big role in how your class behaves.  If the school and other teachers are on the ball, the students will be introduced to standard language learning methods immediately and they will quickly adapt.  If this is not the case, then be prepared to bang your head against the wall for the first couple weeks and battle with the students until they start to realize that what you are trying to do really works.  If you are aware of some of the issues above, hopefully you can avoid any pitfalls.  I think it’s always important to remember that we always need to teach our students how to learn as well as English.  Sometimes we forget this. If done correctly, the pay off is huge both for the teachers and the students.  Good luck out there :)

17 Comments

  • By emayti, August 21, 2011 @ 9:22 am

    thank you very much for your article!!! It is exactly what I experienced here! I am an international undergraduate student in turkey. I gave some lessons of english and maths to turkish high school students, and faced exactly the same problems. Centralized university entrance system really makes them zombie.
    As you said, they really deify textbooks, for example when i saw question about finding remainder when a FRACTION is divided by an integer, and told that remainders deal only with integers, the student probably didn’t understand how someone can cast doubt on book ‘approved by ministry of education’…i’ve got many examples, but i can see that you wrote thoroughly enough to add anything.

  • By Yagut, October 9, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

    Thank you very much for a great information about Turkish students. Next week i am going to teach English to Turkish students, I heard they abuse the teacher’s being kind to them, so you need to be serious. Is that right?

  • By turklis1, October 9, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

    I wouldn’t say that’s true. Culturally, teachers are serious, so if a teacher isn’t serious, then it logically follows that they aren’t seriously a teacher :) . It’s the common idea that learning shouldn’t be fun or interesting. It has to be boring to be learning! You just have to highlight why that assumption is false.

  • By Yagut, October 10, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    Thank you for answering. Let’s see how it is gonna work today with my Turkish students :) first class is at 10.40 am. Looking forward to seeing them really :)
    I think i will need more info about them :) so will keep in touch :)
    Regards,
    Yagut.

  • By Tosh, February 4, 2012 @ 6:50 am

    This site deserves good comments

  • By Zahra, April 22, 2012 @ 7:35 pm

    Great article!

    Very useful information for anyone considering becoming a teacher in Turkey like myself :D Thank you :)

    You mentioned some topics which need to be avoided in discussions, my questions is will I be able to teach wearing a headscarf? :/ I’m a bit worried now

  • By turklis1, April 22, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    Hi Zahra,

    A non-Turk teaching English and wearing a headscarf! To be quite honest, I have never come across a similar situation. I truly do not know the answer. I suspect you would be met with a lot of curiosity, maybe some suspicion, and you may have to defend yourself in some institutions. However, I think it would come down to making a good choice about where you work. For example, Fatih University in Istanbul or any Gulen school like Coskun would be very excited to have you. Let me know how it goes.

  • By Liz F, September 13, 2012 @ 4:24 am

    This article hits the nail right on the head. I wish I’d found it a long time ago. It confirms much of my experience here and have been seriously doubting my ability to teach, despite having a DELTA. I think the worst part is the isolation that sets in with the miscommunication with management, and the feeling of having to do battle with anybody, which is not my nature. Many thanks again.

  • By David Richardson, October 11, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

    One small point:

    The difference between ‘the family is …’ and ‘the family are …’ isn’t a UK/US thing. It’s more a question with any collective noun about whether you’re seeing the body in question as acting as one unit, or acting as a collection of individuals.

    One example of the difference which works for soldiers is:

    A. The army is advancing.
    B. The army are walking across the bridge.

    When bodies of soldiers march across bridges, they have to break step to avoid setting up a sympathetic vibration which can actually destroy the bridge! They thus have to walk across bridges as individuals, rather than as a unit (which is how they advance).

    Another example is:

    A. The committee is making that decision today.
    B. The committee are eating lunch at the moment.

  • By turklis1, October 12, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    That’s true. Brits and Americans tend to view some nouns differently based on your info above.

  • By Burda, November 20, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

    Fantastic article, I’ve been teaching here most of this year but still very much learning how to do my best for the students.

    This article will help a lot

  • By emine, December 11, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    Hi,I am a student of ELT in Hatay.Also before becoming a student in Elt I stayed in the states for some time and acquired the english over there.I choose the word ‘acquired’because I did not go to school or anything.I learned by myself,by living.
    After starting the university I saw first hand how students respond to education system.I am sorry but ? have to say that Turkish education is not fun or enjoyable.And teachers have the biggest part on this effect.So if students are afraid to answer, it is mostly because of the teachers.I think if learning were to be made fun,activity based,and self rewarding students will respond to it better.
    Right now even at university level students are still afraid of raising their hands because they will make a mistake.That says a lot for their psychology.
    So if you are teachers who works in Turkey or is going to work in Turkey,please don’t be afraid toreach out to your students.Please use CLT techniques and invite them to be active in class.
    Thank you from their behalf.

  • By turklis1, December 12, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    You are right Emine. The behavior of teachers in the classroom and overall educational environments have a huge impact. Thank you for your comment.

  • By Eliz, January 28, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

    Hi there!
    Great article on Turkey and Turkish people:) Just a small note. Not all young people live with their parents. Most now share flats together and PREFER to live on their own..If families are wealthy, they can really get to do whatever they please.:) Depends if the family is conservative or ‘modern’, meaning Westernized:) All the best!

  • By Jacqueline, February 17, 2013 @ 9:58 pm

    This is truly an amazing find – thank you for the succinct grammatical explanations and cultural advice. I’m a new ESL teacher (female) and while I’m not IN Turkey, a good number of my students are male, Turkish teenagers. I’m one semester in and had a really rough time of it the first few weeks but after awhile I figured out that once I proved my competence and my complete disinterest in starting up anything romantic, I managed to gain their respect and what initially seemed like a vaguely misogynist minefield with ADHD turned into a relatively well-behaved group.

Other Links to this Post

  1. Chalk vs. Tablet: Can FATIH Project Revolutionize the Turkish Education System? — February 21, 2012 @ 2:48 am

  2. » Chalk vs. Tablet: Can FATIH Project Revolutionize the Turkish Education System? Soliloquy. — June 10, 2012 @ 8:55 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

WordPress Themes