The state of English in Higher Education in Turkey

In November, the British Council published a report entitled ‘The state of English in Higher Education in Turkey – A Baseline Study‘ which explored English language teaching and English-mediated education categorised as English-medium instruction (EMI), Content & Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), and English for Specific Purposes (ESP). One of the most large-scale of its kind ever conducted in Turkey, the report has broad implications for English language teaching and English-medium instruction at universities in Turkey. These might also be relevant for other developing countries. The findings are divided into five sections under the following headings: ‘International context: globalisation’, ‘national context: language of instruction’, ‘institutional context: language teaching programs’, ‘departmental context: English language teaching’, and ‘department context: English as medium of instruction’. In this post, I would like to reflect on several issues addressed in the first four categories.

The first section ‘International context: globalisation’ is mainly concerned with the league tables, ranking of Turkish universities, research performance, and internationalisation which is conceptualised as the number of international students and staff, their mobility and international collaboration. The key finding of this section, and at the same time that of the report overall is that “Turkey’s ‘English deficit’ is a major factor affecting the quality of higher education, restricting access to academic resources, international research publication and the mobility of staff and students” (p. 14). The report also concludes that two-thirds of Turkish universities can be considered as “research-inactive”. Though English deficiency is definitely a factor affecting all those areas, there are also other factors that can account for them. Universities are part of larger socioeconomic systems, and academics and students may not have full access to necessary facilities and resources in a developing country. As the report states, 56% (n=98) of universities that currently exist in Turkey have been founded in the last 12 years, so the majority of universities in Turkey now can be considered newly-founded. There is also a shortage of academics at universities in Turkey. In this climate, I believe that the report’s suggestion of “a periodic ‘research assessment exercise’ (RAE) [currently ‘the research excellence framework’ (REF) in the UK] of the kind carried out in other countries” (p. 42) may not be beneficial, at least in the short term. It is preferable to allocate funding and resources to universities and academic staff for continuous professional development, research and teaching purposes. There are already some initiatives and incentives for those. For instance, since 2006, Turkey has granted scholarships to approximately 1,000 students (per year) for graduate education abroad in return for obligatory service in Turkey.

The second section ‘National context: medium of instruction’ reviews English as medium of instruction (EMI), Turkish as medium of instruction (TMI), and mixed-medium (T-EMI) programmes at Turkish universities. Here I find the recommendation of introducing parallel TMI and EMI programmes very important, since this has the potential to be more successful than the other ones which have been identified as problematic for students and academics in the report. In parallel programmes, students are given the choice to access programmes and be assessed in either or both languages. This recommendation calls for further research into effectiveness of parallel programmes and maybe piloting them in other universities, as very few universities offer parallel programmes now. With regard to EMI, there is one striking finding in that “some EMI academics complained that they were ‘blackmailed’ into giving their EMI lessons in Turkish by students who threatened to give them poor feedback if they insisted on giving their lectures in English” (pp. 61-62). This suggests that there is tension between students and academics in relation to EMI. However, this situation may also be linked to wider issues of global higher education sector today. This section conflates the findings of state universities which provide free education and those of foundation universities which charge tuition fees. It might have been better if findings had been presented separately for two groups of universities. Arguably, foundation universities may have different academic culture from that of state universities.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson October 31, 1989

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
October 31, 1989

In the third section, the distribution and curriculum of English   language teaching in Turkish universities are examined. The key recommendation is the necessity to shift from English for General Purposes (EGP) classes to English for Academic Purposes (EAP) classes that should be specific to students’ disciplines. EAP teaching is one of the main weaknesses of Turkish universities. EGP is not very beneficial for students who are required to accomplish various academic tasks in English. In the UK universities, students, especially non-native English-speaking ones are usually offered tutorial service and/or in-sessional language courses that aim to improve their EAP skills. The report emphasizes the importance of discipline specificity for EAP courses and also recommends English for Occupational Purposes (EOP) course in the final year. Even though I am in favour of specificity in teaching EAP, this may not be possible in some contexts. English for Academic Purposes classes can equip students with transferable skills which students will be able to utilise in their degree programmes and in professional/work-place contexts. For instance, students who have given presentations in their EAP classes can use their foundational skills to make subject-related presentations in the future. The issue transferability of skills should be made explicit to students who have reportedly low motivation for English language classes. The report also recommends training English language teachers for EAP teaching at universities, which is likely to enhance EAP teaching.

The next section ‘departmental context: English language teaching’ addresses how English is taught at preparatory schools at universities. The report states that “the main problem in most English classes is the lack of student-student interaction” (p. 94) and “most teachers constantly miss opportunities to introduce student-student interaction in the classroom” (p. 111). From the perspective of both a student and a teacher of English, I can say that this is very difficult to ensure that students will have conversations/activities in English with their peers because many of them have not been used to activities that involve student-student interaction before starting university. As university examinations put a heavy burden on students at secondary level, there used to be little place for student-student interaction in English language classes. Although the system of university examinations and curriculum of English language classes have been changing, the development of student-student interaction may be slow in English language classes at university.

"The main problem in most English classes is the lack of student-student interaction," says the report.

“The main problem in most English classes is the lack of student-student interaction,” says the report.

Overall, the report provides a good overview of English language teaching practices and English-mediated education at Turkish universities. The fact that there has been little or no mention of relevant concepts, including English as a lingua franca, intercultural awareness, a bilingual/multilingual university in the report is unsurprising to me. As the report is a baseline study, future research might address these in more detail. The report in general raises a lot of questions, and they probably need to be examined in more context-specific studies to inform current practices.

Reflecting Back on Turkey’s Language Policies in 2014

In 2014, language policy was high on the agenda in Turkey. It is highly likely that the debates over language policy will continue in 2015, too. Turkey, where approximately 56 different languages are spoken, seemed to show resistance towards multilingual policies and regional languages under the nation-state ideology of monolingualism. However, this trend has been slowly shifting.

In 2012, an elective course called ‘Living Languages and Dialects’ (‘Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler’ in Turkish) was introduced as a pilot project at secondary schools in some cities. Within the scope of this course, five languages (Zazaki, Kurmanji, Abkhaz, Adyghe, and Laz) can be offered if there is sufficient demand. The recent news reports that the demand for these courses has been increasing, and the courses are getting more popular among secondary school students. In 2014, the Ministry of National Education appointed teachers for this course for the first time. Given that there are about 56 languages spoken in Turkey, the course does not represent linguistic diversity of Turkey in its current form. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the development of this course is a big step towards a more multilingual society, and there is progress in the implementation of linguistic rights. I hope that further progress will be achieved by increasing the number of languages offered.


There has been no change in relation to English language education at any level. The recent educational reform has brought English classes to second grade (as opposed to fourth grade before 2012) in primary public schools. Though public school pupils begin learning English earlier, they seem to lag behind their private school peers who mostly start learning English at kindergarten. According to the report published in 2013 by the British Council on ‘National Needs Assessment of State School English Language Teaching in Turkey’, although the majority of parents were satisfied with the Ministry of National Education’s reform whereby English language education would start at 2nd grade, the largest share of parents, 29%, stated that English education should start at nursery level. This could be just one of the reasons why English language education should remain at the top of the education reform agenda. In 2014, the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), which is the world’s most comprehensive ranking of countries by adult English skills, indicated that Turkey’s adult English proficiency remains very low even though the score has risen by 10.14 points over the past seven years, more than any other country in Europe. As English is undoubtedly the global lingua franca and language of science, every child deserves a high-quality English language education in Turkey. Therefore, I was expecting a further progressive step pertaining to English language education from the 19th National Education Council of Turkey’s Ministry of Education, but no proposal for a change in English instruction was put forward in 2014.

Perhaps the most contentious decision by the council was to bring forward a proposal towards the teaching of Ottoman language (Ottoman Turkish or Old Turkish) at high schools. The proposal has sparked off fierce debates about language policy, culture, and politics at both national and international level. This is an interesting change in education, but it is not very surprising because there has already been renewed public interest in the Ottoman Civilisation. The Ministry’s latest decision is to introduce compulsory Ottoman language classes at religious imam-hatip high schools and social science high schools. The Ottoman language will be an elective course at all other high schools. As I am not an expert on this topic, I won’t discuss this change in great detail. I could argue that this decision could be in line with the language revitalisation trends. A recent article suggests that political and economic gains could lead to language revitalisation. Hence, the political power could go hand in hand with language revival.

The poem 'Sidewalks' written in Ottoman Turkish by Necip Fazıl Kısakürek.

The poem ‘Sidewalks’ was written in Ottoman Turkish by Necip Fazıl Kısakürek.

It is known that language learning is beneficial not only for economic gains, but also for self-actualisation. Therefore, I believe that learning different languages is always useful. As it is seen, Turkey slowly embraces language diversity, and observing how these languages could play a role in Turkish society will surely be very interesting…

Englishisation of Higher Education

Last month, the British Council published an interim report entitled “English as a medium of instruction – a growing global phenomenon.” In cooperation with the British Council, Oxford University Department of Education is conducting research on the English-medium instruction (EMI) across the word. Needless to say, EMI is on the increase mainly driven by the economic reasons to compete with the Anglophone institutions. In relation to that report, the Times Higher Education regarded EMI as the “most significant internationalisation trend for higher education.”


I am very disappointed with the claim that English is the most important trend in the internationalization of HE. Internationalisation of HE may also mean multilingualism, multiculturalism, global social responsibility, intercultural communication and understanding, but English is found to steer the internationalization of HE. In her latest book, Jennifer Jenkins, professor of the Global Englishes, also found that English is equated with the internationalization of HE. In her study, Turkish universities that offer English-medium instruction also provide evidence for that.

For seven years, I had English-medium instruction at Turkish public universities that had ties to the North American higher education system. I cannot deny the various benefits of EMI (please see Selvi (2014) for the extensive review of the EMI debate in Turkey). However, there can be a lot to lose at the expense of EMI which is a highly complex issue that can directly affect the quality of education, critical inquiry, (in)equality, language, culture and identity, but I will focus on just the language use in this post. I believe that EMI negatively influenced my first language skills. For instance, when I attended the 27th National Linguistics Conference at which all the talks were in Turkish last year, I felt as if the speakers had given their presentations in another language! I learned all the linguistic terms in English, and many of them are still unknown to me in Turkish. 


Another important consideration is the way that English is promoted at the universities. English language policy mostly sticks to native-English norms instead of English as a Lingua Franca or Global English. In terms of the expectations about students’ English, one of the Turkish academics, who works at an English-medium institution, says:

I expect their English to fully conform to native academic English. I expect [them] to have mastered the language and be able to perform at the level of a native speaker.” (Jenkins, 2013, p.133)

Though this response cannot reflect other Turkish academics that work at English-medium universities, it was very striking for me in that a non-native English speaking academic could expect his/her students to “perform at the level of a native speaker.” Apparently, there is no tolerance for other varieties of English, let alone questioning the role of English as the medium of instruction at the university. In this sense, English is more likely to be associated with Anglicisation of higher education rather than internationalisation. Actually, non-Anglophone institutions might have an advantage over Anglophone institutions by offering Global English or English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) in this globalised world where approximately only 20% of all the English speakers are native. Non-Anglophone institutions seem to lose this opportunity and try to replicate Anglo-American norms in non-English speaking countries.

The increase in English-medium instruction appears to be inevitable across the world. It is important that this policy also includes promoting different varieties of English. This should occur not just because universities aim to attract more students, but also they value and accept diversity. I hope that English language policies in non-Anglophone institutions will also embrace multilingualism and cultural diversity, together with ELF in order to become truly international…


Jenkins, J. (2013). English as a lingua franca in the international university: The politics of academic English language policy. London: Routledge.