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.