We all know the importance of speaking a foreign language, but are we aware of the opportunities we have wasted so far? Language has a huge influence on the way societies think, act and determine their future interactions as a means of their self-expression.
Politics, in broader terms, is strictly regulated by our worldviews and culture, which are reflected by the language we speak. The language we speak, however, somehow imprisons us in a certain way of thinking, resulting in the missing of realities happening outside this box.
In this article, I am going to focus on how ignoring foreign language education impacts Turkish politics, and try to set out an agenda for the future.
Correlation around the globe
First, speaking a lingua franca allows us to connect with the world through first-hand experiences. Those who do not have this opportunity are at the mercy of translators, and they can only understand the world by how it is presented to them.
Translators do not live in ivory towers and they have political views, but they do their best to be neutral. Even a single word choice, however, can lead to division and misunderstanding. Our favorite conservative author might be a quiet liberal person with strong commitments to social democracy, which in turn, could lead you to believe in an illusion.
It is human nature to explain things by dividing them into suitable categories such as A, B and C, but what if you do not fit into any and want to create your voice for the future?
Second, knowing a foreign language creates awareness about the elan of life. That is, individuals who know a foreign language consciously follow what is going on around the world and raise their voices by using the most effective means.
In particular, the Muslim world has been suffering greatly because of the prejudices and unfair behaviors they have come across for literally hundreds of years. Being a member of this noble community, I must confess that we always criticize the Western world and whine about misunderstandings and barriers between us. We need to realize, however, that it is impossible to explain ourselves clearly without following the rhythm of life. Having pure and good intentions does not necessarily result in compromise unless advocated by intellectuals with intercultural competence in international encounters.
We, the Turkish nation, traditionally have boasted about the strategic position of our country, uniting Europe and Asia, and we are also rightfully proud of our hospitality. In my opinion, however, we are not very open to the realities in the world. We try to sympathize with oppressed people everywhere but fail to mobilize international cooperation that will provide sound solutions to the ongoing problems in the world.
Next, we are witnessing Turkey’s rise as a regional power today, and we have a promising infrastructure and the talent to extend this opportunity to a global level. However, by not supporting our country’s mission with a universal outlook, our achievements will not embrace the whole world and that poses a serious threat.
So we need to ask this question: Do we have enough educated people who can shoulder such projects at a global level? In my opinion, the answer is not clear. We have many talented and educated people but they do not speak a foreign language.
Unfortunately, a huge majority of university graduates do not speak a foreign language in Turkey, and this results in a huge waste of potential. Thinking about all the public and private organizations and their staff, an international visitor will be really surprised by this monolingual and unusual way of life. This is a serious problem, and we need to take immediate actions to equip the next generation with a working level of English even before they start their university education.
To give more specific examples, we can think about our problems at the international level. Are we successful in eradicating claims about Islamophobia? While the world has gone crazy in associating Muslims and terror, particularly since 9/11, Turkey stands as an outstanding example where Islam, democracy and human rights merge in a cradle of civilization. We speak with a relatively weaker voice, however, when standing up for our rights on global issues.
On the other hand, our universities are suffering in terms of their success on a global scale. Since the majority of Turkey's academics do not speak a foreign language, their valuable contributions are underestimated among international scholars, resulting in less prestige than expected, and because of the writing differences among cultures (See Robert Kaplan, "Cultural Thought Patterns"), the translations of their research papers are not accepted by prestigious journals.
Hegemony or not?
Throughout history, language has been a symbol and a reflection of power among empires. The more these empires invested in spreading their mother tongues, the longer they stabilized their hegemony on their subjects. Looking at colonial powers, one cannot ignore the crystal clear reality: Even if they occupy a territory for 50 years, their presence lasts much longer once it is supported by language inducement. A stronger alternant is language imperialism, where the use of a local dialect over time is used to eradicate cultural heritage within several generations.
At this point, we need to ask a critical question: Why did the Ottomans, our lovely ancestors who ruled the four corners of the world for centuries, leave nothing behind in terms of the Turkish language once they pulled back?
My point here is not to support language imperialism. The Ottomans did not colonize any nation. They allowed them total freedom for their language, religion and other cultural values, but at least the Turkish language could have been supported for an everlasting cultural presence.
Today, Turkey's power is growing every day, and new opportunities appear on the horizon. With the most honorable intentions, far from hegemonic tyranny, the Turkish language must be supported by all means at our traditional geography of the heart.
The current Yunus Emre Institute (YEE) has gained momentum and is doing great work, but this is not enough considering the land available for cultivation. Turkish TV series are followed by millions of people worldwide who are ready to learn more about our language and culture.
Reaching these people and encouraging the use of the Turkish language in these lands will build bridges between hearts and secure everlasting relationships. On the other hand, we must take the necessary steps to equip our students with a working command of English before they start undergraduate education.
In turn, this will allow them to collaborate more on international projects and represent both Turkey and marginalized, tired, sad Middle Eastern countries with a stronger vision for the future.
* Assistant professor in the English Language Teaching Department, Hatay Mustafa Kemal University
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