Tug of war in Turkey leads to 'Tarzanish'

Selim Eyuboglu's native language is Turkish. He teaches film theory in a Turkish university to Turkish students. Yet he gives his graduate lectures in English.

"I don't feel completely comfortable in Turkish," he says.

Professor Eyuboglu also prefers that students submit papers in English. "I wouldn't know how to write properly in Turkish so I wouldn't want to judge it," he says. Many students don't complain since they too were educated in English.

As in other countries, English is infiltrating the native language here. In the past few years, Turks have started to pepper their conversations with foreign words and phrases, and are starting to use English grammar and constructions with Turkish words. Many young people want to learn foreign languages - especially English -to connect with Western culture, to be able to study and work abroad, and to land lucrative jobs.

"The trend is to open schools in English," says Cem Alptekin, dean of the education school at Bogazici University, the premier English-language university. "When you say 'English,' it attracts."

English-Turkish face off

But in all of the excitement over English, the Turkish language is struggling. Foreign words and phrases are chipping away at proper Turkish terms and usage. Because Turkish is not spoken at the best high schools and universities, even the elite are losing their grasp of the language's finer points. And as more Turks become increasingly removed from their native language, it's creating a testy debate among academics and others.

Some experts argue that students who live with one language but study in another never learn either well enough to express themselves. "In Turkey, if you want a good job, you have to learn a foreign language," says Gursel Ugurlu, head of the English department at Sultan Fatih, a private high school in Istanbul.

But, he adds, "if students start to learn in the foreign language from an early age, then they can't learn their native language. It's difficult to have it both ways."

For Turkish children, concern over the future starts at age 14, when they take a national exam to determine which secondary schools they can attend. The best schools teach in English, German, or French, and are run by foreign governments or privately.

Upon entering, students spend a year immersed in language study. After that, all the texts and classes are in the foreign language -further alienating these students, many of whom will end up in leadership positions, from their native tongue.

But even that level of preparation doesn't always mean students are ready for English instruction at the university level.

"Here it's kind of weird," says Mr. Alptekin of Bogazici. "You have your basic Turkish, then are exposed to formal English."

Some argue that a crash course is not sufficient for students to dive into advanced texts and to discuss complex topics such as philosophy.

Because most professors are not native speakers, even their English is not perfect. "One of our teachers used to pronounce foreign 'forRAIN,' " says Meric Soylu, a young graduate of Bogazici. "Then you get to the States and people there are like, 'What does forRAIN mean?' "

Meanwhile, students are not required to read or write Turkish, and those skills are never developed at a higher level. The result is graduates who speak what education experts are calling "Tarzanish," a mixed-up version of both languages that allows expression in neither. "After all this, you find out you're not so great in English and not so great in Turkish," says Elif Gulen, a graduate film student at Bilgi University in Istanbul.

To smooth over their English, many university graduates study with private tutors. Yurdanur Salman, a linguist in Istanbul, is one person they come to for help. She says that Turkey has a "colonial mentality" and its people consider their own language inferior.

"People feel more valuable if they speak bad, broken English than correct Turkish," she says. "It has to do with the great blind admiration for anything Western."

Ms. Salman says she believes strongly in the importance of learning foreign languages, but not as a replacement for Turkish. "The clearest channel to learning is one's native language," she says. "I ask my students, 'Is there a language called Turkish? OK, then let's use it.' "

Dictionaries fall behind

But as less is written in Turkish, proper terminology becomes harder to find. Turkish dictionaries used to be continually updated by the Turkish Language Association. But that institution was closed after the 1980 military coup, and the language is now left without a guardian.

Even the everyday language is being transformed by foreign, mostly American, television and movies. The dubbing or subtitles directly translate English so that the Turkish does not make sense. Yet newly adapted phrases such as "to take a cab" or "to take a shower" are catching on.

The government has taken one countermeasure with a recent law designed to limit the number of universities that instruct only in English. New universities that teach in a foreign language are required to offer an equivalent program in Turkish. However, practically speaking, the law is being ignored. English-only universities continue to open and flourish.

Murat Bicak, a young scriptwriter, says his writing group works at using correct Turkish for their TV show. He says he cringes when he hears people throwing in foreign words or speaking Turkish with an American accent for effect.

"Some people automatically think, 'If it's English, it's better,' " he says. "But this is a sick mentality. This is my language and it's important to me to be able to communicate in it properly."

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