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A Nation’s Experience of Learning English

In recent times, English has become somewhat of a lingua franca and learning the language has become an important part of most curricula and is often essential to finding a job. But, as InterNations member Ayhan knows, there is more to cross-cultural communication than just language skills.

It is very interesting how people of different non-English speaking countries have different attitudes and motivations about learning and speaking English, especially as it has become the global language. These individuals who are eager to learn the English language often have a unique attitude and share motivational characteristics that have shaped societies’ competence in the global world through diversity, as well as through communication with foreigners at weddings, during work assignments, at school or even just while visiting foreign countries.   

Learning a Second Language

I believe some of you have witnessed the challenging period when society developed a new way of understanding the benefits of learning English in your own country. I witnessed the atmosphere in Turkey when Turkish society began to realize that to survive socially, multilingual skills are becoming a necessity. This was especially true between the 1980s and 2000s.

Private English education was a booming business, especially in Istanbul, where there were many opportunities, and it was becoming a fruitful and interesting option for English teachers to teach overseas. Government policies also supported English language learning. The Super High School, a new kind of high school was established, with better English education, and English became a mandatory subject at colleges and universities. People even began to measure the quality of schools by the quality of English education methods those could offer.

Years later, thousands of students graduated from high schools and universities with good marks in English, and they even tried to improve their English by taking private courses. The idea was that if you had good marks, then you were perceived as being good at English and/or even bilingual.

Becoming as Bilingual as You Can

By the 1990s proficiency in a foreign language, especially English, was already a must for resumes. The school marks weren’t enough for the business world. Employers were seeking applicants with high grades in international exams such as TOEFL or IELTS. They believed that if these applicants got good marks on these exams than they could be considered to be almost bilingual.

However, there was another important criterion — the accent. People believed, and the majority still does, that to have a proper accent from any area of an English-speaking country, makes a person even more bilingual.     

Many young students and professionals worked really hard and spent a lot of money to accomplish all these goals, and this kind of attitude and motivation made learning another language, a tool with many benefits. A tool for success at school, a tool for being hired by a good company, moreover a tool for social prestige and assumed superiority.

The Challenges of Cross-Cultural Communication

But unfortunately, this was not sufficient to be prepared for effective intercultural communication and cross-cultural awareness with the ability to empathize and be open to new ideas. In the 2000s, it turns out that less than 10% of self-proclaimed bilinguals were able to engage in effective cross-cultural interaction with real confidence.

It is definitely important to be aware of why and how the natives speak English, especially for those who want to travel or move overseas and plan to communicate in English, in order to understand the local community and how they live.

Therefore, Turks who speak English are very eloquent and have a great command of the vocabulary, but it is important to remember that there may still be misunderstandings, especially in cultural terms and with regards to humour. These cross-cultural aspects of English are not taught and therefore it is a good idea to tread carefully at first, and to be equally aware of cultural differences — and humor. It may save you many misunderstandings, stress and unpleasant situations, especially at the very beginning of your adventure at your new destination.  

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