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Image for Turkey: Will learning French bring Turks more freedom?

Turkey: Will learning French bring Turks more freedom?

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Translation by:

Anna W.


In a country whose security and economy has been weakened by recent attacks, an increasing number of people in Istanbul are choosing to learn new languages in a quest for stability and revival. The French language is especially popular, seen as a vehicle of liberation for young, fashionable Turks.

“Well as long as it doesn’t go too smoothly! When everything is going well, I lose money!” French teachers are overheard saying, sitting around a table talking. Even though they’re laughing, there is some truth to this sentence. Between attacks and purges, more and more people from Istanbul are turning to the French language – and, by extension, France – in search of security. The worse the situation is in their own country, the stronger their desire to go elsewhere. Does that mean that France and the French language have become a booming business?

Social and financial insecurity

In 2016, the number of people leaving Istanbul (440,889) was higher than the number of people entering (369,582). The reason? Between the 1st of January 2016 and the 1st of January 2017, the city was shaken up by six attacks, resulting in 112 deaths and an attempted coup d’état. 2016 took a toll on Turkey’s national spirit, for its citizens as well as its government. This year, with the launch of Operation Olive Branch in Syria on one hand and the Turkish government’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies (dismissals in public administrations, mass arrests of journalists and political opponents, and an extension of the state of emergency) on the other, Istanbulites – and Turks in general – are still in search of security. Faced with the economic crisis that is shaking up the country, and with the value of the Turkish Lira still in free-fall, learning a new language seems to be the preferred solution of the capital’s residents. Well, at least for those who have the financial means to ensure their safety as their families’.

All the clichés

The way we view France, as fashionable, revolutionary, sophisticated and prestigious, has been a contributing factor in turning its language into a marketing tool. Celebrities such as Okan Bayülgen – a Turkish TV personality who participated in the Gezi Park protests of 2013, marching side by side with protestors before eventually changing course and distancing himself from the movement – tend to reinforce this image. Marc *, the headmaster of a school providing French lessons and tutoring, recalls the moment this fad became a reality: “One day, the son of a very famous singer came to see us. He is also a singer, but he’s not as well known as his father. His manager had told him that it would be a good idea for him to learn French, in order to come across as stylish and intellectual.”

Authoritarian tendencies and the monitoring of education

An intellectual and revolutionary image is only a small step away from a means of opposition. Since the attempted coup in July 2016, the government has been struggling relentlessly against the Gülen movement. Its leader, Fetullah Gülen, is a fierce opponent of President Erdogan and is currently living in exile in the United States. The Gülen community, which is active in many levels of society, represents a true parallel state (named FETÖ by the Turkish government), and also participates in the education system.

What’s more, the political opposition has financed private establishments within Turkey, known as the ‘schools of the Gülen movement’. These schools are free, allowing families that are not as well off to have access to education. They exist all around the world and are linked by means of an international network, which some people argue is how soldiers are initially recruited and trained to fight for Gülen’s cause. To compare, the French college Pierre Loti costs around 6,000 euros per year, a private French-Turkish bilingual school around 10,000 euros, and the American institution Robert’s College borders on 20,000 euros.

As a consequence of the attempted coup d’état, all schools financed by the leader of the opposition were forbidden, and other establishments – which are not part of the Gülen movement, but often grouped together with it – have been closed or reformed by the Turkish government. Taking into account the complete closure of private schools, redundancy, re-organisation and change to the curriculum, it is fair to say that teaching has been heavily affected. Texts by the likes of Spinoza and Camus have been denounced by the executive body as propaganda tools, and have been censored. As for heads of schools and public universities, government representatives have replaced them, and all existing civil service workers are subject to an inquiry that can last up to six months.

It’s never too early…

There are many factors that drive privileged families towards private and international schools. Some children are still splashing around in the bathtub while others have already learnt to count on their fingers. “We’ve had parents calling us to arrange a teacher for their 3- or 4- year-old child. The youngest student we ever had was an 18 month old baby!”

According to Marc, this is premature, but it makes sense. He explains that parents hope to send their children to Pierre Loti (the French college in Istanbul that welcomes around 1,300 students every year) as a way of escaping the Turkish identity crisis, which is causing education to suffer. “We believe that the French education system is more open and liberal than other education systems, especially when compared to public (and even private) Turkish schools,” explains Tugba, the mother of Derya, a two and a half year old boy on the Pierre Loti waiting list. “For Hasan (her husband, ed.) and I, a French-style education is more important than an education in the French language. This nuance is very important: the French way of thinking develops a certain curiosity and openness to art, philosophy and science, which are key to a child’s cognitive development,” she clarifies. Marc expands on this: “In fact, parents ultimately believe that if their children can speak French, they will be able to send them to the best universities.”

… Nor too late.

The path from high school to college strongly influences, and even determines, university options for young Turks. Their points system is similar to the French system; it is the final mark for their course that determines whether prospective students will get into a prestigious university or not.

The most prized students are often those who are bilingual in English and Turkish, or in French and Turkish, which explains the importance of having had access to a bilingual education. “French is still seen as a highly prestigious language, associated with a university that preserves its very good reputation,” explains Astrid, a professor of French as a foreign language at the Galatasaray University, one of the most prestigious universities in Istanbul. “Also, I’m not certain that students ‘choose’ the French language. The points-based entrance exam decides for them. Based on their results in the exam, the students may choose one university or the other,” she adds. “It often happens in this grade system that Galatasaray comes after Boğaziçi University. So many students are not actually choosing French (preferring the prestige of the language itself, ed.). That being said, the majority of students remain motivated by their learning and work hard in class,” she continues.

A major professional asset

First choice or not, it’s always the foreign language schools which are classed at the top of the list, and which assure students a more certain future in Turkey or abroad. “I want to be a researcher in North Africa or the Middle East, and that’s why learning French is so important for me,” Baki explains in his classroom, days before leaving for a language study holiday to Paris. His classmate adds: “There are lots of French companies in Istanbul, like Decathlon and Carrefour. Speaking French gives us the opportunity to work for them, and then potentially be relocated. And even if that doesn’t work out, French is still a plus. Some banks and businesses offer a higher salary to employees who speak a second or third language, so why not.”

“If I ever leave, it will be because of a genuine desire to go, rather than a fear of staying.”

Ilgin, who has just finished studying theatre in Montpellier, seconds Baki’s hopes. Studying in France has allowed her to return to Turkey in a much better position. “If you asked me right now if I wanted to leave, I’d say yes. In France I can live my dream. But there are always problems with ID and money. It’s expensive there, too” she laments. After giving up on her dream of becoming an actress in France, as it was too costly, the 29-year-old started working in a Franco-Turkish primary school where she teaches today. “There’s no budget for theatre in Turkey. It’s hard to create acting workshops here like the ones I did in France; no one is interested. I needed money and I found a job here easily. I spent two years as a theatre teacher in a public school, then another four years in a private school.” She continues: “I love working with children, their imagination is just overflowing.” It was a great opportunity for her, then, in a country where the unemployment rate stood at 11% in 2017. She concludes, with an air of wisdom: “When politics and security here become unstable, I’m scared and I want to leave. But once I get past that fear, I want to stay. I love Turkey. If I ever leave, it will be because of a genuine desire to go, rather than a fear of staying.”

In the current climate, dominated by private schools and prestigious universities, Molière’s language seems to be more of a ‘means to an end’ than an end in itself for its learners. The French language is a multi-functional tool that is gradually transforming itself not only into a real business opportunity, but a way of making life easier in Istanbul (or making it easier to leave Turkey altogether). Mais en français, s’il vous plaît!

Translated from  Turquie : le français sauvera-t-il les Turcs ?