Blog of Andrés Aravena

Should I learn Turkish? What is best for the University?

24 November 2019

Some people ask me why I do not learn Turkish. It is a good question. For sure, it will be good for me. I would be able to speak about football with the butcher, discuss politics with my father-in-law, and read my collection of Matematik Dünyası magazine. But, what is best for our University?

When the language is important, institutions and companies pay for a course. Our University has a Language Department that can teach Turkish to foreigners. I expected to get a proposal to follow at least a basic course. The classes are only at office hours, so it should be an academic decision. My job would be to learn Turkish.

Since I never got such an offer, I realized that there is a reason for it. First, speaking Turkish is not part of my job description, but speaking English is. The Faculty has begun to teach in English, as a way to improve the education of our students. This makes perfect sense. All the good universities in Turkey teach in English, do seminars in English, and work in English. If you go to seminars at Koç, ITU, Boǧazici, Sabanci, Gebze Technical University, Hacettepe, or METU, you will see that everybody there speaks English. These departments also have foreign academics. Researchers that speak English can access up-to-date knowledge, and they can interact with collaborators abroad. These are necessary steps for being a relevant agent in international science.

Moreover, there are many Turk researchers abroad, speaking very good English, and willing to return to Turkey. But the authority decided to hire me instead. Then I understood the reason: Turks naturally speak Turkish, and that is not good for the University. My contribution to the Faculty is to encourage and to promote the usage of the English language, every day and in every instance.

Through time, different languages have been used to communicate knowledge and discovery. One of the first ones was Arab, as we can see in star names and astronomical terms. Latin was important in Europe, and we still use it for the taxonomy of life. Newton wrote his books in Latin. Einstein wrote in German, Curie in French, and Kolmogorov in Russian and German. After the second world war, German was no longer used in science, and after the end of the Soviet Union, Russian was also left behind. Today English is the only language of science.

According to Ethnologue (published by SIL International), the languages with most native speakers are Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and English. These languages are spoken by 23% of the world population. Turkish is the 13th place, with a little over 1% of the world population. The same study ranks languages by total number of speakers, natives or second language. English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French, Arab, Bengali, Russian, and Portuguese are spoken by at least 200 million each. Turkish is spoken by less than 80 million people. Since I already speak English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and a little Catalan, it seems like I should better learn Mandarin Chinese and Arab. These are probably the languages of the future.

I was hired as a part of the plan of becoming the best Faculty of Sciences of Turkey. This is super important because only the best scientific teams survive. The budget for science is reducing in most countries, and good science is done only in a few places. The best research centers are advancing fast. We need to run just to stay in the race.

The University authorities hired me to contribute to the Faculty development. In particular, my job is to speak English and to promote the usage of the English language in our Department and Faculty. This is my job, not to learn Turkish. Do you agree?