As a litmus test, we asked language learners whether the political turmoil in Turkey has changed their desire to learn Turkish.

Only a couple of years ago, Turkey was heralded as the “China on the Bosphorus”. The economy was booming and investment firms waxed lyrically about Turkey’s growth gleefully adding the country to a investment vehicles known as the CIVETs. All the while, Government agencies in Europe and America were encouraging domestic companies to consider Turkey as a engine of “future growth”.

Turkey has long been known as the gateway between East and West. In more recent times, this prime location became even more important in terms of, firstly, logistics for multi-national businesses and, secondly, in terms of strategy in the geopolitical ‘grand chessgame’ as Halford Mackinder named it.

In 2013, we began the HandsOnTurkish project, co-funded with support with the European Union, to develop up-to-date Turkish language learning materials so that Europeans can improve their linguistic skills and boost their cross-cultural understanding. The aim is that they will then be in a stronger and more confident position to deal with Turkish business and ultimately harness the growing economic power.

Turkish is considered to be a ‘high-context culture’ (E.T. Hall), so a solid grasp of the language and culture will help European staff and businesspeople in business negotiations by improving the chances of success through better communication and mitigating potential costly misunderstandings.

However, it has been not even three years since the project began and in the meantime, much has changed in Turkey! Many of these changes were unexpected: some external factors and others, internal.

The demand for Turkish language learning materials

The Turkish language learning market is considered small compared to the dominant and popular European languages such as French and Spanish. Turkish also has strong competition from other growing markets such as Arabic and Chinese. But with Turkey’s close vicinity to Europe, a growing economy and the increasing sphere of influence, the demand for Turkish was slowly growing. As John Feffer put it: to stay ahead of the curve, teach your kids Turkish.

To meet this need, there has also been the rapid expansion of Turkey’s cultural arm – the Yunus Emre Institute. The Institutes have suddenly popped up in all major capital cities offerring a wide range of cultural and language related services.

It is presumed that the Yunus Emre Institute – just like the British Council – will be catering for this new demand in Turkish but, quite crucially, the institute will also be responsible for “creating demand” – a key tool in the expansion of Turkey’s soft power.

Recent events in Turkey

Still in everybody’s memory is the attempted coup. However, the coup comes after a long list of tragic events:

  • Numerous terror bombings in Istanbul and Ankara;
  • increased tension with the KRG,
  • tension with the EU regarding the on-going refugee crisis from Syria, Iraq and beyond;
  • tension with Russia after shooting down a jet (which Turkey has since apologised for);
  • crackdowns on journalistic freedoms;
  • a short-term collapse of the Turkish Lira
  • … and the hullaballoo of Erdogan trying to prosecute a German comedian for a dreadful “poem”.

For tourists and investors, a terrorist attack can somehow be rationalised as a sporadic, rare and unfortunate event – like lightening striking – and that such extremely rare events won’t affect them.

The coup, however, will bring a shiver down any foreigner’s back with the thought of being potentially stranded in a foreign country with no idea what will happen, airports closed and the military in control.

The country’s stability has done little to reassure outsiders. Still fresh in people’s minds are the images of tanks, sandbags and soldiers blocking the iconic Istanbul bridges. Not to mention the almost unbelievable sight of President Erdogan (seemingly stuck in an elevator) broadcasting himself to the nation via Skype on a mobile phone held up to cameras in the newsroom.

Impact on Turkey

It comes as no surprise whatsoever that the tourist numbers to Turkey have utterly crashed. As reported in earlier articles, the tourism industry in Turkey is responsible for $20bn and up to 4% of Turkey’s GDP. Furthermore, over 2.5 million jobs in Turkey are at stake. It is worth bearing in mind that the terrorist attacks in Tunisia forced unemployment figures up by 30%.

Regarding the economy, even the Turkish Government announced that the recent coup is reckoned to cost the economy $300bn. As a result of the coup, S&P Global Ratings Agency have promptly downgraded Turkey’s rating to BB – that is, “two notches below investment grade”.

Impact on Turkish Language learning

In the light of the recent developments, we conducted an online poll to find out if this had any impact on language learners.

The poll was simply one question:

Has the recent political situation in Turkey affected your desire to learn Turkish?

There were three possible: more eager, less eager, no change.

56% of respondents said that there had been no change in their desire.
28% of respondents said that they were more eager to learn Turkish.
16% of respondents said that they were less eager to learn Turkish.

Of the respondents*, some wrote in privately with comments to qualify their choice.

One respondent indicated that since she had family connections to Turkey this gave her more determination to learn the language. Another wrote in to say that whilst her family in Turkey eager to leave, it’s increased her awareness of the language. Another respondent asked why the political change would change anything at all.

Around 65% of HandsOnTurkish learners are in employment and around 25% are in education (i.e. higher education). This is precisely the target group that HandsOnTurkish set out to cater for, i.e. developing Turkish language learning materials for vocational purposes.

Currently, about 70 – 80% of HandsOnTurkish users are Europeans / Westerners with just under 20% of them accessing the course from directly within Turkey. (It will also be interesting to monitor whether the latter figure drops as Europeans relocate out of Turkey). The remainder come from the Arabic-speaking world and a smaller percentage from beyond.

Analysis

Despite the turmoil, the figures are, on the whole, very promising with the vast majority of respondents unchanged in their desire to learn Turkish or, in fact, more eager. It would be fair to say that learners have committed to the language and anticipate the situation to resolve itself soon.

The breakdown of responses kept their ultimate proportions throughout the polling time period, which implies that the breakdown is indicative and representative.

From a critical point of view, it should be noted that the 16% who are now less eager represent a drop that the Turkish language simply cannot afford at this stage.

The HandsOnTurkish team have done a considerable amount of work to foster cross-cultural understanding between Turkey and the West. The European Union and the HandsOnTurkish team have invested a great deal in promoting the Turkish language. Given the recent events, there is only so much we can do. To boost the number of language learners and retain Turkey’s attractive image for tourism and investment will require a colossal investment into marketing and public relations from Turkey and its cultural arms.

* 96 respondents took part in this poll between the 9th of August and 16th of August.