Winter 2001 (9.4)
A Way with Words
Eager to Learn Languages
During the Soviet period, many
Azerbaijanis didn't see any point in learning European languages,
as there was hardly any chance, other than in teaching, where
such knowledge could be used.
of the usual column, the "Sociolinguistically Speaking"
series, we decided to take a look at how language learning in
Azerbaijan has changed in the past ten years. While Azerbaijanis
have long understood the importance of studying foreign languages,
the methods they've used and the specific languages being studied
have varied. Today English and French are coming into vogue,
whereas Russian is becoming less dominant. Now, with access to
foreign TV programs and the Internet, plus the increase of foreigners
living in the Republic, Azerbaijanis have more and more ways
to soak up languages.
Jala Garibova has studied languages all of her life, starting
with Persian and Russian, and then moving on to English, French
and German. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Baku's Institute
of Foreign Languages (now the University of Foreign Languages)
and currently teaches linguistics at Western University. Here
she contrasts her own experience of studying foreign languages
with the wide range of opportunities that are available to today's
Left: The Azeri youth of today have many more
opportunities for learning foreign languages, especially European
the day I took my final exam in English. The head of the Examination
Commission, who was also the head of the Oil Academy's English
Department, called us in to announce our grades. Many of us had
received "good" and "excellent" marks. But
he told us: "These grades are very conditional. Don't think
that if you received a '5' (the highest mark), you really deserved
it. I bet nobody here knows how to say 'iyneni saplamaq' (to
thread a needle) or 'sachina sanjag taxmaq' (to fasten one's
hair with a hairpin) in English. You've read, translated and
repeated like parrots for years and years. But in fact, you don't
know how to express the most elementary things that you'll need
to know in real life." We were all rather taken aback by
his words, but what he said was true. We really didn't know how
to say some of the most basic things in English.
Thirty to 40 years ago, it was not as prestigious to study European
languages as it is today. The Soviet Union was a closed country
and had very limited contact with the European world. Many Azerbaijanis
didn't see any point in learning European languages, as there
was hardly any chance, other than in teaching, where such knowledge
could be used.
Teachers of other subjects were more highly esteemed than teachers
of foreign languages. Teaching physics, mathematics or chemistry
was considered to be very important, but teaching English, German
or French was viewed as almost useless.
I remember when I entered the Institute of Foreign Languages
in 1982, many of my friends and relatives were shocked. "Why
did you choose that Institute?" they asked. "Why didn't
you enter a more important field, such as mathematics or physics?"
But I loved languages and wanted to study as many as I could.
I decided to concentrate on English from a purely pragmatic point
of view. I figured there was more demand for teaching English
than there would be for French or German.
Many people thought that I should have continued studying Eastern
languages instead. During the Soviet era, the study of Eastern
languages was very prestigious in Azerbaijan. The Soviet Union
had several highly esteemed and well-known Russian Orientalist
scholars (especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow), such as Gordelevski,
Krachkovski (who translated the Koran into Russian) and Bertels.
The Department of Eastern (Oriental) Studies at Azerbaijan State
University (now Baku State University) was one of the most prestigious
academic departments in Azerbaijan. Established in the 1940s,
it offered Arabic, Persian and Turkish. In fact, Azerbaijan State
University was the only place that offered these Eastern languages.
Not many students were enrolled. For example, in the Azeri track,
about 20 students enrolled each year - roughly 10 studying Arabic,
6 studying Persian and 4 studying Turkish. The Russian track
was about half that size. Students tended to come from upper-class
or wealthy families. Since the university tried to maintain a
balance of students from working-class families, some applicants
from wealthy families used false documents to make it look like
they were from a worker's family just so they could qualify to
enter the department.
By the 1960s, Arabic and Persian were also being taught at four
or five of the more prestigious Azeri-track schools in the center
of Baku, beginning in the second grade at age seven or eight.
Young people from upper-class families often went to these schools.
Chance to Work
The greatest emphasis was placed on Arabic - and this, despite
the fact that in the 1920s and 1930s there had been a great purge
during Stalin's rule to destroy every document and book that
was written in the Arabic script. But after Stalin died in 1953,
the Soviet Union began to develop strong links with Arabic countries,
especially with Libya, Yemen, Algeria and Syria.
Azerbaijanis who graduated from the University's Department of
Eastern Studies had the chance to work as military translators
or interpreters. It was a good career move - one of the few that
enabled Azerbaijanis to get out of the Soviet Union to work abroad.
Interpreters were very well paid, earning about 10 to 15 times
as much as they would have made back in Azerbaijan. At the time,
buying a car was considered to be a luxury, not a necessity,
from the Soviet point of view. By working for two or three years
in an Arabic-speaking country, one could buy a car upon return.
Many students readily admitted that they had chosen the Eastern
Studies Department simply because they wanted to buy a Volga
- a Russian-produced car that was very prestigious during the
Translators worked mainly in the military sphere, although occasionally
they landed positions in commerce, economics or medicine. Students
enrolled in Eastern Studies - both young men and women - could
take military preparatory classes at a very high level. Upon
graduation, their diplomas specified that they had been trained
as military translators.
Persian was also a prestigious language in Azerbaijan, for many
of the same reasons. Graduates could go on to work in Iran, again
as military translators. They could also work at the Isfahan
Metallurgy Factory. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan
in 1979, there were opportunities for translators and interpreters,
since about 50 percent of the Afghan population speaks Dari,
which is very close to Persian and written in the Arabic alphabet.
Another advantage to studying Persian back then was that there
were a large number of native speakers from Iran teaching in
that field. For instance, my Persian teacher in elementary school
was an Azerbaijani from Iran. Many of these teachers had come
from Iran in 1945 and were members of the Tudeh [Communist] party.
Compared to Arabic and Persian, Turkish was less prestigious
- perhaps because Azeri, which is closely related, was also not
esteemed very much. Turkish wasn't offered by any of the secondary
schools and could only be studied at the University. In rare
cases, graduates in Turkish would be sent to Turkey to work at
a metallurgy factory.
Access to Native
As I was growing up, my language learning experience was based
on theory and books rather than direct contact with native speakers.
In fact, it wasn't until about two years after Azerbaijan gained
its independence that I had the chance to speak English with
a native speaker.
Sometimes we students would practice amongst ourselves, speaking
only in English to each other. Some of our teachers required
that we speak only English in class - any student who spoke a
word in Azeri would have to pay a fine, which would then be used
There were very few native speakers teaching at the Institute
of Foreign Languages at that time. I remember only one native-speaking
English teacher, and he or she would usually be assigned to the
Russian-track students, very seldom to the Azeri-track students.
There were hardly any exchange programs, summer courses or special
programs involving practice with native speakers. This would
have meant contact with the "imperialistic" world,
a disagreeable idea to those in the Soviet regime. Students of
the German Department were more fortunate. They could study in
the German Democratic Republic (former East Socialist Germany).
Still today, only a few students have access to practice with
native speakers. Each year, 50 or more Azerbaijani high school
students are selected to go to the United States for the FLEX
(Future Leaders Exchange) program, administered by ACCELS. Some
Azerbaijani university classes are taught by native English speakers;
private companies like Language Solutions and Web Academy also
offer language courses taught by foreign teachers.
During the Soviet era, watching foreign-language TV or radio
stations, or reading foreign language periodicals, was difficult
and in most cases, impossible. One of the few resources we had
for improving our practical language skills was the language
These labs had vinyl and cassette recordings of native speakers
reading texts, but the their speech was not patterned on normal
conversation. The recordings emphasized how each word or sentence
should be pronounced.
Students today have much more exposure to the English-speaking
world through TV, radio, the Internet and movies. As a result,
they seem to learn much more quickly. Of course they pick up
slang and obscene language in the process. For example, some
of them tend to use a lot of English swear words, expressions
that they would never dare use in Azeri or Russian.
Today almost every other family in Baku organizes private English
classes for their children. The going price for private lessons
in English is from $5 to $15 per hour, depending on the quality
of the teacher, which is quite a substantial sum given that the
average teacher earns about $20 to $40 per month.
Schools usually start teaching foreign languages in the fifth
or sixth grade, when the children are 11 or 12 years old. Some
schools start earlier. Older people are also studying English
these days, especially if they have plans to move or work abroad.
Even some people in their 40s or 50s study English. Perhaps they
don't become as fluent as the young people do, but it's a rather
amazing phenomenon to see how hard they try.
Students who have already acquired English are often eager to
learn other foreign languages. French in particular is in vogue
because of the great effort that the French Embassy has made
in providing classes and books these past five years. In terms
of aesthetics, French is perceived as a beautiful language. Also,
when Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in January 2001,
French received a big boost.
Those Azerbaijani students who have learned French, often take
up Spanish. Two to three years ago, Spanish starting becoming
very popular in Baku. Universities have started teaching it as
a foreign or even a second foreign language.
Some students are also learning German, especially if they want
to study or work in Germany. One helpful program is DAAD (Deutscher
Akademischer Austauschdienst), known as the German Academic Exchange
Service. DAAD has provided more than 400 academic scholarships
to Azerbaijanis since 1990.
Foreign-language textbooks from the Soviet era emphasized structure,
grammar, drills and exercises. For example, I remember my Oral
Speech Practice class. We used to have to develop topics like:
"My Favorite Writer", "Seasons of the Year",
"At the Theater", "The First Cosmonaut",
"My Native City" or "My Hobby". We were expected
to create a monologue. Of course, such topics weren't very inspiring
when it came to developing interactive speech.
We also read stories by Jack London to analyze new vocabulary
words, discuss translation issues, synonyms and usage. These
exercises were often rather bookish, loaded with complex sentences,
archaic expressions and literary words. Here and there we found
some dialogues, but again not enough to develop practical speaking
I also remember studying John Reed's "Ten Days That Shook
the World," about Red October and the Russian Revolution
of 1917. We were assigned to read Theodore Dreiser and Ernest
Hemingway - writers whose ideas were closely aligned to Soviet
These foreign-language textbooks had a very good system of exercises
and drills, with a thorough explanation of grammar and an extensive
interpretation of vocabulary. Theoretically they prepared us
Actually, Azerbaijanis have a very solid knowledge of the structure
of languages, a skill that often surprises native speakers, even
today. I have heard many foreigners compliment Azerbaijanis on
their knowledge of English grammar and phonetics.
In today's Azerbaijani schools, foreign language teaching methods
still haven't changed much from the grammar - translation method
of the Soviet era. This method - focusing on reading and comprehension
skills - consists mainly of learning new words, reading and translating,
repeating phrases and doing grammar exercises. These exercises
don't help improve one's creative language abilities.
But in some cases, especially with private tutors or classes,
Azerbaijanis have access to textbooks from the U.K. and the United
States. These foreign books teach practical language skills,
using dialogues to encourage interactive communication. The conversations
reflect real-life situations. The textbooks have colorful illustrations
that facilitate learning and make it more interesting. They usually
offer tape recordings to build listening comprehension.
Some foreign textbooks come to Azerbaijan via Iran. Actually,
it's quite amusing to page through the illustrations in these
books. If there's a picture of a woman with her head uncovered,
a censor will have drawn a chador (veil) over her head. Or if
there's a picture of a ballet dancer, they will have "covered"
over her legs with a black marker. Words like "wine"
and "champagne" are often replaced with "milk".
Learning Via Russian
One of the most significant advantages to having access to new
textbooks is that students no longer have to learn foreign languages
through Russian. As the official language of Soviet Azerbaijan,
Russian was taught in schools and universities, even though for
many of us, it was not our mother tongue.
Before Azerbaijan became independent, it was almost impossible
to learn English without knowing Russian first. This may sound
odd, but it's really true: there were very few dictionaries,
grammar books or other textbooks that didn't use Russian as the
medium to teach English. We didn't have textbooks imported from
English-speaking countries. All of the books taught English though
There were a few exceptions: the 2,000-word English-Azeri dictionary
compiled by English instructor Ismikhan Rahimov; "English
for First-Year Students" by Hajar Naghiyeva; and "English
Grammar" by Oruj Musayev, Vice Rector of the Institute of
Languages, who eventually went on to compile the first comprehensive
Azeri-English dictionary (1996).
Students who didn't know Russian were at an extreme disadvantage.
During the 1980s, more than 90 percent of the students at the
Institute of Foreign Languages were from Azeri-track, not Russian-track
schools. Many of them had come from outside of Baku, from the
regions of Azerbaijan. Those students had to master Russian before
studying any foreign language.
As I look back on my formal education in language learning, I
realize that one of the major drawbacks to the Soviet system
was a lack of focus on writing. We learned spelling, grammar
and vocabulary, but there was no emphasis on other important
aspects, like correct punctuation, clarity of expression, consistency
of thought, connecting the sections of a text, writing concretely
and concisely or drawing the reader's attention.
Even today, many of the graduates with fine verbal skills struggle
when it comes to producing written text. For example, they usually
have trouble sticking to the point. Sometimes they repeat the
same idea in two or three consecutive sentences, instead of combining
these sentences into one. They haven't been taught how to build
bridges between paragraphs.
In my opinion, the explosion that has taken place in learning
languages means that even today it's not enough just to know
English. In 10-20 years, potential employers will assume that
you have a knowledge of English. Everyone will be expected to
be fluent. Already these days, it's difficult to find a job with
a foreign company in Baku if you have only language and computer
skills. It just goes to show how much progress has been made
in the sphere of language learning in our country in these ten
is a Research Associate for Azerbaijan International and teaches
Linguistics at Western University. To read the archives of her
"Sociolinguistically Speaking" series, which teaches
Azeri expressions within their social context, visit AZERI.org. Click on LEARNING AZERI.
(9.4) Winter 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2002. All rights reserved.
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