Azerbaijan International

Winter 2001 (9.4)
Pages 70-73

A Way with Words
Azerbaijanis Eager to Learn Languages
by Jala Garibova

Jala Garibova
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.

In lieu 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 students.

Azeri youth
Left: The Azeri youth of today have many more opportunities for learning foreign languages, especially European languages.

I remember 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.

Eastern Languages
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 Abroad
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 Soviet era.

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 Speakers
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 for parties.

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.

Language Labs
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 lab.

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.

More Languages
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.

New Textbooks
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 skills.

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 ideology.

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 very well.

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 Russian.

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.

Essential Skills
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 short years.

Jala Garibova 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 Click on LEARNING AZERI.

Azerbaijan International (9.4) Winter 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2002. All rights reserved.

Back to Index AI 9.4 (Winter 2001)
AI Home
| Magazine Choice | Topics | AI Store | Contact us

Other Web sites created by Azerbaijan International
| |