Winter 2003 (11.4)
Pursuit of English
to a New World
by Janana Suleymanli
Gone are the days when
Azerbaijanis no longer need to know English like in the former
days when we were part of the former Soviet Union. Of course,
in the past, the Russian language was the "lingua franca"
that united our 15 republics. But life has changed. Knowing English
is critical to our future; in my situation, it has totally determined
the direction of my life.
The English Exam
Back in 1994, I got the chance to study abroad on a scholarship
exchange program in the U.S. for a year. I was among the few
Azerbaijanis who achieved high scores on the American-based exam
known as the TOEFL exam [Test of English as a Foreign Language].
Of course, preparing for that exam was extremely difficult back
in those days. There were hardly any tutorials or manuals to
assist us. It was only thanks to the American Embassy and the
personal efforts of Ellie Stimpson of USIS (United States Information
Services), which enabled students, like myself, to prepare adequately.
It was the first time that any of us in Azerbaijan had ever studied
in a language lab, which was set up in the library of the U.
S. Embassy. In the past, we had relied entirely on books and
never even had access to a native speaker.
Unlike today, there was no option to take the TOEFL exam on a
computer. The exam was offered only once a year. You had to pass
it or else wait for the next round, the following year. Nor were
there any trial sessions except those published in the TOEFL
After completing the multiple-choice exam, which also was a new
methodology for us, we had to write an essay: "Why do you
want to study in the USA?" I wrote about my impressions
in Disneyland, Florida, the summer of 1992 when I had interpreted
for the Azerbaijani team participating in the Special Olympics.
There I had met Eunice Shriver Kennedy who had worked so hard
to establish the Special Olympics movement, along with some members
of her clan, including son-in-law, body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger
(the new governor of California).
Left: Janana Suleymanli, whose quest to learn
English has taken her to the United States and Hong Kong, where
she currently resides with her husband Sajjid Pasha, and son
Opting for English
My interest in learning English dated back several years prior
to that. My parents had had the foresight to sit me down for
hours - no exaggeration - with none other than the Moscow Times,
which, in those years was the only English-language periodical
readily available in the Soviet Union. The other kids in our
apartment complex got to play in the courtyard, making me, an
11-year-old, extremely jealous. Now I realize that my parents
were, indeed, very wise. They anticipated what was in store for
Azerbaijan. The Soviet Union was just beginning to unravel at
I can still remember one of the conversations my father had with
my mother. He kept insisting that, unlike hundreds and thousands
of other school children, I did not need math or geography nearly
as much as I would need English.
My brother, Ilkin, who is seven years older, had somehow served
as an unwilling inspiration, as he had studied English at his
school, which had started introducing language instruction one
hour per day from primary school to graduation, 10 years later.
I remember being fascinated by Ilkin's dictionaries. They were
so full of strange-looking letters - especially for me, since
I knew only the Cyrillic script. How was it that those shapes
that didn't make any sense at all to me, could sound so beautiful
when pronounced as words?
Even though my brother never pursued a language career, his knowledge
of English has also served him well. A month ago, he was selected
from among thousands of applicants who were competing to work
in Saudi Arabia as medical doctors.
The luxury of learning English did not come cheap. We had to
choose between music, science, or languages. My parents tracked
down a private tutor - Israfil "muallim" (teacher)
- who turned out to be a very rare and fortunate find as he had
actually visited England and had even worked in Egypt as a military
Of course, practice makes perfect, and one cannot underestimate
the importance of being exposed to native speakers at early stages
in language learning. My experience mirrored that of other students
in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Most of our teachers had never
travelled abroad or, for that matter, had even ever spoken to
a native English speaker. To personally know any foreigners or
be keenly interested in foreign languages was highly suspect
and associated with the world of espionage. Nevertheless, it
is only from native speakers that one can truly master colloquial
English. Most of my teachers only knew "book English".
Studying In the
My U.S.-sponsored scholarship landed me at Murray State University
in Kentucky - in the heart of what is known as the "Bible
Belt". Since this was a conservative "dry county"
(meaning that no liquor was sold in public stores), many of my
school mates prided themselves that they came from a line of
true bootleggers and moonshiners, infamous for secretly brewing
their own whiskey. You can imagine what difficulties I had with
spoken English since my ears and tongue were more familiar with
British English. Living in the America's South where vowels were
stretched and word endings swallowed demanded a great deal of
patience, imagination and creativity - on my part, as well as
Constantly, I was asked to repeat what I had said because my
accent was not "quite" understood. How many times did
people raise their voices with me, believing that if they spoke
louder, I would be able to understand better!
Not only has English helped me academically, but it has made
me a lot of friends - lifetime friends. Upon return to Baku,
I landed a dream job with Halliburton International. It was English
that tied the knot between me with my husband whom I had met
at the American university. He had been a student there from
Bangladesh. Together, we have discovered amazing commonalities
between our two cultures. He saw me as a representative of a
fascinating country with a rich historical past - just like his
Our son was born in the States, and later I graduated with a
Master's degree in International Management from the University
The fact that the knowledge of a foreign language broadens our
horizons can hardly be argued. For sure, I could not have been
able to survive Hong Kong, where I live now, had I not known
Curiously, many of my friends here who are native English speakers
are a bit jealous that they speak only one language. By birth,
they feel they have been cheated. Now many of us are feverishly
trying to pick up Japanese, Mandarin or Spanish. I'll be starting
Mandarin this spring. I feel that I should be able to speak,
or at least understand, the language of the country where I'm
living. It's the only way to integrate and understand the mentality
of local people. Since I live here, it makes good sense to know
the language of the most populous nation in the world - no matter
how hard it may be to learn.
The Future of English
I believe that those young people in my Motherland who are persistent
and patient, and who are ready to sacrifice their free time for
the sake of deepening their knowledge of languages - those are
the ones who are going to prosper in life. English affords unique
opportunities to get involved in the Internet where the best
sites have been designed for those who know English. This language
provides access to on - line schooling at the best Western Universities
and opens up the whole world of international employment.
Of course, just a century and a half ago, people were sure that
French would be the global language since it was the language
of diplomacy. If Germans, God forbid, had succeeded during World
War II, there's no doubt that we would all be speaking Deutsch.
But since none of that happened, English has become a predominant
driving force in many areas including science, education, entertainment
and the job market.
What the future may hold, of course, is unknown. The rapid development
of Sino-Asian markets has spurred the growth of interest in the
languages of these nations. But one fact remains undisputed in
my mind - during the lifetime of my generation, no other language
can compete with English in its popularity. It was something
my wise parents realized - nearly 20 years ago. Thanks Mom and
lives in Hong Kong with her husband Sajjid Pasha and son Mahir,
age 4. Contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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