Azerbaijan International

Winter 2003 (11.4)
Pages 61-62

Pursuit of English
Journey 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 tutorial.

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 Mahir, 4.

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 that time.

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 interpreter.

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 U.S.
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 theirs.

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!

Lifetime Friends
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 own.

Our son was born in the States, and later I graduated with a Master's degree in International Management from the University of Maryland.

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 English.

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 Dad!

Janana Suleymanli lives in Hong Kong with her husband Sajjid Pasha and son Mahir, age 4. Contact her:

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