Azerbaijan International

Winter 2002 (10.4)
Page 32

Article from Summer 1994

A Brand New World
The Incredible Demand for English
by Firangiz Nasirova

The other day my neighbor came over and asked me to teach her son English. He's five. I was quite surprised and suggested that she might want to wait until he had learned Azeri and Russian better. But she insisted, saying she wanted to secure his future among the foreign companies when he grew up. When I apologized, saying that I had no time, she went away insulted.

Right now, the demand for English teachers is unprecedented in the history of our country. Unfortunately, we have very few experts, and this, despite the fact that many Azerbaijanis have studied English and have degrees. Many young people who used to teach English gave up long ago because the salary was so low. Many of our Russian, Jewish and Armenian experts have left the country. It's commonly known that in the past, many young women studied English, not for knowledge, but for diplomas that served as prerequisites for marriage. (The groom's family would be impressed by the implied social status.)

Below: Azerbaijan's first McDonald's opened in Baku in November 1999. And with it, new vocabulary based on English is entering the Azeri language.

It's also well known that many students used to bribe their professors and buy their diplomas. But that doesn't work any more. Times are changing: foreign companies insist on performance, not certificates void of meaning.

Russian used to be the state language. We studied Russian, Azeri and then English - in that order. I remember in 1970, one of my classmates was assigned to teach in a remote region in Azerbaijan. A year later, he returned to Baku, saying that he had taught only Russian and Azeri the entire year, as no one had ever attended his English classes.

But nowadays, parents are frantically searching for good English teachers. Private lessons are incredibly expensive. It's not unusual for good teachers to demand and receive 500-1,000 manats per hour (about US $1-2). Considering that the average professional salary might only be 10,000-15,000 manats per month, that's a very large sum to have to pay three times a week. Obviously, the average person cannot afford it.

Of course, there are many group courses available, but most of them have waiting lists. There's even an American/Azerbaijani joint venture, Etibar, that has opened English classes employing foreign teachers. Azerbaijani students are so proud when their teachers are American or British. Another revolutionary idea for our country is that Khazar University, a private institution, offers classes in all disciplines in English.

This enthusiasm for English permeates the entire society. For example, I've been asked by an accountant, a cook and a driver to write down some English phrases. The young driver was especially keen to learn how to say, "I love you!"

Prior to our independence, when the invisible Soviet walls hindered travel to and from our country, English instruction focused on reading and writing. But now, everybody wants to learn how to speak. There has been an influx of foreign oil-related companies, associations, construction companies, international banks and embassies. There's a great need for translators who speak good English, Azeri and Russian. Even Azeri institutions such as Khazar are looking for staff who know English; for example, we need a librarian with computer skills, a physician conversant in medical English, an economist familiar with international banking affairs - all of them proficient in English.

It's no secret that the standard of living in Azerbaijan is presently very low because of the war. We're forced to economize on everything. But we shouldn't shortchange education like we used to under the former regime. Our intellectual development is essential for self-development. And we must think of future generations. We need enormous help with English, including access to textbooks and dictionaries in various branches of science (medicine, economics, computer sciences, and management).

The Azerbaijani people understand that English is an international language that offers vast opportunities to know the world. Myself, I still can't believe my good fortune in having the chance to come to California as an exchange professor at UCLA. I would never have hoped for such an opportunity when I was studying English years ago. But it's a new day for our country. And English is very much an essential conduit, opening up a vast universe to our people.

Firangiz Nassirova teaches English at Khazar University, Baku. She is currently in Los Angeles on an Exchange Program between UCLA and Khazar University sponsored by USIA (United States Information Agency).

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