Summer 1996 (4.2)


Baku Diary
Passport to the World Market Economy
English Language
by Susan Cornnell

Left: A tradition among high school seniors on the last day of school is to write autographs and messages in pen on each other's white aprons. May 1995. Photo: Betty Blair.

"Jingle Bells", that all-time American Christmas favorite, was not quite what I had expected to hear when I visited a group of Tibetan Refugees high up in the Himalayan Mountains a few years ago. I remember thinking to myself that English had truly become a global language if it was possible to hear such songs in such a remote corner of the world.

Well, Azerbaijan is not Nepal, and Baku has probably had an international feel about it for centuries, given its unique geographical location at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. But these days, English is definitely part of the formula that Azerbaijanis are using in their hot pursuit to enter the world market economy. Despite the fact that Russian used to be the "lingua franca" of Azerbaijan, these days an amazing transformation is taking place in language usage. It's fair to say that English is well on its way to becoming the prestige foreign language of the country. Teachers of English are the best paid educators in town. They're in such demand that they can even afford to turn away students despite the severe economic crisis that the country is going through.

Left: Language learning often requires different concepts not just different words. Azeris still shop at central markets. Supermarkets are just beginning to open.

As an American, I was privileged to be among the very first native speakers of English to arrive in Azerbaijan back four years ago. I'll never forget how it all began on a hot summer day. It was July 1992, and I had just landed in Azerbaijan, ever so proud of my newly-acquired certificate in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). The moment of truth had arrived to transform theory into practice. My first experience in teaching English came 24 hours after I landed when I suddenly found myself in front of a group of Azeri women of various ages, various educational backgrounds and varying experiences of learning any foreign language.

But the day was so miserably hot-it was a scorcher and we were packed into this medium-sized room, a Soviet-style "resort" in Zagulba on the Caspian Sea, not far from Baku. The only thing I could think about was how to escape the infernal heat. Making hand motions like someone swimming, I pointed to my watch, flashed ten fingers and the next thing you knew, we were splashing in the sea in cool retreat.
The words, "bathing suit", "swim", and "splash" may not be typical words to introduce a foreign language, but I can tell you it broke the barriers between teacher and student, foreigner and native, American and Azeri. That simple gesture-an escape from the heat-opened the door for a fun-loving relationship and helped reduce many of the traditional fears students usually associate with acquiring a second language.

Years of Soviet-style pedagogy had caused people to expect that learning a language had to be pure drudgery and tedium-just like some people think exercise doesn't count unless it's painful. Concentration on rules of grammar, endless conjugations, and mindless repetitive drills had squeezed much of the joy out of learning. I found my students were used to endless classroom exercises using outdated, poorly printed texts, which robbed English of much of its vitality and vibrancy.

And don't forget, students in Azerbaijan during the Soviet period rarely got a chance to interact with native speakers. I've even heard of English language professors who had studied 25 years before ever getting the chance to try out their verbal skills directly with a native speaker. It wasn't that uncommon for some of the determined professors to have become quite proficient and fluent in English without ever having spoken to a native speaker at all.

Keen Interest in English
Times are rapidly changing in Baku and interest in learning English is at an all-time high as Azerbaijan reaches out to the international community in culture, education, and trade. Students are highly motivated. I've seen young guys carrying Russian-English dictionaries everywhere they go, tucked into their pants' waistbands. For the first time in history, a comprehensive 45,000 term dictionary between Azerbaijani and English is about to go to press. Prior to that, all Azerbaijanis who wanted to learn English had to master Russian first as there were so few materials to support their language learning efforts directly from Azerbaijani. Students are eager to strike up conversations, even with total strangers on the street especially if they just happen to look like foreigners who might know English.

Of course, Hollywood and pop music pump out their messages in English challenging young people to learn even faster. Even the youngest child has picked up a few words. I can't tell you the number of times during the three years that I lived in Baku that someone called out to me on the street, "I love you!" Unfortunately, the blood 'n' guts Stallone or Schwarzenegger films have introduced another category of less than choice words and phrases. Let's not talk about those.

The opportunities for native speakers of English to teach in Azerbaijan are limitless and parents make a great sacrifice for their children as they realize the best-paying jobs in town are awarded to those who are fluent not only in Russian and Azerbaijani, but in English, too. The majority of Baku residents are already bi-lingual. You'd be surprised how many government workers, journalists and diplomats are struggling to master irregular verbs as they tackle yet another language.

Having taught English to Azerbaijanis, aged 3 to 60, naturally I've accumulated a lot of stories. Once I was teaching the precocious 3 1/2 year old daughter of an international diplomat who insisted that she already knew her alphabet and didn't need me to teach it to her. "But, Miss Susan, I already can make all my big letters!" Sitting perched at the head of a long mahogany table, a TV, linked to a satellite dish, droned on at the other end of the room. And so with determination, she started writing, "A...B...CNN" (Cable News Network logo). With that, she promptly lost interest, announcing that it was time to talk about cats and dogs.

And then there was the time in one of my advanced level adult classes that I decided to use baseball terms to illustrate cardinal numbers. I drew a baseball diamond on the board and said, "Okay, here's home plate. So where's first base?" Twenty-five students stared at me as though I was babbling in ancient Sanskrit. Clearly, I learned there's such a thing as "language" and another thing quite different when it comes to "cultural experience" or "cultural exposure". No doubt, these students could have taught me a thing or two, however, had we brought up the subject of soccer.

Many young engineers from foreign countries study at Baku State University and Azerbaijan's Oil Academy. One such student was Kammarphone from Laos. On one of the tests I gave him, he really got tripped up. It asked seemingly simple items such as: "My name is __" "I live at:__" "My phone is:__". However, due to the nature of his name, he got confused and wrote, "I AM a phone." What could I say?
He passed!

Left: Children from the Youth Center, "Kaynat" in Baku participated in a oral competition entitled, "We Learn English," sponsored by Amoco . Forty-five students between the ages of 8 to 15 spoke about "My Family," "My Country," and "I Know America." Rahif Rasulzade, Chairman of Kaynat applauds the young people's efforts.

Many of my adult students went on to become English teachers themselves and were delighted when I would visit their classrooms. "High five, Miss Susan!" chirped twenty 8-year-olds. "Catch ya later!" Certainly, I was influencing English acquisition more than I ever dreamed. To this day, my students write me letters here in America: "I wanna go..." and "I gotta get..." which originated from one of their favorite classes using "Jazz Chants" with "wanna, gonna, oughta, gotta." They had learned textbook English long enough-they wanted to know how Americans really speak.

My students' vocabulary became peppered with "boogie board" and "out in the boonies." The lesson that set them all awonder was the one about grocery stores-at that time a relatively little known concept in Azerbaijan (though today, small supermarkets are popping up throughout the city). "Shrink-wrap packaging," "bar codes," "Zip-locs," and "peanut-butter" were curious concepts to students who had grown up shopping for the best nature had to offer in open-air bazaars. Bread that could last a month because it was pumped and puffed up with "preservatives" was beyond their imaginations! Going to the corner bakery and getting bread still hot from the oven is a daily fact of life in Baku.

Few students had ever had the chance to listen to language cassette tapes. Nevertheless, I found that students' pronunciation tended to be somewhat British with a decidedly Russian accent. My American accent further confounded them, especially on occasions when I referred to words like "skeh-jul" (schedule) instead of "shedj-jul" or "truck" instead of "lorry."

At the newly established Baku International School (Grades 1-8), my students had learned English from their native Russian-speaking teacher and said "lee-tul," for "little." Their British instructors had then prodded them to enunciate, "lit-tul." Then I came along and introduced "lid-dul." Poor little nine-year-old Sevinge used to struggle through all three pronunciations-"lee-tul," "lit-tul," "lid-dul"-whenever she wanted a simple drink of water!

Teaching English in Baku taught me a great many things as we exchanged not only language but culture. I felt it was my responsibility to represent the best of America as if I were a "Mini-Ambassador." As only a handful of my students had even traveled beyond the borders of Azerbaijan, there was many a giggle and gasp in response to my description of life back in the USA. Many had impressions born of Hollywood fantasies, or perhaps worse, Soviet propaganda. Maybe the portrait I painted erred on the side of Norman Rockwell*. But I believe it's a side that still exists in America and I'm proud of it.

Both teacher and student tended to share with each other the best of our countries, acknowledging the condition of the world today, but focusing on the things we considered more noble. I became endeared to my students through aspects of cultural life and traditions that I discovered in those classes and, likewise, I think it's fair to say that the Azerbaijani students gained a greater admiration for my country, too.

* Norman Rockwell was an American painter, very popular in the 40s and 50s, who painted portraits that depicted life as sweet, good and simple.

Susan Cornnell has been writing this column since September 1993. Browse through her articles in past issues on the Internet.

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