SLLT, Vol. 3, 2003

Howard Brown


There is a wide range of bilingual education programs currently in use in Turkey. Submersion education is often seen with language minority students. In public schools mainstream education with foreign language teaching is common. There are schools operating on the European Schools model and the international schools model. There are also a variety of mixed approaches to bilingual education. One such program is in use in the Ozel Lisesi (Private Secondary School) system in Turkey. It is best described as a cross between a late partial immersion program of the type known the Mount Scopus model (Munz, 1993) and the European schools model. The program exists in a large number of private schools throughout Turkey, and with some minor contextual variations, the same structure is used in most of them. The majority of the schools use the program for English immersion, though a few schools have immersion programs in Russian, French, German, and other European languages. This paper will seek to describe the structure of the program (as it is applied at one school, Ozel Ahment Shimsek Lisesi in Istanbul) including its students, contents, materials, and staffing decisions as well as the rationale for the program and its limitations and future. These points will be discussed with reference to the core and variable features of immersion programs outlined by Swain and Johnson (1997, cited in Baker, 2001, pp.205-208) and the structure of the European schools model as described by Housen (2002).


This program begins in elementary school and continues through to the end of secondary education. Students have second language classes (but no content teaching) in elementary school and a special year of intensive language training, know as the prep year, between elementary school and junior high school. Immersion begins in junior high school and is expanded in senior high school. A third language is added in junior high school and continues throughout high school. No content teaching is done through the third language. Some optional continuity into tertiary education is also present. Students are encouraged to attend an English medium university in Turkey, or to study abroad. Supplementary TOEFL and IELTS preparation classes are available to senior high school students.

Table 1
Program Summary



English Exposure

Turkish Exposure



Elementary School

  • English language classes 1hr/day.
  • Approximately 1100 hrs exposure over 6 years.

  • All content teaching done in Turkish.



Prep Year

  • Special English preparation year.
  • English language classes 4 hrs/day plus first English medium content teaching (English literature course) 1 hr/day.
  • Approximately 900 hrs exposure.

  • Content teaching for gym and religious studies in Turkish.



Junior High School

  • English language classes continue 1hr/day.
  • Content teaching now expanded to include English Literature and Composition, Science, and Mathematics 1 hr/day (each).
  • Approximately 2150hrs exposure over 3 years.

  • Turkish used as medium of instruction for all other content areas.

  • German language classes added.
  • Approximately 325 hrs exposure over 3 years. 


High School

  • English language classes continue 1 hr/day.
  • Content teaching continues with English Literature and Composition, Mathematics, and Science.
  • Science now split into Chemistry, Biology, and Physics. Total 5 hrs/day content teaching.
  • Approximately 2700 hrs exposure over 3 years.

  • Turkish used as medium of instruction for all other content areas.

  • German language classes continue.
  • Approximately 325 hrs exposure over 3 years.

Note: Hours refers to 50-minute class hours.


On the topic of language balance, immersion programs are seen to have three core features. The first is that the target language, in this case English, is used as the medium of instruction. The second is that the students enter the program with similar levels of proficiency in the target language. The third is that the first language is respected and developed (Baker, 2001).

The first of Swain and Johnson's core features is rather simple to see in this program. The target language is used as the medium of instruction for content materials. At the secondary level (from year 8 to 13) English is used as the medium of instruction for Science, Mathematics, and English Literature and Composition classes. This represents approximately 50% immersion in junior high school and 70% in high school.

The students all enter the immersion phase of the program after similar exposure to English language classes. They have approximately 1100 hours of exposure through language classes in elementary school and another 900 hours of exposure in a special preparation year added to the program between elementary and junior high school. This is an additional year of school not present in the public school system.

This intense language preparation is deemed necessary to enable students to handle the immersion experience. Immersion works because of the high levels of comprehensible input and the opportunities to negotiate meaning the students are exposed to (Berthold, 1990). These high levels of comprehensible input are possible with no special preparation if the program involves two cognate languages. The similarities between the languages can be exploited by the teacher to allow the students to make sense of the content (Berthold, 1990). This approach does not, however, work with non-cognate language pairs (Berthold, 1995) such as Turkish and English. The languages are not similar enough to allow for comprehensible input if immersion starts from zero. Thus extensive language preparation takes place in elementary school and the prep year and English language classes continue throughout secondary school. A similar model (though lacking the addition of the prep year) is in use in Australia in the Mount Scopus school where English-speaking children are taught the non-cognate language Hebrew before beginning Hebrew immersion classes (Munz, 1993).

The transition from English language classes to English immersion classes takes place at the beginning of junior high school. This is a point of departure from the European schools model, where immersion begins in elementary school (Housen, 2002). At this point few mechanisms are in place to support the transition. While the prep year does provide an intensive preparation, there are generally no formal policies in place to help students and staff with language bridging. There is, however, an acknowledgement of the silent period. Use of the first language is accepted throughout the transitional prep year and continues to be unofficially tolerated to varying degrees throughout junior high school.

Once the immersion phase of the program has begun, the integrity of the language separation is sometimes an issue. Baker (2001) describes several types of language boundaries in use in bilingual schools including separation based on time, person, place, and subject matter. Of these, only separation based on subject matter is in place in the Turkish Ozel Lisesi system. And this separation is not always strictly enforced (see the comments on staffing below).

Development of the students' first language is accomplished in this program as well. Students are taught in Turkish throughout elementary school and some content teaching in Turkish continues throughout secondary school. This includes Turkish language arts. Also, Turkish tends to be the language of communication for school management functions (announcements, discipline, grade reports, etc.) and the majority of extra curricular activities. As is common in most immersion programs (Baker, 2001) target language use is largely confined to the classroom. Also, the classroom culture is very much Turkish. The relationships between teacher and students and the patterns of behavior of teachers follow the Turkish pattern.

One feature of the program making it similar to the European schools model is the addition of a third language, German, in junior high school. While German is not used as a medium of instruction for content, as the third language is in the European schools model (Housen, 2002), the students have approximately 650 hours of exposure in language classes over the 6 years of secondary school.

Figure 1
Exposure to English as a Percentage of Instructional Time.


Another core feature of immersion programs found in the Turkish Ozel Lisesi program is that the immersion students follow the same curriculum as first language medium students. This is true of the Science and Mathematics curricula in Turkey. The syllabi for Science and Mathematics courses are prepared by the central government and followed by all schools in Turkey. Luckily, English medium texts, prepared in Turkey specifically for the immersion programs are commercially available. Since the program is so popular in schools across the country, these texts are commercially viable. The quality of the texts is not universally high, but they are a support mechanism for the teachers.

In the English literature courses, the schools are given more leeway. The Ministry of Education does not specify texts or contents to be covered in these classes. Schools are allowed to use their discretion in setting the content. In many schools a similar pattern has evolved. Literature classes start in the prep year with age appropriate, commercially available graded readers written specifically for EFL students (Oxford Bookworms and Penguin Readers) being used. Graded readers continue to be used throughout junior high school with the language level of the texts increasing each year. In the first year of high school, the switch to authentic materials is made and the students begin to work with authentic English short stories. Authentic language novels are introduced in the second year of high school and their use continues in the third year.

One element of the program content that distinguishes it from both the immersion model and the European schools model is culture. In both models a respect for cultural diversity is encouraged (Baker, 2001; Housen, 2002). This is not the case in Turkey. On the contrary, a great deal of effort is made to instill Turkish nationalism through civics lessons, weekly assemblies and other events. The existence of linguistic minorities within Turkey, or cultural aspects of the target language community are all but ignored by school authorities.


In the European schools model, the teachers are generally native speakers of the target language (Baker, 2001; Housen, 2002). This is one point of departure for the Ozel Lisesi program. Swain and Johnson say that the teachers in an immersion program should be bilinguals (Baker, 2001). For the most part this is true in the Turkish context. The teaching staff in the Ozel Lisesi system tends to be Turkish-English bilinguals. As is the case in many contexts, the language proficiency and pedagogical training of the teaching staff is not universally high. This sometimes leads to mixed medium teaching of the type found in Hong Kong's school system (Berthold, 2002). While not as widespread as it apparently is in Hong Kong, mixed medium teaching is tolerated by school administrators to a certain extent. It is also considered something of a necessity of some students. While school exams are written in English, the national university entrance examinations are written in Turkish. Due to significant differences in vocabulary and syntax, L1 preparation is though to be essential for success on the exam. Thus, supplementary Turkish-medium Math and Science classes are held after school hours reviewing the major concepts covered in the English-medium classes.

Foreign teachers are also recruited to work in these schools. They are generally monolingual English native speakers with developing proficiency in Turkish. Since their number is limited, schedules are arranged so that each class in the school has lessons with at least one foreign teacher. This sometimes leads to foreign staff being stretched rather thin. One suspects that foreign staff are recruited for their marketing and public relations, rather than academic and pedagogical, value. The school administrators and support staff are generally Turkish-English bilinguals or Turkish monolinguals. Other languages spoken in Turkey (Armenian, Kurdish, Yiddish, etc.) are not represented in the staff.


Baker (2001) says that choice is a key element of the success of immersion programs. It is part of what separates them from submersion. Effective bilingual education is:

"...optional, not enforced. The conviction of the teachers and parents and of the children themselves affects the ethos of the school and the motivation and achievement of the children. Immersion education will work best when there is conviction and not enforced conformity." (p.237)

In the Turkish context, parental choice is present but it may not be immersion itself that the parents are choosing. Schools running the English immersion programs in Turkey tend to be rather expensive (relative to average Turkish income) so the programs are generally open only to upper middle class and rich families. At each school a few scholarship students are accepted each year, but the bulk of the students are quite well off. These students also have to pass a competitive entrance examination to join the school and, at most schools, they have to maintain a relatively high academic achievement level in order to remain at the school. So the academic level of the classes tends to be skewed to the upper end. Sending one's children to a private school has a very important prestige value. The sense is that the children will get a better education than they would at public school. And since the majority of private schools run an immersion program, it may be that the parents are opting for the overall prestige and academic standards of private education, rather than the immersion experience itself.


In studies done on immersion programs in Canada and elsewhere, a pattern in the students' results has emerged. The students' first language achievement is equal to or higher than students in a monolingual program. And their second language achievement, while not reaching native norms of fluency, pronunciation, or accuracy, is impressive, far outpacing students in traditional second language lessons. The students' receptive skills are superior to their production (Berthold, 1990; Genesse, 1987). Turkish English immersion programs are not as widely studied as immersion programs in Canada and elsewhere; however, informal evaluation by the teaching staff shows that the students' language achievement at Amhet Simsek Lisesie follows the same pattern established in other immersion programs.

When the students enter the first immersion classes following the prep year, classroom management tasks are easily dealt with and interpersonal communication poses no problems. Classroom work is done well by and large, though students' answers are often one or two word utterances. By the end of the first year of immersion, the students are largely able to interact with the teacher in class. By the end of junior high school, though written project work shows a great deal of dependence on the source material, the students are well on their way to fluency. They are able to interact with the teacher and each other. They interrupt with questions and comments, they support and disagree with classmates' statements, and they write full answers on tests and exams all in the target language. At this point some of the students become involved in translation and interpreting tasks in the school on a volunteer basis. By the end of high school, having had 6 full years of immersion, the students are largely fluent. They lack native like accuracy, particularly in pronunciation and written work, but they have few if any problems with both everyday communication and more cognitively demanding academic work in the target language.

The students' first language and academic results are also impressive. No deficiencies what so ever were found in the student's first language development, except in certain lexical shortcomings. Some academic terms learned in English (particularly Math and Science terms) have to be re-taught in special after school classes (see "Staffing" above). Students in this program have a higher than average success rate on university entrance exams and, not surprisingly, have higher than average acceptance rates at foreign universities due to their success on English proficiency exams such as TOEFL and IELTS.


The Turkish education system and language situation is in a period of flux. Recent changes in the universal education law have done away with junior high school - expanding elementary school to 8 years and high school to 4 (Ministry of National Education, 2002). The Ozel Lisesi system is currently working to phase in these changes and the program described in this paper is under review and is being modified to suit the new system. It will be interesting to see how the program evolves to meet the needs of students in this new context.

Another area of challenge in the coming years is political. Language policy has been a strong bone of contention for ethnic minorities in Turkey for many years. Heritage language programs and first language content teaching have been outlawed since the Turkish revolution in 1922 (Hassanpour, 1992). The Turkish government has pursued a monocultural policy "a total denial [even] of the existence of a minority", let alone their linguistic rights (Hoffman, 1991, p.234). This has included strong assimilationist language policies and the banning of public speech and printing in minority languages. Some go so far as to call the Turkish language policy an attempt at linguicide (Hassanpour, 1992). But immersion education in international language has been allowed and bilingualism in European languages is encouraged. This discrepancy, combined with the elitist and prestigious image of the program, has lead to resistance and animosity towards the international immersion schools on the part of some ethnic minorities, most notably the Kurds. This animosity has, on occasion, reached the level of terrorist threats against the schools and their staff.

In recent years, Turkey has enacted changes in the law to allow for minority language speech rights (Amendments to the Turkish civil code, n.d.) and the government has recently approved Kurdish language classes, though they are strictly regulated. Classes may be held in private language schools (if they obtain a special license) or in private homes. Kurdish medium content teaching in schools is still illegal in Turkey (Furusawa, 2002). The law has been changed to bring it more in line with the European Union language policy as part of Turkey's on going attempts to join the EU and as such may be further liberalized in the future. It will be very interesting to see how the language situation in Turkey evolves in the new context of the 21st century, particularly if EU membership continues to be a priority for the Turkish government.


The Turkish Ozel Lisesi model of bilingual education has been rather successful in developing a program that suits its context. One could not exactly call it a European schools model, nor is it exactly an immersion model. It is, rather, a mixed model that has evolved to meet the social, educational, and commercial needs of the schools.


Amendments to the Turkish civil code (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2002 from

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Berthold, M. (1990). The immersion concept. BABEL Journal of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations, 25 (2), 30-35.

Berthold, M. (1995). Initiating an immersion program, In M. Berthold (Ed.), Rising to the bilingual challenge (pp.251-274). Canberra: The National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia.

Furusawa, Y. (2002, December 6). Turkish Kurds find voice. The Daily Yomiyuri Edition A. Tokyo , p.17.

Genesse, F. (1987). Learning through two languages: Studies of immersion & bilingual education . Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Hassanpour, A. (1992). Kurdish language policy in Turkey. In Nationalism and language in Kurdistan 1918-1985 (pp. 132-136). Edwin Mellon Press. Retrieved November 20, 2002 from

Hoffman, C. (1991). An introduction to bilingualism. New York: Longman.

Housen, A. (2002). Processes and outcomes in the European schools model of multilingual education. Bilingual Research Journal, 26 (1). Retrieved November 22, 2002 from

Munz, M. (1993). The implementation of an immersion Hebrew programme in a Melbourne Jewish day school. Proceedings of the First Biennial Conference, Australian Association of Language Immersion Teachers (pp. 75-81). Newcastle.

Republic of Turkey Ministry of National Education. (2002). Innovations and developments in education system. Retrieved November 20, 2002 from

Swain, M., & Johnson, R.K. (1997). Immersion education: A category within bilingual education, In R.K. Johnson & M. Swain (Eds.), Immersion education: International perspectives (pp. 1-16). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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