In early 1991, three and a half years after our Kenyan adventures, Ruth began suffering the initial pangs of travel withdrawal since she had not joined me in Japan–the only time we traveled apart. We started throwing out options for where we might live and work, and it was my wife who suggested Istanbul, a destination she had dreamed about visiting for years. (Thank God she had not seen the 1978 Oscar-winning movie Midnight Express describing the experiences of an American tourist thrown into a nightmarish Turkish jail. That movie single-handedly killed Turkish tourism for years.)
However, a working vacation in Istanbul posed a new and potentially fatal problem: Like Japan, Turkey is a nation where English is neither an official language, as in England, Australia, and Kenya, nor a semi-official language, as in Israel. I could no more assume to walk into a classroom and begin teaching in English than a Ph.D. from China could arrive in the U.S. and start lecturing in Mandarin. Sure, I could (and did) learn enough Turkish to greet friends, go to the bathroom, and order a shish kebob, but that still left me a long, long way from standing in front of a class lecturing on computer science.
I visited my school library to do a little research on Turkish universities and, to my utter surprise, discovered that the catalog for Bogazici University, the premier technical university in Turkey—essentially, their MIT—stated right on page one: “The medium of instruction at Bogazici University is English. Applicants must either have a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score of 550 or they need to sign up for an English language proficiency class.” Yet another “flashbulbs and trumpets” moment—that one paragraph guaranteed there was at least one school in the country where I could apply. When I then scanned the catalog of Bilkent University, their second best technical school, I found an identical disclaimer: “Proficiency in English language for non-native speakers is a must in admission since all departments, except for Turkish Language and Literature, use English as the language of education.” This fortuitous circumstance repeated itself in virtually all the college and universities catalogs I perused.
One of the unexpected but pleasant surprises encountered during my overseas job hunting is how rapidly English is becoming a global medium of instruction for tertiary (college and university) instruction. This is particularly true in technical fields such as the physical sciences, natural sciences, earth sciences, engineering, mathematics, and medicine, but it is also becoming more widespread in other quantitative fields such as management, finance, architecture, pharmacy, and urban planning. In addition to Turkey I have lectured in English in Mongolia, Nepal, and Vietnam—none of which have English as an official language. In Malaysia I attended a graduation address by then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad on the role of English as the lingua franca of science, technology, and international business. On our drive to the Ngorongoro Crater, described in the post The Most Beautiful Place in the World, I stopped at a remote Rift Valley gas station where a Masai warrior in flowing red robe had set up a souvenir table. I was interested in buying his hunting spear so I dug out my phrase book and uttered in grammatically butchered Swahili, “Nini gharama mkuki?” meaning “What price spear?” He smiled and replied in perfect New Yorkese, “No sweat, man, I speak English. It’s how I do business.”
I don’t share these stories because of any Anglophone chauvinism or deep devotion to my mother tongue. It is simply to convince you not to immediately abandon hope for that dream working vacation in Surinam, Sarawak, Senegal, or Sri Lanka because of any perceived language inadequacy. Yes, there will be times when the medium of classroom instruction is some utterly incomprehensible tongue. But there will also be times when English speaking and writing skills work in your favor as overseas schools look to hire native speakers to improve their students’ proficiency. In addition, if your spouse has ESL credentials, he or she should be able to find a teaching or private tutoring position, and might even wind up being more in demand than you!
So, with the language issue essentially resolved, all I needed to do now was find a job.