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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Learning Turkish, Teaching English

When I first heard the Turkish language, I was utterly amazed. On a boat off of the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, I could not even remember how to say "thank you" for two weeks. Teşekkür ederim, btw.

Back home in the U.S., I began to study a little on Mango Languages, which is free through the Los Angeles Public Library (, and it was awesome. Having used Duolingo in the past (for Spanish) and for my 'style' of learning, I much preferred Mango's method of speaking and listening over Duolingo, which is a lot of spelling and grammar tests. The best part of Duolingo is that you can compete against your friends. That said, I'm glad Duo does not offer Turkish at this time, because I was forced to seek out Mango which works much better for me.

After moving to Turkey 2.5 months ago, I enrolled in a one month program at Tomer - five days a week, four hours a day. Located in Taksim Square it was only a short walk from my house. I was the only American in my class and the only person who did not know a single other language. Coincidence?! I think not.

Some of my Tomer class, posing with our teacher, Beste.
The makeup of my beginner level Tomer class was 90% men and abut 90% Arabic speakers. Everyone in my class spoke Arabic, except me and one other individual. Most, if not all of these Arabic speakers also spoke English, and often times, another language as well. Many of these men are from Syria, fleeing violence there. My neighbor in class, Aimen, also turned out to me me neighbor in real life, living in the building next door to me. Pretty crazy in a city of over 16 million people. He and his brother are Libyan, also fleeing violence, only this time in Benghazi. I will be writing more on my Syrian and Libyan friends, as well as the conflicts they are fleeing, in an upcoming post.

Our class often fell into discussions in Arabic, as better Turkish speakers would discuss concepts and try to help and explain things to our classmates. Then, typically, translating the abridged discussion for me. Hearing all of that Arabic did not helping me learn Turkish, however, I can now recognize Arabic being spoken on the street, which happens a lot. There are many Arabic speakers here in Istanbul and indeed, in Turkey. Currently, there is a constant influx of refugees from the Syria and also Libya, many of them ending up here in the city center, Taksim Square.

Thanks to this intensive class I have a general idea of the language structure, which has a very different form from English (more like Hebrew, from what I gather). I gained more vocabulary (think bright 3 year old) but sadly, I left without much needed speaking and listening skills. It is no a secret that I am not a good, or patient listener. It is not my most shining quality. Beyond needing to listen and be patient to learn any language, Turkish structurally demands patience, the verb comes last along with the subject, so you need to wait. You need to hear someone out before you know what is happening. At Tomer we learned new grammar rules every day. I kept up for a while, but for me, it snowballed into confusion at the end. I prefer a program where new grammar is introduced by listening/talking and explained after. While it is good to learn to read and write (which I can do better than speak and comprehend at this point) I need more. Tomer was a great way to get my feet wet and meet some awesome people, I would definitely do it again.

Recently, I invested in the Pimsler method online and it has been great. I HIGHLY recommend the Pimsler-method, which is based on listening and talking. Now, little over a month after my class ended, I am pleased to say that even though I have not been very diligent with my continued studies, I am hearing things better and understanding things here and there. Don't get me wrong, I am lost 97% of the time. But I can see the potential.

Is this hole big enough?
This language part of my brain is utterly under developed. At 35 years old I am struggling to build a skyscraper where a flat, barren plot of land now lies. When talking to my good friend, Aimen, a Libyan civil engineer (who speaks English, Arabic, some French, Turkish and likely more) I described my language learning as digging the foundation of said skyscraper. Right now, I am digging one huge fucking hole, one little Turkish tea spoon at a time. I get more lost and more confused the more I learn and then there are moments of clarity. It's a slow process, made more difficult by my cushy lifestyle (first world problems...).

I live with two native speaking Turks who work as Japanese speaking tour guides, both of whom speak excellent English (Turkish, Japanese and more). At home, they are speaking English with me, and I to them. Recently, I began work as an English teacher. This means that I do not speak Turkish at work either. Desperation is not a driving factor and I think we can all agree on what a powerful force desperation can be for getting things done.

çok zor!
Being on the flip side of this, as a teacher, is great. It is a joy to be teaching to a group of late 20 somethings who are working on conversational English and improving their casual speech and comprehension. We (I) talk a lot about connotation and denotation, jokes and colloquialisms. Likely, I am way too invested in their lesson plans, but I have always taken teaching and coaching very seriously. Happily, I also have a number of clients under 10 years old. I have to say, I have missed working with children. It is fun to speak with them in Turkish and English. They have a better grasp of English then I have of Turkish, but they tend to speak in short and clear sentences, which I can understand. Also they are very patient and quick to jump into charades. I need a 6 year old Turkish friend...

This past weekend at the engagement party of two close friends, I met two lovely little girls, who are 6 and 9 years old. The party was at the bride-to-be's family home, in her village, in the Black Sea region. These two girls were great company to me at a party of mostly non English speakers. I believe I was the only "yabancı" in attendance. These sisters spoke their still limited English to me and also, spoke Turkish. To my delight we did not have much trouble communicating. Below, you can see us hanging out at the party.

It seems like a shame that we don't, as a rule, start young children on another languages in the U.S. What a gift to be able to communicate with more people and learn from them and their inevitably rich culture. So many (all?) keys to unlocking a culture lies within its language. Besides being able to read the history and hear the news without the risk of things getting lost in translation, there is the how and when one speaks, and of course, what they say. 
One of these days, I will be speaking Turkish. Yavaş yavaş.

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