A loyal commenter asked me about what it’s like learning Turkish as a foreigner in Turkey. It’s an interesting question because it’s about language learning and I get to talk about myself a lot. Also I’ve gotten pretty lazy about thinking up new post topics.
First, a brief bio of myself as a language learner before coming to Turkey:
Spanish: I studied it from 7th grade into university. Spanish was part of my Romance Languages BA.
Italian: I studied it for two years in university, plus a short abroad program in Perugia, Italy. Italian was the other part of my Romance Languages BA.
German: I had one year of 100-level German which I mostly took for fun and I didn’t really go anywhere with.
I was always interested in, and not bad at foreign languages. I enjoyed the type of study that was necessary to do well in a class, and I liked writing in foreign languages. My spoken Spanish was never fluent, but I could read well. I think if I’d gone abroad it would have gotten pretty good. After learning Spanish, Italian was very easy to pick up. My spoken Italian was as good as my Spanish in a year, and I was pretty good at reading. Then I left school and both languages fell into disuse. After starting to learn Turkish, my spoken Spanish and Italian got much worse. It’s like there’s a foreign language button somewhere between my brain and my mouth, and when it clicks on, Turkish comes out, or some bizarrely garbled version of the three languages. My understanding of spoken and written Italian and Spanish has worsened over the years. I’m kind of sad about that, but I suppose some latent knowledge lurks somewhere if I want to pick them up again.
Next, some other relevant information about myself as a language learner:
My other BA was in Linguistics, and my MA is in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). My TESOL program was as much about Applied Educational Linguistics as it was about practical teaching. I’m sort of a junior linguist, which means I like analyzing grammatical processes and patterns (Turkish is particularly well-suited to this), I have a nifty vocabulary to talk/think about them, plus I have a good background in second language acquisition and sociolinguistics. Personally as a learner, I’m usually pretty shy, I don’t like making mistakes or embarrassing myself, and I don’t make much of an effort towards seeking out new situations for language practice, though I’m happy to avail myself of the ones that come my way. My success in communicating in a foreign language depends very much on how comfortable or happy I am in a given situation. I can’t imitate accents well, though I can hear different accents or pronunciation mistakes—I just can’t assess and adjust myself well.
Turkish is a fun language to learn. It’s grammatically rich, and for the most part it’s very neat, tidy, and regular. I had seen a lot of Turkish while studying linguistics, because it was often used to exemplify certain grammatical processes, and it turned up in homework and exams a lot in pattern-finding questions. It is, outside of a few English and Romance Language cognates, completely different from any language I’ve ever heard, and it took me about 3 months here before I could even begin to parse sentences I heard and guess what they might be about, and about 6 months before I could confidently produce anything beyond single words. Because Turkish is so different from English, and because of things like vowel harmony, I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it would be to learn Turkish in a classroom outside of Turkey. I had a few lessons here through the school where I was working, but the class was beyond my zero ability and it was about a year later that I was able to use the past and future tenses I learned in those lessons. However, there were some good vocabulary lessons too and that helped immensely.
In my opinion, after seven years here, my Turkish is pretty abysmal. It should be much better, but I think I reached a point where I was competent enough to do most of what I needed to do, and I lost what had been a keen drive to learn Turkish. Having a husband to deal with any unpleasantness like trips to the Yabancı Emniyet Mürdürlüğü for residence permits made me lazy, and I admit a psychological element in that I’ve become increasingly unwilling to deal with Turkish as I’ve started more and more to want to leave here. My pronunciation is bad and I can’t even hear what’s wrong with it. My grammar isn’t great and my vocabulary is limited to areas of my direct experience. For example, I can get around fine in usual things like shopping or most conversations one has with neighbors, my lexicon around hospitals and childbirth isn’t bad, and I can talk easily about food (I even know some words BE doesn’t know) and domestic routines (my mother-in-law loves to talk housekeeping), but for something like politics, business, law, and the economy, I’m awful.
I also read and write very poorly in Turkish because I’ve never had to do either very much. Newspapers here are written at a low reading level, so I can read the blurbs on the front page and things like the women’s section, but for the hard news and the economy sections, I’m hopeless. I also have limited experience with reading different registers of Turkish, so I don’t get jokes well, and anything subtle or ironic or poetic is lost on me. I’m a little bit better with this in spoken Turkish. I noticed the other day while perusing BE’s Leman comics that I can read those pretty well and get the jokes more than half the time, which I think is because a lot of them are written more like people actually speak. Spoken and written Turkish are really quite different registers, and in speaking I’m rarely called upon to say or understand a very long, grammatically rich sentence. Grammatical endings I’m not sure of I just sort of flub when I’m speaking and hope it doesn’t come out horribly wrong. Another thing that makes written Turkish hard for me is that many words in Turkish have multiple meanings, often meanings which are unrelated to each other, or which are determined by the grammatical or situational context. One word I can think of offhand is ya. This word is everywhere. I learned it first in its most prevalent use, which is when people are whining or complaining (“Oof, yaaa teacher yaaa this is much homework yaaaa.”), and it doesn’t mean anything more than, “I’m whining and/or complaining.” But ya also has grammatical and lexical functions, where it can mean “either,” or have an either-ness quality in certain grammatical structures. In speaking, I don’t worry about this word much, but in reading I realize its importance and can’t quite work out what it means.
A lot of Turkish is about how something is said or when it’s said to take the meaning from it. This is another reason why I can’t imagine learning Turkish in a classroom. Speakers use a large array of situational and paralinguistic signals that can change the meaning of what they’re saying quite a lot. As a shy person these are hard for me to imitate, but a trick I learned early on is that good stress and intonation helps you to be understood even if what you’re saying is pretty mangled. One example of this was on the dolmuş (a minibus that follows a fixed route but drops people wherever they want). I was taught to say “İnecek var” (it means “There is someone who is going to disembark”) to make the dolmuş stop, but I found a lot of drivers just ignored people who said this (and I don’t know why I was taught this phrase because the only time I’ve heard Turks use it on the dolmuş is when someone has requested a stop and the driver didn’t hear them or ignored them). Then I noticed dolmuş drivers stopped almost immediately when someone said something like “sa,” at almost any volume. I learned they were actually saying the more polite and respectful “Müsait bir yerde inebilir miyim?” (“May I get off at a suitable place?”), which at the time I couldn’t manage, but I found just going “’Sa’!” or “Müsait!” would effectively get the driver to stop.
Last, I think there are gender issues with learning Turkish. It is my impression that it’s easier for men to learn Turkish from talking to people in Turkey for a few reasons. For one thing, men can more freely enter into conversations with more people in more situations because there are fewer limitations on who men can talk to, where, and when. Women have to be a little more careful with talking to men too much because it can easily be misconstrued as romantic interest. In a day of dealing with the people you usually deal with (sellers of things, waiters), most of them will be men and while some of them will happily chat with a foreign woman and not get all excited, others will start getting obnoxious. Add to this that even if you find some decent fellows to practice Turkish with, politeness will dictate to them that there are certain topics that he should avoid talking about with a woman, some obvious and some more mundane like business or contentious issues in politics. Another thing is that men’s Turkish and women’s Turkish is pretty different in terms of intonation and vocabulary. A lot of slang and all swearing is the domain of men, and people are scandalized if women swear or use certain slang or insults (most men wouldn’t swear in front of a woman anyway, unless there’s a soccer game on—I learned how to string together swear words properly by watching soccer and driving with BE). I know several foreign women, myself included, who have learned a lot of Turkish from listening to our husbands and their friends, and we always make embarrassing “mistakes” by saying something we didn’t realize was “men’s talk,” and therefore is either really impolite or just really funny for women to say. After I’d been here for about a year, people kept telling me I spoke “man Turkish,” which was probably because I’d learned most of my Turkish from random people I talked to, who were mostly men—all the Turkish women I knew either spoke good English or were trying to learn English.
I find the interaction of language and culture so interesting, and the Turkish language is so bound to Turkish culture. Where I can imagine learning English outside of immersion (and many people do just fine with this), I can’t imagine properly learning Turkish outside of Turkey. I often think it’s cultural misunderstanding that causes me trouble understanding language, because (not just in Turkey) why people are saying something is often as important as what they’re actually saying.
And now I’ve gone on far too long, but that’s what happens when I’m invited to talk about myself and language learning in one go. If anyone still reads this blog, I invite commenters to talk about their language learning experiences because I really do think this is fun to read about.