Monday, March 23, 2009

Language Learner

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.


Gilbert said...

Regarding words with multiple meanings, the common appearance of gerunds and negative imperatives in Turkish has always irritated me intensely. My favourite example is on the front of our washing machine. There are two buttons, each of which has a red light in the centre which may or may not be lit at various times. One light has the label "Acma kapama" and the other is "kapak acma". The two words in both phrases are derived from words meaning to open and to close. Just after we got this machine, my wife set it to wash, and as she was going out gave me strict instructions to hang the washing when the cycle had finished. This duly happened so I went to unload it, but I noticed that the "kapak acma" light was lit. I interpreted this to mean "Don't open the door". I thought maybe there was water still in the machine which would drain away in due course. The light was warning me so that I didn't get wet feet. Well I waited and waited for the light to go out. It never did. My wife returns to find that the washing is still in the machine, and so opens it up and starts hanging the washing, all the time cursing me (Turk kadini, laf atar ya!) . Of course in this case acma doesn't mean "don't open" it means "opening", "door opening" yani "if you want the door open, then press this button". There is a second level of confusion here as the verbs for opening and closing are not just for doors, but also for turning electrical appliances on and off, hence the "acma kapama", "on, off". Offf yaaa!

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

This is almost exactly what I was curious about, thank you very much.

Gilbert's example wouldn't have occurred to me, but he's right I can see how that can be confusing once it is explained to me. Very interesting. I wonder how we (native speakers) manage to deal with stuff like that. (Prolly nothing new for linguistics people, not to me though.)

Stranger said...

That's a good one, Gilbert. I don't think I could have figured out that washing machine either. When I first came here, for like 3 weeks there just wasn't a good time to get one of my roommates to show me how to work the washing machine so I just wouldn't to any laundry, fearing a sitcom-esque misadventure with mounds of bubbles going all over...

Bülent, I'm sure there are all kinds of theories about how we learn this stuff in our first language. Right now it's interesting watching LE struggle with the notion of "me" and "you"-- the concept and pronunciation are both issues for him, and I'm sure he hasn't worked out yet why sometimes he's called "LE," or "baby," or "you," or "monkey-boy" or whatever, but no one else is called by any of these except "you." In the end, it just becomes so innate you can't even describe how you know it.

I can't imagine how non-native speakers learn English articles. I think they have a fighting chance in an immersion context where you'd learn sort of by ear and by apprehending patterns (much like vowel harmony in Turkish), but outside of that it seems impossible. As a teacher, beyond the first basic guidelines articles are *really* hard to teach and everyone just gets really frustrated because there aren't easy rules but rather larger patterns that learners have to work out for themselves (not popular with Turkish students, heh). It must be so much worse trying to learn articles in German!

For about two years here, I kept asking Turkish people (a couple Turkish teachers included)about the buffer vowels -y- and -n-, why it's sometimes one and sometimes the other. NO ONE could answer-- they just said something like "Because it is. That's what sounds right so that's what we say." The light went on for me one day on the Taksim dolmuş, shortly after I'd learned that some words change spelling slightly with endings attached, like burun and oğul. I was mulling over the meaning of Beyoğlu, plus someone had just politely corrected my "Beyoğlu'ya gidiyorum" and I figured it out. But this was a long process I don't think native speakers really go through when they're learning as kids-- considering grammatical processes, coming up with a theory, and thinking of other examples to test the theory. In some ways, adult analytical skills help us while in other ways they're a hindrance.

This happens to native speakers of any language though. English has a nice straightforward rule for forming comparatives and superlatives, but last time I was in America I asked several people why you can't say "beautifuller" and they couldn't answer except to say that it sounds wrong. I do know that native speaker children struggle with this one though, and I remember it coming up in elementary school grammar for awhile.

Matt said...

Funny that I come across this article one week before I commence Turkish private tuition in Melbourne. I've always had a fascination for the Turkish language and I decided it's time to put my curiosity into practice. I've been warned by many of my friends in Istanbul that I'm about to embark on a long, torturous journey into grammatical Hell but I'm willing to give it a shot.

It's a shame that there's no other language to compare it to, as you mentioned. Any Spanish, Italian, French or Portuguese speaker can quite confidently pick up the other. I studied Croatian and I am now learning Russian. If it weren't for 3 years of Croatian I'd be totally screwed. I also speak Greek but like Turkish there's no real comparable language. Sure, the Greeks use some Turkish words but they're only used by people aged over 80 so they're no good to me. Wish me luck!

Stranger said...

I wouldn't call Turkish grammatical hell, but maybe that's because I kind of like grammar, and Turkish grammar is mathematically precise and logical. On paper, anyway. Once any language comes to life it gets more nebulous. I would think vowel harmony would be one of the hardest things to learn outside of an immersion environment. After that, intonation. Turkish meaning changes quite a lot with intonation, rhythm, and stress.

Anyway, good luck and have fun!

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