Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Language struggles


“Why don’t you speak Turkish properly?” the tiny old woman hissed at me angrily as she leaned over to interrupt, obviously eavesdropping on the conversation I was having with two of my close Turkish friends. As we turned in surprise to see who had so rudely interrupted us, I managed to say in broken Turkish: “I moved to İstanbul two months ago and have only been learning the language for a month. Turkish is a very difficult language for me.”

Brushing my explanation aside, she snorted and replied: “What do you mean you’re just now learning Turkish? At your age, you should be fluent. It is the easiest language in the world to learn. Why, it is so simple that every child can speak it better than you can. What’s wrong with you?” Puzzled, I told her, in somewhat mangled Turkish, that in the country where I grew up we had spoken English and Spanish at home and I had no reason to learn Turkish until I moved here. Undeterred, she shook her head and insisted that the entire world spoke Turkish. “Look at the television shows,” she said, waving her hands for emphasis, “even the ones made in America are all in Turkish. Everybody speaks Turkish. Except you!”

My two Turkish friends stifled their laughter as they tried to convince the old woman that she was wrong about Turkish being a universal language. However, she could not be swayed and continued to insist that she was right. Even when they tried to explain that different languages are spoken in other countries, she refused to entertain the possibility that she may have been mistaken. Shaking our heads, we returned to our own conversation, which consisted of our own mix of Turkish and English words and phrases. My friends were irritated by the old woman’s intrusion and by her criticism of my grasp of the language.

Even though my friends were quick to point out that this elderly woman had most probably never travelled out of her country, or had interactions with foreigners before, she reminded me of the angry, frustrated tourists I had seen just earlier that day in Sultanahmet, the historic area of İstanbul. Obviously confused about where they were going, they approached a street cleaner and asked him for directions. The worker apparently did not speak English, but tried to understand what they needed, wanting to be as helpful as possible. The couple realized there was a breakdown in communication, and instead of showing him a map or photo in their guidebook of where they wanted to go that would help him figure out how to direct them, they restated their question, but in slower and louder English.

Seeing that they were becoming irritated with the situation, I came over and spoke with them, offering to help. I thanked the cleaner for his time and told him I could assist these lost tourists. Seeming to be relieved, he returned to his work. After giving the couple directions to the site they were looking for, they began to complain to me about their visit. “What is wrong with this country?” the woman asked. “The only people who understand other languages are those who are trying to sell us something. When we need help or directions, it seems impossible to find anyone who can speak English or French properly.” “ Yes,” the man added, “It is so hard to communicate here. You would think that more people would be fluent in other languages. How are tourists expected to find their way? We have tried speaking in the most basic English and French, but that does not even help.”

From all outward appearances, the tourist couple and the old woman I encountered across town a few hours later are worlds apart in terms of their financial situations and education levels. However, they are alike in that they expect everyone else to comfortably, and fluently, speak their own native tongue. Both assumed that they could navigate their way in the wider world using only the language, or languages in the case of the lost couple, they grew up using. I am sure the old woman was not being intentionally cruel to me, but was instead voicing her astonishment at the fact that a middle-aged woman could not speak her language as well as a 4-year-old child who had grown up only hearing Turkish. Speaking louder in a foreign language will not force the listener to suddenly understand your native tongue. Likewise, if someone is obviously trying to learn another language, it is much more helpful if native speakers are encouraging instead of disparaging.

In a way, the old woman was correct. My language skills should be better than they are. I hope that if we ever run into each other again, she will be impressed at how far I have come and she will appreciate how hard I have struggled to grasp the intricacies of yet another language.

SOURCE : http://www.todayszaman.com/news-235898-language-struggles.html


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