Monday, November 21, 2011

Insight into learning Turkish

As soon as we jumped in the taxi for the ride home from the airport, my sister pulled out her Turkish phrase book, eager to engage in conversation with the driver. She started with standard greetings such as “How are you?” but then she quickly ventured into questionable territory as she flipped to the “car” section of the phrase book and found such sentences as, “I've got a flat tire.” Luckily, her pronunciation was off enough that the driver didn't catch on and I was able to stop her before she pronounced other potential car disasters, which could have been seen by the driver as a bad omen.

As I weaved my relatives and friends in and out of the sights and museums and restaurants of İstanbul, I had the opportunity to observe how diverse people's learning styles are, as my visitors did their best to learn Turkish through the use of their translator, me, and their many helpful and sometimes inaccurate phrasebooks. Their varying approaches to learning were both interesting and enlightening.


Humans have two primary types of memory: long and short-term memory. Short-term memory relates to one's ability to retain novel information for short periods of time, like remembering how to pronounce the name of the location of my birthday party in order to relay the information to the taxi cab driver. For this type of memory, my guests often asked me to write down the information with a pronunciation guide, so that they could venture out on their own. Long-term memory relates to one's ability to retain information indefinitely. In terms of long-term memory development, I observed my guests integrating the same three-tiered approach that all students use: sensing, repeating and developing cognitive organization strategies.

Using senses

To increase attention and focus on novel information, my guests used their emotions and senses to “live” Turkish. Laughter seemed to be the best medicine in terms of the emotion of choice for learning Turkish, a language that they all agreed was quite difficult for them -- one person mentioned that Turkish was much more foreign to him than the Romance languages. This statement led a few members of the group to look for words that were similar to English in order to help him feel more comfortable with the ability to learn Turkish, words like taksi and otobüs, for example. Silly ideas came to their minds, like their use of mnemonic (memory) devices and the use of acronyms (using one letter or part or whole words to remember word meanings) to learn new words.

To learn the numbers from one to five, for example, my sister and my friend Barb came up with the mnemonic memory device known as an acronymic sentence: You drink a beer (bir) that is icky (iki), üç in the dirt (dört), and feel beşer. I watched as they developed this acronym together, acted out the sentence and spent hours practicing, laughing and sharing it with others. They also had a fun time finding real and false cognates -- words that have a common etymology, but may or may not share the same meaning. For example, they asked the question, “Is it time to buy a Nissan [Nisan for April] or should we wait 'til May-ish [Mayıs]?”

Their quick learning of the numbers reinforced what I already knew about sensation and learning: the more sensations and/or the stronger the emotions used during learning, the quicker the information gets into long-term storage. For many of my visitors, I observed that the livelier and sillier they got, the more vocabulary words they were able to store in long-term memory and retrieve for functional use. This concept was especially true of learning food words -- the importance of morning kahve and the desire for more menemen expedited the transition from short to long-term storage.

The food and spice names that they learned the quickest were the ones that were reinforced through the sensations of taste, smell and texture. Baklava, kebap and köfte quickly rolled off their tongues -- and, of course, the foods they wanted to avoid like beyin (brains) and dil (tongue) were swiftly stored in long-term memory.

I am always stressing to my students the need for repetition to hard-wire information into long-term memory. I had to live this repetition as my guests repeated the silly mnemonics they had created whenever those words or phrases came up. The number sentence came up many times, as they tried to expand upon it up to the number 10 and as they were counting out money at the bazaars. Every time they heard a word that they recognized, they repeated it aloud over and over again. Their constant rehearsal occurred as if they were players readying themselves for a performance. At times their antics were cute, whereas, other times I just wanted to cringe at the culturally questionable ways in which they remembered words and phrases. That being said, sometimes the words that we learn the best are learned by linking risqué visualizations to novel words -- this technique can increase the emotional load, leading to better long-term storage.

Cognitive organization

When learning a different language, mnemonics or memory devices are great ways to move information from short to long-term memory. Concept and sensory imagery are keys to successful Turkish learning. The more one can sense and conceptualize word meanings and relationships, whether usual or unusual associations, the better and faster the learning. For example, my guests immediately found the rhyming sentence, “She should sue you” sounded an awful lot like bottled water, şişe suyu. Congratulations (tebrikler) sounded to some people like a salute to brick layers!

It was enjoyable to hear that my guests were having so much fun learning Turkish -- and the Turks were very accommodating for the most part. When they weren't, it was usually because someone had butchered the language beyond recognition and it was hurting their ears. Most of the time, when my visitors tried to communicate in Turkish, the Turks did their best to try out their English to meet them half way.

Although it was interesting to watch my guests develop organizational strategies to learn, I was grateful that I was able to break away from the group before they started branching into more complex rhymes and songs -- not everyone in the group can carry a tune.

Guests are not students

In teaching, I stress the need for students to get sufficient exercise, eat right and follow a regular sleep routine to help with learning. Guests are definitely not students. They arose at all different times, many times after staying up all night, eating and drinking both healthy and unhealthy food. Also, contrary to my guests' belief, Turkish pronunciation does not get better the more Efes beer that one drinks.

My guests' approach to learning language was very different from that of my students, who are highly motivated to learn and strive to nurture their brains for learning with oxygen and nutrition. I often found myself repeating the same information over and over again to my sleep-deprived, full-bellied, inattentive herd of cats. Although they were motivated to learn to increase their independence while on vacation, their motivation and resolve to learn Turkish was nowhere near as high as it is for my Turkish and English students. Therefore, their attitudes and openness to learning only extended to immediate self-gratification. If I tried too hard to teach them something for which they did not believe they had a reason to remember, their attention waned as shiny object after shiny object appeared on the horizon of the street or the bazaar.

Lessons for the teacher

Although I always stress the importance of making learning fun, I had not had the opportunity to watch the learning process to the extent at which I was able to observe it with my guests. I found that my guests/students were very interested in meeting Turks -- even attempting to communicate with them, despite having no Turkish skills. They also pointed out many universals that I had not fully noticed. For example, at one of the tourist sites, one of my guests took a picture straight out of American culture: five state workers leaning on their shovels watching one worker digging. Another behavior that I had never noticed was how women from different cultures work hard to distract upset children, a technique that can often result in ending the screaming and crying. However, it was a little embarrassing to see my guests acting in culturally inappropriate ways, such as waddling and quacking like a duck to distract the children. Although many Turks were surprised by the crazy Americans, they still thanked them for trying to help -- intention is everything.



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