Thursday, May 17, 2012

Learn Turkish or else


While trying to work out the qualities necessary for making a go of life as an expat in Turkey, I’ve already poured cold water on the idea that only those with omnivorous appetites are likely to succeed. Flexibility?
 That would have topped my list of the requisite assets even if globalization might be making it less essential than it once was.

So what do other expats think? In my straw poll the answer that came over loudest and clearest was “no matter how hard it is, you must get to grips with the Turkish language.”

Bodrum resident and British author of the comic expat memoir “Perking the Pansies” Jack Scott was quite clear on the matter. “Learning the lingo, at least conversationally, will really help,” he said, a view echoed by Marc Guillet, a Dutch journalist who lives in İstanbul and runs the enjoy-istanbul.com website. “The absolute number one is, do your best to learn the language. Yes, it is difficult, but whatever your level, when you start to speak some Turkish all doors will be opened for you, because trying to speak Turkish shows Turkish people that you respect their culture and language.”

The same reply came in from all over the country. Duke Dillard, the American author of the CaptivatingCappadocia.com blog, recently moved to Çavuşin in Cappadocia with his family after teaching in Ankara. “I have found that the more Turkish an expat knows, the better the experience. When we lived in Ankara finding English speakers was easy, but as we learned more Turkish our relationships deepened and our understanding of what was going on around us, the hidden cues, became more clear.”

A long-time Selçuk resident also listed linguistic skills as essential: “The more and more easily one can understand and communicate, the easier and more fulfilling life is likely to be. Being on the outside of what’s going on is stressful. I don’t know how couples with discordant and low levels of [understanding of] each other’s languages ever survive.”

Gazipaşa resident Estella Saville, who used to lead wildflower tours of the country, said the same thing: “Above all, learn the language. Turkish people are so kind and generous and will excuse all your foibles, but if you learn a little Turkish it will go a long way.”

This won’t come as good news to the many expats for whom learning a new language is akin to taking up brain surgery, or for those who have moved to Turkey later in life when it’s hard to pick up a whole new vocabulary, but there couldn’t be such unanimity of opinion were it not the case that learning Turkish is crucial. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that not knowing the language is the single biggest obstacle to settling in, now that so many of the creature comforts of home are as readily available in Turkey as anywhere else.

No one expects you to become word perfect, and most Turks are extremely forgiving of even the most comical linguistic blunders. But flip the situation over and imagine what it must be like for people living in your own home country without being able to speak the language. Just think how much they miss out on. Of course it’s just the same here.

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