From Yogurt to Yoğurt: On Learning Turkish

I left home for a concert as dusk was falling. The blue-gray triangle of the Bosphorus, visible from the top of the steep hill where I live, slipped into the embrace of the apartment buildings and out of view. I was trotting down the narrow street at a giddy clip in a short, sleeveless dress – something I still struggle to remember is so normal after a year in Cairo disciplined me into fearing my own skin. The bakkal, a gray-haired man with a friendly mustache and a rotating wardrobe of polo shirts, called out to wish me a nice evening – “İyi akşamlar!” I was thrilled because it reminded me that I had come a long way since my first awkward visit to his small shop of staple foods on my first day in Istanbul.

That was three weeks ago, and beyond “merhaba” and a corrupted “teşekkürler,” I didn’t speak a word of Turkish. He doesn’t speak a word of English. I also wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bag the fruit myself or wait for him, which caused even more anxiety than my inability to ask. A neighbor showed up and my bakkal had him translate my produce-related inquiries. Before retreating into my new home across the street, I asked this friendly neighbor to explain that soon I would be back, and at that time I would speak Turkish. I doubt he believed me, given how evidently I was tethered to grunts and exaggerated gestures.

Now when I go I can ask for yogurt, or in Turkish, “yoğurt.” He must be impressed.

So I was on my way to a concert. At the bottom of the hill, I passed the local mosque. It is a compact nineteenth-century wooden building with turquoise trim and a little yard. Because it’s Ramazan, the yard was set with tables and plastic chairs for the nightly public iftar. The muezzin finished his call and the guests in the courtyard stirred to peel the plastic coverings from the dishes that awaited.

Soon I was in Taksim Square, meeting my friend at the steps to Gezi Park where construction equipment still stands poised to wreak havoc. The bulldozers and the protests have paused, for now. In the early darkness we walked a short distance down Istiklal Caddesi, once again teeming six months after a suicide bomber tore a rude hole in its crowds.

Inside the club, a bartender showed us to a high table at the front of the room, near the stage. Two friendly Turkish sisters visiting from Mersin were already there, and so began my aggressive yet painfully halting attempts to carry on a conversation above thumping warmup beats in a language I have studied for three weeks. Any conversation like this – an iconic experience of any new language learner – has high highs and low lows, underscoring both how far one has come and how very there is to go. Slouching over the table, I tried to snatch words and predict the sentences to which they belonged. I tried to divine whether I was being asked a yes or no question, or would need to concoct a real answer. I pulled out stock questions like magical rabbits. In my head, I heard my teacher’s voice, with the proper intonation, rather than my own slightly stilted imitation. I reminded myself that three weeks ago I would have smiled and grunted, as I did with the bakkal. Now, even if I came off as a kind of cute yet fumbling circus animal, I could try.

“Selfie,” it seems, is a universal language. This was something we could all get behind, so we ended the conversation on a high note as the band came on stage.

(Incidentally, it was a fantastic concert. Check out Kalben’s breakthrough single Sadece.)

***

I have come to Istanbul for two months to learn Turkish. After three weeks of, as it turned out, private tutoring, I’ve finished the first level. I’m studying the modern language, partly to learn it in its own right and partly to pave the way for an Ottoman Turkish class in the fall. Any mention of “Osmanlıca,” the Turkish word for the old language (notably not “Ottoman Turkish,” but just Ottoman, a language in its own right) elicits dropped jaws and eye rolls from Turks. “Çoooook zor” – Sooooo difficult – is a common refrain. And in fact it is weird to be in a country where essentially no one can read the language used here 100 years ago. We’re not talking Shakespeare; we’re talking inscriptions like “Mehmet built this nice fountain.” Yes, there are “Ottoman” hamburgers for sale and dolmuş drivers who tag their vans with the sultanic tughra to signal their political affiliations, but the alphabetic schism between past and present runs deep.

While Turkish is wholly new for me, my experience here has brought me to reflect on the other languages I have learned and how. Each time and place is a little different and nowhere have I shown up as clueless as I did this summer, but there is a warm familiarity to the routine. Learning a new language puts you in intimate contact with the mechanics of your own mind.

When noun cases or the imperative rear their heads anew, I think of other times and places where another piece of the linguistic puzzle was unlocked. “Akuzatif,” scrawled on the whiteboard in my classroom in an upscale neighborhood of Istanbul while I nibble on yet another bready simit, recalls a post-work evening at the Goethe Institut in Atlanta as well as the trepidation with which my class approached the “mansub” hurled at us by the final chapters of Al-Kitab in Ifrane, Morocco, in the summer of 2009. (There it was not simit but digestive crackers we downed by the box, purchased from the tiny campus store with our so-called “cash wallets” as an antidote to the chancy cafeteria food.)

The first emotion of language learning is paralysis. You are about to know some things, but you don’t yet. All you can offer when you have the misfortune of interacting with another human are grunts and smiles. This was particularly acute for me in Istanbul, since I started at zero. But it was also true when I arrived in Morocco in 2009 and in Egypt in 2012. I knew Modern Standard Arabic (to different degrees), but also knew enough to know that speaking it would be humiliating. Until I knew enough dialect to safely greet someone in the street, I often opted for silence.

Next comes amazement. Wow, you said something somebody understood! You are sure you’re making incredible progress because the simple strings of sounds you produce now sometimes elicit a response. For instance: on day 2 of studying Turkish, I went to the market. “Bal var mı?” I asked (“Is there honey?”). The clerk escorted me to the honey department. I felt like a million dollars. Of course, had the clerk responded verbally and asked me, for instance, what kind of honey I wanted, I would have been dumbstruck and probably slunk out of the store mumbling to myself.

In this phase, you are dazzled by your ability – increasing by the hour, it seems – to decode signs that just the day before were a jumble of symbols. After day 1, for example, you learn that “soğuk su” means cold water. Now, this should not have come as a surprise because it is plastered all over every little stand selling… cold water. But it doesn’t matter: suddenly the world is making sense, in chunks. You rarely notice what you don’t understand.

You walk to the bus stop in a daze, mouthing sentences like “Could you close the window?” and “This morning for breakfast I ate fruit and vegetables.” You assemble and disassemble suffixes, rehearse new rhythms, correct your own misshapen vowels. But if the opportunity comes to release one of your carefully constructed sentences from the silent cocoon of your internal dialogue, it flutters out crumpled and squeaky. You want to ask for a redo, but there are no redos on a crowded bus. It lurches forward and you lurch to the back.

While a sense of wonder never completely dies, you eventually begin to feel a little demoralized because you can say some things but you can’t say all things. You know enough words and grammar to think sentences and to plunge headfirst into them, but you constantly collide with what you do not yet know. You are no longer content to say “I want tea.” You want to explain why, today, you are not drinking regular tea, but rather have discovered that there are apple teabags in the kitchen and will be switching to that because it seems less likely to turn your teeth brown if drunk by the gallon. You get through the first part of your thought fine, if a little bluntly: “I don’t want to drink normal tea.” But you’re not satisfied. So you try on, silently or semi-silently, all the possible ways to distill the complex thought you want to express to its most essential parts. In Turkish, this process is compounded because the language uses a very different word order from English. Once you’ve cherrypicked words and grammar that might communicate what you want to say, you spend another five minutes reorganizing them into the correct format. You pause for a long time, giving the illusion that what you are about to say is of great importance. But you can’t give up, mostly because you still don’t know how to say “never mind.”

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