Monday, April 19, 2010

How I learned your language – part 4 Turkish

Turkish, from my point of view, is a pretty exotic language. Unlike any language I'd been learning before, it has amazing characteristics such as vowel harmony and a whole complex system of agglutination.

Prior to my settling down in Turkey I spend a year learning the basics from a self study book called ‘Teach Yourself Beginner’s Turkish’. And I did learn only very simple stuff – numbers, colours, days of the week and basic grammar rules. Needless to say, it wasn't enough to get by.

Looking back, I learned most of what I know during my first year in Istanbul. In my former workplace nobody except for the three other language teachers knew English and the students... let’s say they spoke Turkish most of the time. They were my first teachers.

And Turkish surrounded me and swallowed me up.

Without much effort I caught myself picking up words and phrases, occasionally asking for definitions or clarification but most of the time simply guessing. Quite often I had to handle important matters entirely on my own therefore my Turkish phrasebook consists of largely unrelated words such as ‘vergi numarası’ (tax number), ‘fesleğen’ (basil) or ‘duş perdesı’ (shower curtain). The peculiar situations I was in obviously forced me to speak the language without hesitation. I also developed my miming skills to a near perfection.

During my second year I decided to enroll on a course designed for foreigners living in Turkey. It was a disaster. We had 3 classes in a row: 1 – students took turns to talk about what they did last week (speaking – 3min, listening – 47 min), 2 – we checked homework, 3 – we learned a new grammar rule e.g. ‘can’ which was followed by hundreds of mindless gap fills.
I paid for 5 weeks and left. The classes were boring, frustrating and felt like a waste of time.

But there were some bright moments. I realized, for example, that compared to other students that were studying in that school from the very beginning, I was much better at speaking and listening. Sure my grammar was imperfect at times but I covered it up by gesticulation and always got my message across. The only serious problem I faced was writing – I still have a very vague idea about how to write anything in Turkish.

It’s my third year now and I feel like I should know a lot more. I would compare my current knowledge of Turkish to a colourful patchwork. Some patches look nice, some don't but you can still cover yourself up with it when you're cold. Maybe I would have learned a lot more if I had attended courses, maybe not.

Summing up, there are a few things that struck me when I was reflecting on writing this post.

  1. There is/ must be/ should be a clear division between T(x)SL and T(x)FL in terms of curriculum development to start with.
  2. Any language teacher should experience learning a given language in a native speaking environment first and foremost to understand the students better.
  3. It seems like the current trend in today’s ELT is to mirror the kind of ‘natural’ learning I described in regular classrooms. Yet is it actually possible considering the dissimilar nature of both worlds?
Now here's another chance to win something. Below you can see a photo of a popular Polish brand of vodka
If you tell me what the connection between the brand and Turkey is, you can claim your prize!
If you are Polish, please give other people a chance to guess :)


  1. Um, it's named after Jan III Sobieski, "the savior of Western civilization", who defeated the Turks at the Battle of Vienna? Do I win the prize? And is the prize a case of vodka? :)

  2. That's correct! Congratulations Nicky :D

    You can choose the prize yourself - if it's the Sobieski vodka you want, I'll do my best to deliver it to you! :)

  3. I was going to suggest that it's your favourite drink and since you live in Turkey, that must be the connection!

    Do I win anything :P

  4. Hmm...
    How about a glass of beer once we meet in Poland? :)