Nine pm in Beyoğlu. I'm out on the third-floor balcony of the spare office room I'm inhabiting until I can afford an apartment, looking out over the goings-on on Asmalımescit below. It's calm down there- the little delinquents who spent the afternoon plotting on the stoop with cigarettes dangling from their mouths seem to have moved on. The corner-shop man is pacing and stroking his moustache; couples are eating çiğ köfte at outdoor tables, wearing Sunday-evening clothes (less revealing than Friday night, more revealing than Wednesday morning); the doorman at the Grand Hotel Pera looks bored underneath the American flag hanging, inexplicably, upside-down.
("But wait!" you cry. "Out on the balcony? Didn't your laptop mutiny months ago?" Well, yeah. I'm writing this by hand, to be typed up later, due to the ominous whirring noises which started emanating from the office computer. The lifespans of electronics are halved in my hands, and if I'm going to break it, I'd prefer if it's in the presence of witnesses who can testify that I was only doing Normal Computer Things to it and not, like, kicking it).
A bar street off Asmalımescit, courtesy of Elif Ayiter
Moving on. Unrelated wittering taken care of, I now feel free to get to my real point. Which is a two-parter:
a) My parents like to say that I'm really good at languages, and
b) They're wrong.
I'm actually only marginally better at languages than I am at calculus, which is to say, not particularly good at all. Oh, I have a decent head for remembering new vocabulary, and foreign grammar constructions usually make a certain amount of sense to me. My real failing is this: I don't actually speak them. That is, I'll speak if I have to- in stores, or with somebody who doesn't know any English. But I'm criminally awful at making myself say anything in Turkish out of the desire for practice rather than out of necessity. Most people handle this really well- they're either playfully encouraging or totally unconcerned. Every now and then, though, someone will get it in their head that I must speak Turkish, and begin a campaign consisting of "come on, just say something. How about now? Just a few sentences. Come on. Don't be shy. Come on!" They're right, of course, but that approach brings out my stubborn side (and prompted me to look up the phrase "I am not a trained monkey"- it's "eğitilmiş maymun değilim" in case you ever need it. I'll probably never use it, actually, because every time I do in my head they just go "ooo how cute, Bonzo's learned some new words!")
Okay, I'm back to being an adult now. I guess my point is that I can see why so many people never learn a second language (looking at you, Anglophones). It's a long, difficult, and often embarrassing undertaking. But still. I hear so many Americans- and Brits and Australians and Kiwis, so as not to leave anyone out- proclaiming how awful they are at languages. Look at the Swiss! They all know, like, seven! Look at the Togolese! Look at the French! (Okay, maybe not the French). With a twinge of nationalistic dignity, I always want to say, well of course we're monolingual. We start our underfunded, short, non-compulsory language classes in middle school at best. Imagine if you started learning how to add in the seventh grade and your Chinese penpal was already going on about imaginary numbers. Of course you wouldn't get the sense that you're especially bright when it comes to math.
I think everyone should learn a foreign language. Read Rumi in the original Persian, watch Amélie in French, chat up that tanned Brazilian, talk art history with the museum staff in Italy, crush the ignorant American stereotype one "tengo un gato en mis pantalones" at a time.
Step one: Stop saying you're hopeless at languages. You probably aren't.
(Step two, and this is mostly for my own benefit: Then, actually speak the language)
Labels: languages, Turkey, Turkish