I currently live with two friends from grad school: a Turkish girl, Esra, and an American guy, Stephen, both of whom were in the English department with me. The Turkish girl and I lived together in the States as well and we all now live together in Istanbul. While Esra’s English is almost native, neither Stephen nor I knew Turkish before we moved here.
This past weekend, we all went out with friends of Esra’s and a friend of mine from work. Though my friend is Canadian, her family is Turkish and therefore she speaks the language fluently. She asked me and Stephen what it was like to move to a foreign country and not know the language. Stephen said he’s had a difficult time articulating exactly how it feels or what it’s like. Together, we decided that it is frustrating, exciting, alienating, and rewarding. All those words are fitting, yes, but still do not accurately describe the sensation. I stopped listening to the conversation for a minute and looked around the restaurant we were in. There were signs and menus and containers and lots of people talking or messing with their phones and that’s when it hit me and I rejoined the conversation:
“It’s like being illiterate, well, because technically we are.”
I cannot read the signs. Sure, I can recognize certain things: thank you, good morning, hello, one, three, fish sandwich. But the rest is a mystery. I can’t read the newspapers or books. I don’t understand many of my colleagues, the baker, the cashier, the tailor, the hairdresser, the nurse, the radio DJ. I can’t ask directions, discuss the news, or tell my waiter that I didn’t order the cheeseburger. I wouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation with a kindergartener. And even worse, that kindergartener would have a much better language acquisition than me. Imagine that you are living where you do currently and suddenly you can no longer do any of these things. As I said, it is incredibly frustrating and alienating.
But once you catch on, it’s also incredibly rewarding and exciting. You start to count the little things: ordering a cake from the bakery, asking the waiter to bring another cola, telling someone where you are from, buying vegetables from the local man who parks his truck in front of your apartment, asking about the bus fare, telling someone more than, “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Turkish.” You’re proud of those moments, because you’ve worked for them. Like a child, I go home and tell my roommate, “I did this today!” or “I bought that” or “I understood some of what he was telling me!” Like a parent, she laughs and pats my head. “That’s nice, Tessa.”
And yes, sometimes I want to just give up and yell, “Why don’t you speak English?! It’s basically an international language!” But it is the little moments of recognition that drive me to learn more. Last night I found some videos on beginner phrases and began to listen and copy them down into a little notebook I always carry with me. Then I looked up sites on Turkish grammar. Essentially, I’m building my own curriculum. Maybe one day I’ll be literate, or at least more than I am now.