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. Continue reading