A Wayfarer In the Land: Its all Turkish to Me

By Allison Davis
Foreign Correspondent

How many of you came to college and tried to learn a new language? In the safety of a classroom, it does not seem that difficult. Memorize some verbs, describe yourself in a paragraph, and throw in a little grammar.
Voila! You’ve made it through the basic 100 level language course.

However, try being thrown into a new culture where people don’t always speak English. One of the most surprising aspects of coming to Istanbul was the number of people who could not speak or understand English.

While our university has English instruction, many students are too nervous to try out their English speaking skills. Students must attend a yearlong intensive English prep school before entering Bogazici University. During this year, the focus is mainly on reading, writing, and comprehension. While many students can understand what we say, many are hesitant to respond.

Frankly I completely understand. Even though I am learning Turkish in a course that was designed for foreigners, it is extremely daunting at times to use my newly acquired language in the “real world.”

My class focuses on the most practical phrases, like the names of foods, giving directions, and talking about places. My Turkish professor walks in speaking in Turkish and I swear, she speaks less than 10 words of English before leaving the classroom, two hours later.

When I’m feeling confident, I walk up to the waiter and try to order, and normally, the responses I receive are typically a humorous smile and a hearty laugh. Even when I try, it seems that people have a difficult time understanding me. Maybe it’s my accent. (My Turkish friends will write down sentences and make me recite them just to hear my accent). Or perhaps it’s because I continue to mix up the endings for each word, which is basically the subject of the sentence.

However, I continue to try, and even if people laugh, at least they appreciate the effort. While it’s easy to point at things and pick up a few nouns here and there, that doesn’t seem to be enough to form real relationships.

One way that I have been meeting new people is by tutoring them. I work with two different girls twice each week. One girl is very young, only four years old, but she is almost fluent in English. I teach her silly games like “I Spy” or we pretend to be ballerinas. The other girl is 13 and I typically help her with her homework and try to initiate conversations.

While each girl is different, the best part of helping them speak better English is the family ties that I have been making. Every visit, I am offered dinner and because it’s free and better than the cafeteria food, I usually accept their invitation. The families have welcomed me so kindly, going out of their way to make me all of the traditional Turkish dishes and informing me of the best places to visit and travel to. Without hesitation, these families have shared their knowledge and experiences with me.

Even if I miss my family in Pittsburgh or my family at Washington College, it’s a good feeling to know that no matter where I go, people will take me in and share their lives and families with me. These families have become an integral part of my experience in Istanbul, giving me a home away from my WC home (and away from my real home in Pennsylvania). They are the reason that I am actually looking forward to attending a birthday party for a little five-year-old girl this weekend.

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