Speaking Turkish, Teaching English

Last weekend we bumped into a university professor while doing the groceries at Beta 2 because, well, Bishkek is small and we bump into people we know everywhere.  In that sense, it’s not unlike my hometown of 20,000.

As they didn’t have a car, we offered to drive them back to the university.  Along the way I talked to the wife – in Turkish, as she doesn’t speak much English.  Like many wives at the university, she doesn’t work (but was flattered when I asked).  When I walk to the university to have lunch with E or meet him after work I almost always see head-scarf-clad women covered in the great shapeless coats or black gowns of conservative women out walking their kids.  But not all conservatives are alike I’m learning. Emine was lively, colorfully dressed, and was immediately excited when she learned I was American.  She asked if I gave courses (I don’t, as it’s not a career for me, and no one in Bishkek pays enough to make it worth the time and effort to prepare and teach). Her family had previously stayed in Canada for a year, but she was afraid her kids’ English level was slipping, especially her daughter’s.  They sent them to courses in Bishkek, but the courses were not very good (true).

While I really don’t want to pour my time into teaching again, especially as I’ve just started another web-based project,  I could see that this was really important to her.  She might be covered in conservative trappings, but she wanted her teenage kids to have the workable English that would allow them access to better universities and the larger world. So I said that maybe I could come over once a week, for an hour before E gets off work, to practice conversation with her kids.

Yesterday afternoon I showed up at five, after a busy day of meetings and re-designing pages on the new blog, to find her drying her hair after a swim.  I expected to talk with her kids right away, but we sat down and discussed practicalities – could I come four times a week? weekends? No, I could not, especially as I have everending meetings every Thursday afternoon and sometimes actually do go into the office instead of working at home.  But twice a week I could.  And then she mentioned something really odd – though her two children are enrolled in the Turkish middle school attached to the Turkish-Kyrgyz university (which gives diplomas valid in both Kyrgyzstan and Turkey), they will be regarded as foreign students when applying for university back in Turkey, and thus must take the SAT to gain admission.  Yep, the American test.  I’m not quite clear if this is for all universities, or just the better universities (top universities in Turkish offer instruction almost exclusively in English).  Either way, it does seem a bit odd, and would explain her anxiety and enthusiasm over helping her kids improve their English.

I later talked to her fifteen-year-old son – who looked like any Canadian teenager, and spoke with an accent so convincing that you could only catch it in the hesitations.  His English – at least his natural command of the language – is certainly better than what’s taught at Bishkek language schools, from what I’ve seen so far.  We went over a few online resources, as I think it’s more effective to have students find the material they need, and just use my time for feedback and practicing areas they find more challenging. Memrise, DuoLingo, Vocabulary.com (great for SAT/GRE vocabulary – I used it 15 minutes a day for 2 months and got 167/170 on my GRE verbal), italki, ego4U. Memrise, Duolingo and Vocabulary.com all have phone apps and are set up like games, with points and levels. The mother had this glow in her eyes after I showed her son the sites, “I can use these too!” she said [in Turkish].  For while they had lived in Canada for a year, she stayed primarily in the Turkish community, and never developed more than rudimentary English. We chatted a bit more, and I left at 5:45 with plans to come on Friday.

I hadn’t realized how far my Turkish had progressed. I can’t use all the vocabulary or grammar structures I’ve learned, but I can carry out a detailed half-an-hour conversation filled with polite negotiations.  I can speak.  While I was still stumbling out sentences the last time (last two times…) I was in Turkey, most of the time they now flow.  I’ve read enough, listened enough, that my mind can predict what needs to come next and [rather] smoothly fill in the following phrases.  Sometimes I still falter with verb tense (“It was supposed to have been completed by August” was a bit tricky), so I know that’s an area I need to work on.  But I can speak. It is possible to learn a language on your own, without a course, without even a language partner. I do have E to correct my writing and give feedback, but one could also find a partner on italki, or write journals on the site and have them corrected by native speakers (for free). You need a variety of grammar exercises, vocabulary practice, and lots of listening – listening to natural speech helps cue your mind to the next jump.

So yesterday I learned two things: It’s possible to train yourself in conversational Turkish (and probably any other language), and not all conservatives are the same.  I know E is really skeptical of Turkish conservatives, but (as a historian) I think it’s important to see all perspectives, to understand who people are behind their garb, to understand the mechanics behind their take on current events. I also think it’s positive to introduce them to new perspectives and ideas in a neutral setting – demonstrate that not all liberals are so demonic.

Also, the cats are nodding their heads onto their chests as they sleep, and it’s kind of adorable.


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