That Stumbling Space (When We Fail at Speaking Foreign Languages)

I’m complimented constantly on my spoken Turkish. And yet, whenever I speak with my in-laws, I feel like my words are falling out of my mouth in a flat and awkward jumble. In class – smooth as a whistle. In the home – nothing comes out straight.
Last Thursday I went to the Turkish American Association on Hoşdere to take a Turkish level test and talk about taking part-time Turkish classes starting next month. I tested into the B2-C1 level class – exactly one textbook ahead of where I left off with Tömer classes in Kyrgyzstan (probably because I’ve gone through so many different textbooks on my own) and sat in on one hour of class. The students were a bit further ahead of me in grammar – but their speaking seemed quite rough, stumbling rather than fluent, and lower than I would expect for that level. In comparison, it’s generally quite easy for me to speak Turkish in a classroom setting. Why? Probably because I’ve had a lot more speaking practice (in situations where I could only speak Turkish, or had to speak Turkish in order to get something done), and because the classroom offers a definite set of parameters – we are only using the grammar we have learned, and generally speaking on one of a number of set topics covered in the textbook. In short, it’s a safe space – like bowling with bumpers.
In the home, on the other hand, we talk about everything. Last night I was trying to explain my research interests (language policies in education and how states use language policies to attempt to shape national, regional and ethnic identities among minorities) to my sister-in-law, along with explaining why I left my first PhD program and what type of program I’d like to return to next year. The evening before my mother-in-law and I were discussing theories in raising bilingual children and the effects of Tv on toddler’s later attention span. Not exactly topics covered in our textbooks – which is probably why I was struggling.
And that’s good. If it’s easy for me to say everything, then that most likely means that I’m not challenging myself. We have to get out of that comfort zone in order to truly expand our speaking abilities. Even starting speaking is hard at first – I remember how much I sputtered the first few times (first few dozen times….) I tried to say anything at all in a natural setting in Turkish…and Russian…and Uyghur…and Chinese. It’s hard. But the more you practice (and the more you plan out your conversations – looking up vocabulary you need, trying to write down important lines) – the easier it eventually does get. If you’re sputtering, keep going.


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