Chinese in my ears

I fretted about forgetting Chinese.  Every time I ran into the ebullient Chinese teacher from the Confucius Institute who lives on the fourth floor I would stammer and spin through Chinese sentences ending in Turkish and Russian in my head.  I lived in China for over four years.  I spoke Chinese so well many people mistook me for a native [minority]. One year when feverishly sick my flatmate even informed me that I spoke Chinese while sleeping.

But I haven’t lived in Chinese since 2013 – almost four years past.  I started to wonder – fear – that I’d forgotten it.  So after visiting the US and deciding on grad schools (as the program I enter would, to some extent, determine the languages I need to speak), I determined to spend two hours a week on Chinese.  I sought out the Chinese teacher and arranged to visit her during office hours twice a week. (Bring your baby! she exclaimed. She’s so cute and guai [demure, well-behaved – she’s only ever seen her strapped in the baby carrier, and not wrecking havoc on our living room floor].  She can sit there while we practice [and rip up papers and eat the stapler]). I went through all the free material on half a dozen Chinese reading apps (do I really want to pay $14 a month when there’s a whole internet?).  I pulled out my old HSK 6 practice book before realizing that, unless I actually planned to take the HSK, the stiff language of test prep would serve me very little of practical use. And then I turned to Chinese TV.

I don’t watch TV except for the annual bout of Game of Thrones.  I didn’t watch TV when I was in China, though TVs everywhere were always on (perhaps that’s why I didn’t watch it).  However, back when I was in Beijing (and back in the days when we actually bought DVDs) I once bought a box set of a TV series and watched all 60 episodes, pausing the screen every time I saw a word or phrase I didn’t understand, looking it up in the dictionary, and carefully scribing it into my Chinese notebook.  It was a great way to pick up natural language in use, and fill in some of the gaps in my vocabulary of the everyday. Unfortunately, being out of the ‘Chinese loop’, the first twos series I chose to watch (based off of recommendation lists online, some of which are hilariously bad, and what’s actually available on Youtube), were terrible, soppy things (see here).  I can stand about ten minutes (sometimes fifteen!) before my brain starts smoldering and revolting against the plot inconsistencies, poorly drawn characters, and the way idiotic is portrayed as cute in girls and overtly critical and lovingly concerned in mothers.

Fortunately/unfortunately, I haven’t forgotten my Chinese.  I go to sleep with phrases from the TV shows reverberating in my brain, I hear their voices as little mental responses to a hundred different things during my morning.  I should have chosen better TV shows (any suggestions? Or should I just attempt news talk shows?), as the wide eyed girls from the shows squeak and squeal like cute little hamsters with crimped hair. It seems my Chinese was just latent, waiting just for a little electric prod.  My speaking still isn’t as fluid as before – my brain fumbles around words I know I know but can’t call up to the tip of my tongue.  But certainly, certainly I haven’t forgotten it. And gurgling up with the language comes all the memories – of old friends, of places once explored, of that sense of boundless possibility, along with all the things I really resented about popular Chinese culture.  I think next I’ll write a comparison of social-state themes in Chinese and Turkish TV series, as there’s certainly a lot both attempt to tell the viewer in instructing them in social norms.

Taking Turkish Classes at TAA, Language Weaknesses

Yesterday I started Turkish classes at TÖMER‘s main competitor.  Having gone through sometimes less-than-inspiring TÖMER classes in Kyrgyzstan, I was ready for a change.  And after a month of feeling like I was making more mistakes than correct sentences, ready to work on my Turkish again.

I’m completely baffled by my Turkish level.  I’ve read almost every textbook out there, so I understand a decent amount.  But, because most of my language study has been on my own (and I haven’t always had someone around to correct my mistakes), I don’t always produce correct sentences.  Sometimes my words get extremely jumbled and I feel like I have no idea what to say. And then, because the majority of the time I’m speaking Turkish with family or co-workers (in a small office where everyone is on familiar terms), I way overuse sen (the informal “you”), which is a bit awkward when used, say, with people I don’t know on the bus or in a shop.

And yet, according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL), my Turkish level is C-1, which is advanced. Ha. I somehow feel that advanced Chinese or advanced French was way harder – and I was able to say much more, and say much more correctly before I got to that level.

[If you’re interested in finding out your – supposed – language level, or have no idea what the CEFRL is, I have a few language level test links at the top of my Turkish Language Page; Scroll to the bottom of this post for a full explanation of all the levels]

As the Turkish American Association is not offering C1 courses this term, and the book I’m currently going through (Hitit 2) is labeled B1, I signed up for B2-level courses (all of their courses here).  Way too easy.  So, after 45 minutes I switched to C2-level courses.  Which is ridiculous, because C2 is pretty much the end of the line – and yet I have so much more to learn.  Now we’re in the middle of Hitit 3, and yet class is still not so difficult.  We have class but twice a week for three hours each time (one reason I didn’t choose Tomer: my mind just numbs after about the 3rd hour of class, which makes 20 hours a week unbearable to the point of unproductive), and yet the young teacher assigned one piece of homework.  Considering the size of the class (under 10 students; the B2 class I sat in on had 4), there’s also a surprising lack of student-student interaction.  We sit in a semi-circle facing the teacher, and most of the action happens on the whiteboard.  When I was taking classes with 20+ students in Bishkek this was to be expected, but… with just a handful of students?  There’s no reason the classes couldn’t be more interactive, focused on situational language use, or varied in their activities.  To be fair, the teacher is quite good at what she does and makes sure that everyone comes up with at least one example for every exercise.  But there’s still so much more we could do – and so much more I need to learn.

Why does it seem like so many English classes are advanced, and yet classes for other languages all hover around intermediate and beginner?

There’s no way my Turkish is at C2 level… and yet…?

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.

Taking Tömer Turkish Courses vs. Self Study

Having finally completed the last Tömer Turkish exam at the university, I thought it might be useful to write up an overview of the courses – and what I’ve learned from taking classes (Sep-Dec 2015) versus studying Turkish on my own (Jan 2014 – Sep 2015).

First, which route is better for you really depends on two factors: your self-study habits, and the quality of instruction available.  For Turkish there are actually a lot of resources available, both online and off, at least when compared to other local languages.  If you utilize resources like italki/speaky/other language partner website along with textbooks, podcasts, and writing exercises, then it is possible to create for yourself a complete self-study program – provided you’re motivated, good at addressing your own weaknesses, and reasonably competent at curriculum development.

The Pro’s Of Self-Study

  • Study at your own pace
  • Choose exactly what you want to study, and tailor your learning to your needs

The Pro’s of a Structured Course

  • There’s actually a teacher on hand to explain grammar points or those strange vocabulary terms you can’t find in the dictionary
  • If you have a skilled teacher, then they will probably push you to learn more than you would on your own
  • Constant audio immersion (as long as your teacher sticks to the target language in class)
  • Having to study even when your motivation is lacking
  • Not having to hunt down supplementary material
  • Having your essays and exercises corrected by a competent native speaker

yeni hititOpinions on the Tömer program: It’s really going to depend on your teacher.  One of ours started out enthusiastic, the other genial.  They soon got pretty tired of the chatty, semi-focused students, around the same time the students hit mid-semester lull. Class quality from there just went down. One of our teachers even seemed to come to classes without a class plan, which certainly didn’t bode well on those days. But if you have a great teacher, and students who are truly invested in learning the language (and don’t always try to substitute a distantly-related Turkish tongue) it could be a much better experience.

On the Curriculum: Compared to all other Turkish books I’ve gone through, the Tömer Hitit books (pdfs here) have a much better introduction to the language – generally pragmatic subjects, clear grammar lessons and related practice, plenty of examples, and a good mix of reading, writing and listening.  There are some useless topics and not a few useless phrases.  I’ve also come to believe that the textbook writers are generally tenured and underpaid middle-aged workers who despise Ankara traffic, hold a pessimistic and pragmatic view of the city, and are somewhat misogynistic just from the number of exercises and example sentences complaining about the commute, wistfully dreaming of a country home, griping about stress at work, featuring housewives who spend all day beading and cooking, or make such statements like, “women are lucky because they can always prepare their own food”, and men always say, “I’m hungry, what’s for dinner”. Not the most modern in outlook…And we probably could have skipped the mythology sections, as I doubt I’ll use that much when walking down the streets of Ankara.  

**On gender roles in Turkey: while it’s true that less than 30% of women are engaged in the work force, with many women either acting as homemakers or working unofficially in the agricultural sector, a decent number of university-educated women do successfully pursue careers.  And while women to all the housework in some homes, on Saturday we had a single male guest who insisted on washing all the dishes after dinner.  Like most countries, it’s impossible to make broad sweeping statements.

What I learned: I love studying on my own, but do need to incorporate more immersion and real-time practice.  The first few weeks of the course were great for me as everything was in Turkish – yet at a pace that I could actually follow.  This definitely prepared me for much more difficult conversations during my last two-week stay in Ankara.  I also learned a lot from doing grammar-based practice tests and having written compositions minutely corrected.  Before starting the course I could produce but a fraction of what I understood; now my abilities are somewhat more balanced.

However, I did find the course pace quite slow and far from as intensive as it might have been.  This is in part because the course wasn’t very interactive (i.e. not a lot of small group work or dialogue creation, and a much heavier focus on going through the book or listening to grammar lectures), and in part because the instructors grew a bit indifferent around the beginning of November.  It’s also pretty difficult to keep two dozen teenagers (as most of my classmates were) focused for four hours straight.  I found I generally didn’t miss out much if I skipped out before the last hour. Spending several hours a day in class also meant I was less likely to practice non-class words on memrise or go through other material at home.

Takeaway: I’m glad that classes are over and I no longer have to numb my tush on those unforgiving hard wooden chairs for hours every morning.  I will use the two months before I return to Ankara to study the second Hitit book, review all the vocab I’d like to be actually able to learn, and practice on DuoLingo. In Ankara I do plan to take Turkish classes 2-3 days a week for a total of 6-9 hours/week at the Turkish American Association, which is reputed to have higher standards.  Around 10 hours of in-class time per week is actually much more productive, as it leaves time, energy and desire to practice more outside of class.



Do We Learn a Language Through Immersion?

(12/2/2015) Yes, and no (like most answers to most linguistic questions).
I’ve been in Ankara for the past two weeks, skipping Turkish classes in Bishkek but speaking Turkish [without the intermediary of E]. So have I learned more Turkish? Which provides a faster learning opportunity – courses or immersion?
I’d say neither, on their own.
From my month in Ruijin (Jianxi, SE China), where only the young spoke [something akin to] standard Chinese and I was surrounded daily by people speaking Hakka, I can say that immersion alone barely results in language learning, at least among adult would-be-learners.  I learned about three words over thirty days – words whose meanings could be picked up from specific contexts and repeated situational use.  In Heqing, Yunnan I picked up about 20 words of Bai (a Tibetan-Burmese language that was the unwritten mother tongue of the majority of my students) – mostly greetings, swear words, and farm animals – over a year. When you’re an adult, people don’t speak to you like a baby, and you aren’t going to pick up a language from scratch.
Immersion can enhance many aspects of language learning – listening, speaking practice, understanding the living language.  From being around so many people who speak Turkish, whether in Bishkek or in Ankara, I’ve learned to listen, and can understand far more than I can say, from doctor visits to concrete quality to regular family affairs. I’ll probably never sound like a textbook, simply because the textbooks I’ve read have supplied only a fraction of my total Turkish input.
I would also say that having to speak – spending hours a day when no one around me speaks more than a few words of English, and heading into situations on my own, from making dentist appointments to trying to get a new Turkish airlines card to shopping for a winter suit vest for E – has ensured that I really practice what I’ve studied up to this point.  For in class we learn – grammar, vocabulary, sentence structures – but it’s not until we really use them, and become competent in using them without the stumble, that they become *ours*, that we begin to own the language we have studied. We need practice to actually know the language.  Without practice we can recognize the language and even score amazingly high on comprehension tests, but be completely unable to produce it.  Last year I tested a C1 on a Turkish comprehensive test – because I *understood* so much of the grammar and vocabulary – but I could barely produce a basic introduction without stumbling, especially in real-time. Two weeks unaided (for when I’m with E in Turkey he takes over most of the language exchanges, and I always know I can rely on him for explanation) is, of course, not enough to truly practice *all* that I’ve learned.  I would need a few months for that.
Still…practice alone can only take a language learner so far.  For comprehensive understanding and an ability to use the language correctly and in depth, we also need instruction and some textbook study (online or off). We need to (gasp!) study the grammar and write a hundred or a dozen practice sentences before we can spit it out in conversation. We need correction, and to learn to recognize and correct our mistakes.
I’ve met people who “learned” Chinese simply through making and hanging out with local friends.  Most of them could understand quite a bit and speak with decent fluency (fast, and without too much stumbling), but not a single one had a good grasp of grammar, or a great storehouse of vocabulary. They cemented their mistakes though repeated, uncorrected repetition – and for most of them it was impossible to learn to use a difficult grammar piece correctly, or evolve beyond basic functional language abilities. And that’s the danger of pure practice unaccompanied by instruction – our mistakes become irreversible habits, we limit ourselves to a base of language.
So the best course is obviously a complement of courses and practice – either practice sessions (as with a partner on italki) where you practice different scenarios and your partner corrects your usage, or immersion practice where no one slows down or simplifies their language and you have to respond in real time. With that, a few notes for making the most of your immersion and study time:
– Ask people to correct you. Obviously this isn’t going to go over very well in a store or at the dentist, but if family members or friends can correct your usage you will learn not just to speak, but to speak correctly.
– Record what people say. Keep a pocket notebook (or an open note in your phone) and write down those certain expressions or new words to look up and practice when you’re on your own.
– Anticipate dialogues. Going to the store? Write a dialogue you might have with the clerk. Look up, write down, and practice all the vocabulary you might need. If you can, practice the dialogue with a friend or with a language partner (again, italki can be a great resource for that – you can also write your dialogue in a notebook entry and ask native speakers to correct it).
– We’re there any areas where you stumbled? Something you couldn’t express in a conversation? Write down what you tried to say and use a native speaker friend, italki or HiNative to get the correct translation. Practice, and try again.

If You Listen, YouMaybe Can Understand (Or, Are Turkic Languages Mutually Intelligible?)

As I’ve mentioned before, since we returned to Bishkek I’ve been taking intensive Turkish classes with a bunch of Kyrgyz kids (along with one girl from Kazakhstan).  Now there’s something quite different about my taking Turkish (or my taking French or Chinese or Russian) and their taking Turkish: they expect Turkish to be similar to their native tongue.

And sometimes it is.  The languages are, after all, of the same root.  They have the same roots for core vocabulary, the same general grammar structure.  Using Turkish for Kyrgyz (or visa versa) in the bazaar is fine.  But it’s when we get into the details that problems emerge. The first case is with false cognates – often words that have developed out of one root but have taken very different meanings in the two languages (think embarrassed in English and embarazada – pregnant – in Spanish).  Other words have developed to have multiple meanings in one language but only one narrow meaning in the other (bar in Kyrgyz/Uyghur/Uzbek/Kazak meaning both “to have” and “to go”; var – which cannot be conjugated – in Turkish simply signifying ownership or existence).  Some letters switch out – Turkish ‘g’s for Kyrgyz ‘k’s, ‘d’s for ‘t’s. And of course a lot of Kyrgyz vocabulary just doesn’t exist in Turkish.

This is compounded by the different uses of similar-looking grammatical constructions.  Like the past imperfect in French vs. in Spanish, some grammar constructions are formed with identical rules, but can be used for completely different purposes.  Sometimes it’s just small things – a different verb will force a different case ending (i.e. dative vs. genitive) on the preceding noun.

The proximity of the two languages can be a great boon to the Kyrgyz students – they already have a complete conceptual framework for Turkish.  It can also be a great bane – when their Kyrgyz language background leads to misleading assumptions, when students make the same Kyrgyz-referential mistakes again and again and again, when sentences fall into Kyrgyz in class – because they expect to be understood.  While [almost] all language student will make mistakes based on mistaken assumptions and native/second language references, it seems to be much more common among language students learning a language similar to their mother tongue – and presented as similar to their mother tongue.  None of my Chinese students spoke Chinese expecting it to be understood as English, and surely no one [save a few Americans] will speak English expecting it to be understood as French.

But our teacher does understand them, because she has lived here and taught Turkish to Kyrgyz students for the last dozen years – the same way that I could understand the almost impenetrable not-quite-English sentences written by my Chinese students: because we’ve learned how to listen.  My former Uzbek teacher (an Ankara native) once said that two completely literate speakers of different Turkic languages can understand each other – as long as they have an extensive knowledge of [obscure] vocabulary in their own language and have trained their patient ears to listen for the most likely possibility.  If you listen, you can understand.  But as our [exceedingly exasperated] Turkish teacher points out day after day – most native speakers won’t understand you unless you actually speak their language correctly.

So – mutually intelligible?  It depends on who you’re talking to.

Too Many Tongues

These Past two days I’ve spoken in English, Chinese, Turkish and Russian.  Yesterday I managed to include all four before nine am.  Needless to say, this is a bit exhausting. There’s some compounded confusion (and mental stress) because I can be using all four languages in the same space – within one building of the university.  Example from this afternoon (approximately 12:45-1:15): Pop into an office to ask (in Turkish) if the department head is back from lunch yet.  Go next door to chat in English with the MA student who helps with department affairs and has asked if I’ll help her with PhD program applications to universities abroad. Find out from her that the other assistant had sent me to the wrong Chinese class last week.  Go down the hall and talk to the Confucius Institute Chinese teachers, informing them (in Chinese) that I will, in fact, be taking a different class.  Go back down the hall to find the department head and confirm (in Turkish) that I do not need to do anything else with my application for full studentship until December.  Go downstairs and order a coffee and some photocopies in Russian, finding that halfway through the conversation I’ve slipped into Turkish.

Turkish and Russian I usually have no problem keeping apart, as I have such different cultural experiences with each.  Sometimes I do jump back and forth between the two when talking to local staff at the university who are fluent in both languages and themselves switch back and forth between Kyrgyz and Russian within a single conversation.  But on the street (outside of the wet market which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a complete medley of Kyrgyz, Turkish, Russian and Dungan Chinese sellers – and thus languages) it’s generally quite easy to compartmentalize the languages.  Even if I’m listening to a Turkish podcast I can respond to someone or a situation in Russian.

Oddly enough I’m having more trouble with Chinese and Turkish.  This morning I was explaining the difference between “a” and “the” to a [Kyrgyz] student in my Turkish class who had asked me to look over her English composition, and I noticed a few times that when explaining (in Turkish) I slipped in a few Chinese phrases like “就是” (it’s just that).  It’s like re-activating my previously dormant Chinese has caused it to but into all of my other language learning. Perhaps this will settle down after I’ve spent a few more weeks reviewing Chinese and my brain begins to better compartmentalize all the languages.

Added to this, I may start taking Kyrgyz lessons again, as it now appears that the time doesn’t conflict with the Chinese class I’m actually enrolled in.  Never mind that I’ve now missed a mere six and a half weeks of class and they are now 1/4 through the entire year’s material.  Apparently I should just go and it will be fine, at least this is what I’m told. So we’ll see how that works out.

Right now my head is still spinning.

Though I would get a lot of Kyrgyz listening practice in my Turkish class for (I feel as if I’m back in the first week of the first year I taught – to middle school students) – some of the students just cannot shut up.  For four hours there is ceaseless background chatter.  Half the class reminds me of one of my first students who, as she was in 7th grade about 5 years ago, must be about the same age as the kids around me now, and who more than once burst out, “Teacher, I don’t know what to do!  I don’t want to talk in class, but I just can’t help myself!“.  She was 12 and had [untreated] ADHD.  These kids are legally adults.  But yet they still keep talking.  The worst is during closed-book practice tests – if they’re not openly sharing answers, looking at dictionaries, checking cellphones and shouting answers across the room while the teacher is present, then they erupt the second the teacher steps out the door.  Because apparently it’s more important to get a high score on a practice test whose score the teacher will never see then to actually figure out what one ought practice before the real test. Uhh…right now I just wish they’d stop chatting, because my former teacher nerves keep twitching.   But they’re not my students, and I can’t just butt in to better organize the students, not in an environment where that would seem to completely undermine (and shake) the existing structure.

So…languages, and morning walks to a class I feel I share with a bunch of middle-schoolers 😀

Speaking, Serbia

A few weeks before leaving Bishkek we had a Kazakh-Russian couchsurfer who had, en route to Bishkek, traveled in a great loop from Prague. She claimed that she and her German husband hasn’t really had any problems communicating, as in many post-socialist countries they could get by in Russian.
The first day whenever I opened my mouth in Russian people just looked at my askance. Baffled. Apparently Russians have enough meat and potatoes in their own country to make Serbia a top travel destination. And apparently, though the two Slavic languages are close enough that we, as non-native speakers, can pick out a great number of cognates in speech and read half the signs on he streets, Serbians generally don’t understand (or choose to understand) Russian. Older Serbians may speak a bit, from when it was more popularly taught in schools, but English is much more commonly understood. So instead of speaking a language closer to their own, we just speak English on the streets – to the great relief of everyone.
On Serbian (Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegran) and Russian: while Bishkek-Russian often sounds as if the speaker is wearing stilettos and spandex, Serbian is spoken with the lilt and buoyancy of Italian. People smile when they speak and every conversation is opportunity for a new connection. This is the capital where, when bombed by NATO, citizens donned target t-shirts and threw demonstrations on the bridges that turned into giant parties. In the middle of a war. As our cheerfully otherwise unemployed ibikebelgrade (highly recommended!) guide noted, ‘Even when things are bad, we always try to be happy’. If the situation is sh*t you might as well acknowledge it and attempt to go on enjoying your life despite adverse circumstances. Russian, on the other hand, always seems to come with a note of doomsday resignation or exhaustion with life (even if it’s a simple response from a waiter pressured to bring a shaker of salt).
Despite the differences in accent and lilt, however, the two languages still sound quite similar to our ears. Serbian has more loan words from English and Ottoman-era Turkish, but cognates abound and the grammar is close enough that it’s possible to follow. Our guide also noted that, while its hard for people on the streets to understand Russian, she was able to take in conversation and converse after spending about a week in Russia. The difference does not seem to be any greater than that between Kyrgyz (or Uyghur) and Turkish, or, let’s say, rural southern slang and standard English. But understanding is also a matter of motivation and choice. Uyghurs choose to understand more Turkish because they want to believe in their shared cultural roots and stake in a ‘second cultural homeland’. Serbians may not feel like they have much to share with Russia, and so the desire to understand is not there. As an international language, English is much more practical. Which brings me to…

The guilt of speaking English: I don’t assume that locals in a foreign country will speak English. In China that would have gotten me kindergarteners and some college students; in Bishkek Dubai-returned barmen, development employees and some university students; and in Turkey seaside workers and (partially) university graduates under 35. If you just speak English in any of those counties you’re not going very far. Plus people will often find you rude. Unless you encounter college students who are really enthusiastic about practicing their English, I’ve always found that it’s better to speak the local language, even poor and broken.
E, on the other hand, is not a native English speaker. Out of pragmatism he speaks Russian or bazaar-Turkic in Bishkek. But here he too speaks only English on the streets – and without any of my associated English guilt. For him, it’s a middle point and not one of privilege – he’s made the effort to learn an international language and take a step towards common understanding, and he expects the opposing party to do the same.IMG_2847

A last note on alphabets: Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are both visible throughout town. Restaurant names and government institutions are often in Cyrillic, while signboards and products are usually in Latin – though I’ve seen almost everything in both. Apparently Croatian was traditionally written with the Latin alphabet while Serbian was written in Cyrillic. During Yugoslavia days both were accepted as official, and both are taught with equal weight in schools today. While most official government documents are written in Cyrillic, use of either is generally acceptable in any circumstance. Only – because Cyrillic was traditionally used by the Serbians, it sometimes carries a nationalist or partisan edge.

What Language Should I learn for Living in Kyrgyzstan?

Peace Corps volunteers learn Kyrgyz with a smattering of Russian (links are to free PC language material downloads), most Bishkek expats opt for Russian, plenty of Turkish expats  get by on a Turkic creole.  So what language should you learn?  And which language will be most widely spoken – and understood?

First, let’s start with the languages:

Kyrgyz is a Turkic language closely related to Kazakh and characterized by it’s agglutinative nature (“extra information” is added to the word root in place of prepositions, etc…) and strict internal vowel harmony.  If you’ve ever studied Turkish, or another Turkic language, the structure and vocab of the language should not be too hard.  However there are very limited resources available for learning Kyrgyz.  Apart from the Peace Corps materials linked above, there’s this SRAS student-created phrasebook, a reader from Indiana University the Lonely Planet Central Asia Phrasebook, a Kyrgyz vocab list, and another ‘Kyrgyz’ phrasebook that claims to teach the reader Kazakh (?). There are more local Kyrgyz materials in Russian, but if you already know Russian then you probably aren’t reading this post. Google translate does not support Kyrgyz, and I’ve yet to see an English-Kyrgyz dictionary.  AUCA and The London School both offer Kyrgyz Language Instruction – if you make arrangements in advance.

In Short: probably the easier of the two to learn, but crippled by a definite scarcity of materials.

kyrgyz grammar

It’s a toss-up: complete vowel harmonization in Kyrgyz, or gender and complex declensions in Russian

Russian is a Slavic language with absolutely no relation to Kyrgyz save Soviet-era Russian vocabulary introduced into the later.  Having studied Russian both in Bishkek and back in the states, I can say that it’s definitely difficult for native English and Romance Language speakers (and plenty of people agree).  There’s [an excessive] use of prepositions for everything, declensions, gender, and five thousand forms for the genitive plural.  Russian is hard; it will take you two months to even have a basic conversation. However,  there are plenty of materials available in Russian both online and off, and it’s quite easy to find a professional Russian language tutor for about $5 an hour.

And apparently not everyone believes Russian is (so) hard:

Quora: Is Russian Hard to Learn? Yes and No

Fluent in 3 Months: Why Russian isn’t as Hard as you Think

Languages Comprehended: For many ethnic Kyrgyz who completed their schooling in or just after the Soviet period, Russian was their only language of education. They might speak Kyrgyz at home or even on the street, but feel unsteady discussing more academic or professional topics in their native tongue.  Likewise, most other non-slavic ethnic minorities (Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens, Tatars) received and still receive, all of their education in Russian.  I’ve met maybe three Russians who can speak Kyrgyz, and all of them attended Manas University (where both Turkish and Kyrgyz are compulsory subjects).  However, once you’re out in the countryside it can be a completely different story, especially in the southern half of the country.  Many rural Kyrgyz  did not receive education in and may not understand Russian.  So if you will be spending your time in a village where Russian does not dominate, Kyrgyz may be a better bet.

Language Mixing and Code Switching: Decades of Russian language instruction and use of Russian among Turkic ethnicity peers in work and school mean that the Turkic languages are rarely spoken in their pure form in urban centers, especially among younger people who still receive education in Russian.  It’s not uncommon to hear a person start a sentence in Kyrgyz and end it in Russian.  I haven’t found anything on this in Kyrgyzstan, but for an interesting comparative exploration of the way one language creeps into another see “Bulgarian Turkish: The Linguistic Effects of Recent Nationality Policy“. What this means is: if you are living in an urban setting and know Kyrgyz, you might still struggle with comprehension when chunks of conversations erupt in Russian.  Russians, obviously, do not code switch with Kyrgyz, and the only words they seem to borrow are those related to national foods or traditional Kyrgyz clothing.

Language Directed Towards You: If you live in Bishkek and look vaguely Russian, Korean or foreign, people will most likely address you in Russian.  I even see Kyrgyz addressing each other in Russian when they are out shopping or speaking to someone they don’t know on the streets.  Not understanding Russian could lead to some unpleasant situations or just general confusion.  However, plenty of Turkish citizens get by without any Russian – though, to be fair, the headscarved Turkish housewives with their middle-class small-city-folk Muslim overcoats do look distinctly Anatolian.  Outside of the cities most people will probably try to address you in Russian unless you address them first in Kyrgyz.  At the same time, if you do speak Kyrgyz (or Turkish with some Kyrgyz thrown in), ethnic Kyrgyz may give you a much warmer reception.

Relearning Russian

In grad school I aced almost every grammar-heavy Russian text, as I had before with Chinese, French, Spanish and Latin. I think I ended the first quarter with around a 97% average (thus disproving the motto: University of Chicago: Where the only thing that goes down on you is your GPA).

But the problem was, we didn’t practice, not enough.  We had one dialogue for every twenty pages of grammar exercises.  Choose the right declension I could; put it into practice in a split second on the street – not so much.  Since returning to Bishkek, my Russian has actually been deteriorating.  All that Pushkin vocabulary and those complicated, convoluted sentences our textbook would invent to use every declension in a single sentence – I don’t use them when I’m buying fruit.  I’ve also been shifting into the Turkish-speaking sphere; proximity to a bilingual Turkish-Kyrgyz university means that most of the people I know, local and expat alike, speak Turkish and perhaps English.

I also feel like there isn’t a whole culture attached to Russian in Bishkek.  The few Russian friends I had, bar one who speaks Turkish and English, have all left the city for better opportunities abroad.  There are very few young Russians left.  And yet, while people may speak Kyrgyz at home, Russian is the public language of the city.  Sometimes.  At work, all official documents are in Russian and English; meetings are held in Russian or English; and yet I’ve noticed that the same person will flop between Russian and Kyrgyz depending on who they are talking to in the office.  Likewise, menus may be in Russian, but we can order in Kyrgyzified Turkish.

However… we did decide that, as long as we are in Bishkek, we probably should get back on the Russian study train.  Trying to talk to our new [not Turkish-speaking] cleaner last week I realized that, while I have a dormant Russian vocabulary of perhaps 1500 words, that’s what it is – dormant.  I can still understand a decent bit, but most I’ve forgotten how to use. Perhaps 200-500 words and a few hundred expressions have cemented themselves, because I use them over and over again in daily transactions.  But the rest – inaccessible.  Which makes communicating rather difficult.

So about a month back I reluctantly contacted an old teacher from the London School and asked if she could recommend a tutor who would come to our house once a week (because that way we can’t forget or skip lessons…).  The first Thursday we had guests, the second she went to a funeral, and yesterday we finally had our first lesson.

It’s like cranking a rusty chain drawing a mud-soaked bucket from the bottom of a well. It’s there – but everything is a struggle to remember.  Some things I remember learning (like a certain verb, or the declension table…), but  that’s it – I just remember learning it, and can’t actually remember what it is.  Other things I see just once and the meaning flies back.  Living in Bishkek and passively hearing Russian all around there were also a few words she explained that suddenly cracked open whole conversations.  We still have a long way to go, just to gain back the vocabulary and knowledge we lost…but now with a better teacher, I feel like we’ll actually get there, or at least get to the point where we can initiate and carry through full conversations that go beyond introducing ourselves and buying fruit.