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.

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.

Turkish Immersion in Kyrgyzstan: Extent of Mutual Intelligibility

For four days I’ve watched three people attempt to navigate their way around an unknown country using only their native tongue.

Early Thursday morning (like 3:30 am early…) we picked up E’s brother-in-law and two friends from his high school years at the airport to begin their long weekend vacation in the capital of Central Asia’s highland paradise. E’s brother-in-law speaks Turkish and a bit of French, and had never before visited any of the Central Asian states.  His two friends had recently traveled to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and one of them spoke a smattering of Russian and English. But basically they spoke Turkish.  It was not unlike Americans in Mexico: they ordered in Turkish, asked directions in Turkish, bartered in Turkish, and small-talked in Turkish.  It was a really good opportunity for me to practice my spoken Turkish – and to test out what I wrote about several weeks back in How Mutually Intelligent are the Turkic Languages?

So how mutually intelligible are Turkish and Kyrgyz? How easy was it for three Turkish speakers with no experience of Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz language to get by in Bishkek?

The Short Answer: Possible for basic things, as long as you expect some misunderstanding and a few delays.
The Long Answer: In their core vocabulary and structures – the simple language you use when making everyday transactions as a traveler – Kyrgyz and Turkish are similar enough for speakers of one language to get by among speakers of another language.  If you scroll down to “vocabulary comparison”, the Wikipedia article on Turkic languages also has a nice comparison chart covering basic words (though some of the Uyghur entries are wrong, so…). Once you leave that core vocabulary, understanding starts to break down.

According to our comrades, it’s actually far easier for older generation Turkish speakers from the village and older generation Kyrgyz speakers to understand one another. Why? Because the language they learned was less structured by language reforms and thus closer to the old common Turkic tongue.  As I wrote about in the post mentioned above, both Turkish and Turkic languages of Central Asia underwent major language reforms in the twentieth century, during which certain aspects of each language and their respective dialects were retained, and certain aspects or dialectical variations were shed, with different aspects being retained or shed for each language.  Again, in the Soviet states, each Turkic language was re-defined to create distinct boundaries between languages where there had once been a continuum of dialects.  Uzbek is perhaps the most extreme example, as the language crafted/standardized during Soviet times was actually a derivative of one of three major dialects with a higher occurrence of Persian and Arabic loanwords and was not previously the region’s most common tongue.

What this means is that, a generation or two back, Kyrgyz and village Turkish were actually much closer to each other than they are today. A few of E’s older Kyrgyz co-workers who have visited Turkey have confirmed the same thing – the language spoken by older people in Turkish villages in much closer to the Kyrgyz spoken by older generations in their family than the Turkish spoken at the university or by younger generations in general.  I myself have also had a really hard time understanding older Turks from Anatolia the few times I’ve encountered visiting relatives in Ankara. As E’s brother-in-law and his friends all grew up in the Central-Eastern Anatolian city of Erzincan, it was far easier for them to understand the Kyrgyz spoken at them than it would be for a twenty-something year old from Ankara or Istanbul.

Their experience also matches my attempt to travel cross-Kazakhstan with nearly no Russian and an elementary knowledge of Uyghur two summers past.  Communication is possible, albeit a bit slow, and there are definitely a few false cognates that will throw you into hilarious territory.  If you want to have a more in-depth conversation, however, Turkish-Kyrgyz (or any two Turkic languages from different branches of the Turkic language family) probably won’t suffice.

A Few Other Factors Influencing Communication:

  • Intent: When people want to sell something to you, they have a high level of motivation to understand what you are trying to say. This is also true when people from different groups want to see their inter-community bonds as either closer or further apart: asking Kyrgyz how well they can understand Uzbek, for example, will result in a wild variety of answers depending on their speaker’s own experiences and political stance. The same also holds when observing accents in English – we more attentively listen to, and thus better understand, those we want to communicate with. When I was 16 I spent the summer in Cambridge, MA.  There was one gnarly and wicked tempered old local ticket seller at the Harvard Square T (subway) station who had this impenetrable Boston accent.  But if I wanted to purchase a ticket, I had to understand him. And so, after a few terrifying tries, I did.
  • Environment: There are plenty of Turkish businessmen already in Bishkek, and many Kyrgyz people have studied at least a little Turkish, or become accustomed to better listening to Turkish.  This would not be true in the towns outside of Bishkek where the Turkish presence is minimal.
  • Situation: Most of the time they spoke Turkish was when ordering in a restaurant.  Food names, numbers, hot, cold – pretty easy.  Same with stores – this, that, colors, numbers, bigger, smaller. Not exactly complicated vocabulary.

Another thing I noticed this weekend: they [mostly] succeeded in getting around Bishkek relying on Turkish because there are so few ethnic Russians. Except for certain corners of the city, there really aren’t a lot of Russians left in Bishkek.  I’m not sure which official numbers are correct (12.5%? 11%? 6.4%?), but I’m sure that, once absentee residents actually working and residing in Russia are factored in, the on-the-ground population is quite lower.  See this article about Russians leaving Kyrgyzstan.

Navigating Another Situation in Turkish

A mixed post of language learning benchmarks and developing ideas:

Yesterday I went to the university and discussed me doing my MA in International Relations while we stay in Bishkek.

First, I realize this must seem really odd to an American mind.  Didn’t I already start my PhD, and at a top-ten university? Why would I drop that only to do my Master’s in an unknown city three continents away?  It is kind of odd, but it makes sense for a few reasons:

I never actually did a Master’s degree.  Had I stayed at Chicago they would have granted one after the second year of my program, but I didn’t, and thus neither did they.  If I plan on continuing my PhD outside of the states (which is likely), then I would actually need a MA to apply to PhD programs at most schools.  It might be possible to transfer my previous PhD credits from Chicago to a PhD program at another university, but most likely a very confusing procedure as it’s not common outside of the US educational system. In short, backtracking and getting a MA degree now will make things much easier in the future.

Second: for now we’re planning on staying in Bishkek a bit longer.  We were thinking of moving earlier, but the situation in Turkey is really uncertain (elections on June 7th!) and we haven’t found another place that seems to offer the right situation, someplace we’d like to settle. We have other options, but none of them seem like a solid fit.  And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, there are near no jobs here for non-Turkish expats. I’m working part time now but, while I’ve learned some new skills, I don’t really feel like it’s advancing my career.  Not to mention that the pace of work and project progress can be…I’m ready to dive into and commit to doing something intensively again, to push myself everyday, to focus on a few areas that really interest me.

And third: the program.  I was highly unimpressed with my program in the states (perhaps in great part because I attended a really wonderful liberal arts college where professors were so involved in their teaching and student standards were set with rigour).  As a few of my other college classmates discovered, great researchers and writers do not always make for great teachers and advisors.  Likewise, the factors that determine a university’s ranking don’t necessarily determine whether it will be a great place for you to study, whether it will be a place where you will thrive.   The university may be in the middle of Central Asia, but certain departments do have really good professors, and the International Relations department also runs a Central Asia research institute.  It looks like I would be able to study what I’m really interested in (basically constructions of national, regional and ethnic identities; China-Turkic minorities-Central Asia and Turkey-Turkic cousins across Central Asia-possibly minorities within Turkey), and the department head also seemed quite excited about the possibility of me doing some work for the resource center, which I think would be great.   Also, having a department that also supports what I’m interested in pursuing – fantastic.

The one tricky part will be language.  In this particular department 90% of courses will be in English or Turkish, but I might still have to take one or two courses in Kyrgyz.  I currently do not speak Kyrgyz, and I have no real personal pressing desire to learn Kyrgyz. However, as it is in the Turkic language family, and I’ve already studied Turkish, Uyghur, Uzbek and Kazakh (to varying degrees), learning Kyrgyz shouldn’t prove impossible.  So for fall semester I will take classes offered in English along with Turkish and Kyrgyz intensive language courses, and starting in the spring of next year I’ll take courses in English and Turkish while possibly continuing Kyrgyz language.

Which brings me to the language part of this post: discussion of my participation was done almost entirely in Turkish.  And I understood it, 95%.  Enough so that the first woman we talked to, a Kyrgyz woman working in the registration office, said, “Because she knows Turkish she can start classes in Turkish right away.”  Which would be terrifying, as I’m currently working my way through a book written for 9-12 year olds and not academic texts. But I can understand – and generally hold my own – in conversations.  Why? Because one of the strategies I use in language learning is setting situations you want to conquer in your target language.

What this really means is focusing your language study so that it’s relevant for you and the situations you will encounter while using that language.  You aren’t going to learn everything in your target language – I don’t even know how to navigate every situation in English though I’m a native speaker (E, for example, can leave me lost when discussing car mechanics).  So pick out and focus on the situations you want to learn.  Define a situation or topic.  Think up what you want to say, what vocabulary you might need, what questions you might be asked or snags you could come across, and practice.  If you’re a beginner it might be as basic as finding items in the grocery store.  Or it could be introducing your job or explaining a project.  Last spring before I went to the bazaar to have couch pillows made  I made sure I knew all the vocabulary and phrases I would need in Russian.  It doesn’t have to be something big – just a topic that has relevance to you and will help you better cement your knowledge of grammar and vocabulary and everything else that otherwise pours out of your textbook.

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, (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 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.

15 Activities to Vary Your Language Learning

It’s easy to get into a rut when you set a routine studying languages, especially when self-studying.  So here are a few exercises I’ve found that you can use to mix up your routine and re-motivate yourself (let me know if you have more ideas in the comments section!).  I think the important thing is to be willing to try new methods, or use materials (including material aimed at children) that you wouldn’t normally use for yourself in your native language.  If you expand what you are willing to work with, you will find that there are a lot of resources out there, even if you are learning a less-commonly-taught language.

  1. Podcasts [rather obvious] For Turkish, I love Turkish Tea Time.  If there aren’t very good podcasts in your target language (I find them to be beginner-heavy for all but the most popular languages), then listen to BBC news podcasts in your target language. You won’t understand all of it; pick up what you can to attune your ear to the language as spoken at a native pace.  Radio Free [Asia/Europe/etc…] also broadcasts in a number of less-popular languages (like Kyrgyz and Khmer)
  2. Make Your Own Podcasts! Use a Youtube Video-MP3 converter (like to generate MP3 files from videos, news broadcasts, or anything else in your target language on Youtube.
  3. Watch Dubbed Disney Movies Blockbuster Disney movies have been dubbed in hundreds of languages,
    usually somewhat professionally (meaning not one guy reading the script in monotone).  You’re probably already familiar with the plots and can predict the dialogue, so watching it dubbed in your target language is a really easy way to ease into watching films in the target language. Also, subtitled disney songs…

  4. Watch Dubbed Classics Like with Disney films, you will probably find the language fairly predictable and easy to understand.  The choice of voices, however, may be totally different than what you would have imagined for those characters.  Chinese dubbing on awful 80’s American movies (and old bollywood flicks) makes them fantastic (in a ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ kind of way) and horribly hilarious.
  5. Watch Foreign Movies with Subtitles in the Target Language All Chinese films and TV shows have Chinese subtitles (due to regional difference in dialects); with languages like Turkish, we’re not so lucky.  It’s really hard to find Turkish material with Turkish subtitles.  But…there are plenty of foreign (and American) films with Turkish subtitles.  Pick a popular film in a language you don’t know and watch it with subtitles in your target language.  Because you can’t understand what the actors are saying, you will have to rely on the subtitles (along with visual clues). 
  6. Watch Kids Cartoons These usually use simple language and sometimes have subtitles in the target language.  If you can stand the saccharine, watch sing-along songs. If you can’t, just stick to regular programs, or cartoon series made for language learning. BookBoxInc has cartoons for a few random languages; Muzzy is a great classic (we used to watch it in French class); Peppa Pig (and here) is a modern-day Muzzy.
  7. Watch the News For beginning-intermediate learners, the news usually uses a predictable set of words and subject headlines across the bottom of the screen – which you can use as ‘cue words’ – making it far easier to understand than a full TV show.
  8. Random Writing Exercises (1) Randomly pick a word from the vocab list in the back of your book and write as much as you can about it – describe it, write about a related memory, write about a thing you associated with the word.
  9. Random Writing Exercises (2) Write down a series of cues or situations.  Stick them in a cup and pull them out one prompt.  Write a dialogue or a short story based on the prompt. Your prompt is oranges? Write a dialogue with people haggling over the prices of oranges.  Write a narrative of how an orange got from tree to table.  Write about a memory you have that involves eating an orange.
  10. Summarize a Plot This can be verbally or written – think of a book you just read or a movie you watched, and create a short summary (depending on your language level) of the main story.
  11. Write Strange Stories I used to do this when creating reading comprehension exercises for my 7th graders in China – it’s surprising what you can create with a first-year vocabulary.  Blue sheep stealing taxis and driving around the city, flying giraffes acting in films.  The more ridiculous it is, the more vocab you can use, and the easier it is to remember.
  12. Story Telling from Photos This is something I used to do with my university students in Urumqi. Choose 3-5 photos or pictures (they don’t necessarily have to be related). Look at each picture and describe it in as much detail as possible.  Then try to create a story from the pictures, linking each to the others.  Again, the stories can get pretty far-fetched and ridiculous, but as long as you’re putting your language into use, it doesn’t need to be logical. 
  13. Translate Magazine Stories If you can, grab a bilingual in-flight magazine (they’re usually labeled ‘complimentary’, so it’s OK to take them). The articles may be insipid, but they usually cover a comfortable array of topics and will provide a lot of new vocabulary in context.  If you get stuck, you can also look at their English version of the article. Turkish Airlines has all of their magazines available online here. If you can’t grab a bilingual magazine, try finding a middle-of-the-road magazine (like “Life” or a travel magazine) online – one that will expose you to a lot of new sentence structures and vocabulary in context but isn’t filled with a lot of jargon (or worse, international names in indecipherable translation).
  14. Read Childen’s Story Books Kids books are great because they’re usually very descriptive of action and will help you build a natural foundation in dialogue.  Classical story books will also help you get a cultural bearing in the language. As your language skills increase, you can move on to young adult novels, which generally have plenty of description of culturally relevant daily events and activities.
  15. Watch Commercials, Read Advertisements These teach you as much about cultural values and desires as they do about the language.  They are also a great medium for learning colloquial language, but in short bite-sized snippets.
  16. (ok, so 15 +1) Memorize Poems Find a recording online, listen to it and read, and repeat until you have the rhythm in your head.  This is great for practicing intonation, word stress, pause.

Do We Ever Forget a Language Once Learned?

In high school I was shocked to hear that my mother’s friends could barely muster a sentence of French despite studying the language through university.  Six or more years poured into a language, and now they could barely string together six years.  I had started studying French at 14, Spanish at 15, aced almost every test, and thought that I could never forget the languages that came so easily to me.

I haven’t studied either language since I left high school, and nine years on I can still read the languages and understand conversation to an extent, but I doubt I could produce anything beyond what we learned in the first semester unless I took extensive time to think it through.  But language doesn’t all disappear.  Language is like a muscle – we build the muscles sinew by sinew. Exercising tones our language muscles, improves flexibility and flash reflexes.  If not regularly exercised it goes slack, our reflexes slow.  But the muscle is still there.  If I pick up a book in Spanish or overhear a conversation in French those muscles start quivering again.  I might not understand as much as I could when the muscle was exercised every day, but I haven’t completely lost the ability.  Each re-encounter with the language snaps the muscle and re-builds a few sinews, delays decline.

After five years of living in China – waking China, breathing China, eating China, sleeping China, dreaming China – I thought I could never lose my Chinese.  It was too ingrained, too much a part of every sinew of my body.  Years of speaking Chinese (some days – some weeks – that was all I spoke) had let the language seep into my system.  According to a friend, when feverish I even sleep-talked in Chinese. Using Chinese changed the way I saw the world, shifted my framework so much that I even sometimes borrowed Chinese modes of expressions when speaking in English.

And then I left China in the summer of 2013.  Originally just for a month, but I stayed the whole summer in Central Asia, before heading off to Turkey and Chicago (where I had a very negative experience with a Chinese department), and I haven’t been back to China since.  Living in Central Asia that summer it was like I began to shed China, began to shed all that stress and constrictions and necessity to be hyper-aware of my surroundings and physical sensitivity of being a foreigner often mistaken as Russian or Uyghur in Xinjiang and ironic negativity that all China expats use to stay afloat. And as I began to shed China, I began to re-develop my framework for analyzing the world around me.  Over the months the associations between everything I touched or saw and China experiences grew weaker; China’s magnetism weakened and I was free to make new associations.

I began to speak slower, to pause before taking up a word, to forget little expressions that had once seemed so commonplace.  Chinese was forgettable – it was simply a matter of mindset.  Living in the China mindset, I could not forget Chinese.  Leaving it, the language began to lose it’s grip.

But it’s still not a skill set I’ll lose overnight.  Last Friday we went to a couchsurfing meeting at a pub in Bishkek and I met a Kyrgyz man about my age who had done his studies in Tianjin.  He hadn’t met a Chinese-speaking westerner in Bishkek…ever, and I haven’t come across too many Kyrgyz who speak Chinese to an academic level, so we launched into a half an hour conversation.  Nope, not lost yet.

Recommended Book for Self-Study Turkish

I’ve bought almost every Turkish textbook available in Dost and D&R that isn’t awful. There really aren’t a lot of good textbooks available in Turkey, and the ones that are available seem to be strong in one area, but weak in others.
If you want a simple, comprehensible, and rather complete understanding of Turkish grammar – a good base for learning the language – then I would recommend Orhan Doğan’s “Modern Turkish: A Complete Self-Study Course for Beginners”.
It lays out grammar and the structure of the language in a much clearer format than I’ve seen elsewhere.

It does not, however, have a lot of conversational language or dialogue practice. Thus, if you want to both understand grammar and learn spoken Turkish , a good companion would be Starting Turkish (Orhan Doğan’s again, Milet Publishing), which conveniently lacks almost any grammar explanations (but does a great job of introducing lively dialogues and presenting common spoken usages).


Free Online Turkish Book!

I just (randomly) found an online copy of the “Teach Yourself Turkish” book. You can find the entire book (and download it in PDF form) here.

This was the second Turkish textbook I used (I have a collection…). I wouldn’t use it as a first textbook for learning the language, and some of the content is rather eclectic, but it does a good job of clearly explaining and connecting different parts of Turkish grammar. And now it’s free! (though perhaps pirated?)

Teaching on italki

First, I have to be honest: I’m not sure it’s worth it. It depends on your goals, your time, and your residence.

If you aren’t familiar with italki, it’s basically a community-centric online platform that allows language teachers and language learners to find each other for lessons over Skype. Students can also tap into a wide range of resources: finding language exchange partners, starting discussions, writing notebook entries and having them corrected by native speakers. Most features of the site are free, but to sign up for a class students have to purchase “italki credits” with a credit/debit card or a paypal account. After each lesson the credits are transferred to the teacher’s account and, when they withdraw them with *their* paypal account, transferred into their local currency (minus a 15% site commission). The site has professional teachers (who must have and upload a teaching certificate or related education degree) and community tutors, who can only offer informal tutoring. All-in-all, a pretty smooth operation with minimal room for error and complications.

The pros are pretty obvious: as long as you have a decent internet connection you can teach anywhere you want – at home, in a cafe – and travel time is basically eliminated for both parties. You have access to students from all over the world, across all time zones, so you can decide when you would like to offer lessons (instead of having to schedule them after the work day or on the weekends). If students cancel last minute or don’t show you still get paid, or you can decide at your discretion with the student to reschedule. You can offer only the classes you want to teach (which means you can also experiment around, or develop certain specialities) and look at students’ profiles before accepting a scheduled lesson. For linguist students, it would be a great way to test theories or see first-hand how adults actually learn language. For people trying to break into teaching, it’s a low-stress way to gain more experience and build your resume.

But the cons: I probably get twenty “can you teach me for free?” or, “will you be my language partner?” messages a week, despite having quite clearly at the top of my profile “I am on italki *as a teacher* and not currently interested in language exchange”. If your native language is English, you will get spammed pretty bad (or at least it will feel like it). Finding students takes a bit of time, as does arranging lessons and answering questions, at least at first. You have to provide all you own material, and thus preparing for class also takes time. But you can’t really factor this time into your rates because there is a decent amount of price competition on italki, at least for the more popular languages (like English). There seem to be a lot of experienced US and UK teachers on the site charging $16-20 per hour for classes – which isn’t really a living wage in those countries. Community tutors generally charge around $12-15 per hour – which I guess is good-ish money for a college student, or a teacher residing in a country with lower wages. So basically, price competition and the global aspect of the site favor teachers from regions with lower incomes (for example, local Russian teachers earn $3-6 an hour, but the average for a Russian teacher on italki is around $8-12, so basically all Bishkek Russian teachers should just quit their jobs at the London School and work online), and disadvantageous for teachers with more experience and from higher-income regions. If you are a native or near-native speaker of a less popular language, then you can basically take monopoly of the market – for example, there are eleven Turkish teachers, and all of them charge $20-35 per hour, which is more than they would earn in Turkey, and not bad for a country where that covers a nice dinner for two.

Some people teach on italki as a full-time job, other people just a few hours a week. I do see some teachers charging much more, but for specialized classes. If you happen to be versed in computer programming, finance, real estate or some other sector *and* have a teaching certificate *and* be located in a region where wages are lower or you are currently unemployed, then italki would be a great option, as there are a lot of professionals on the site looking to improve their English for international business.

I signed up for italki planning to do mostly editing and college guidance counseling (two features they are thinking of building into the site). But most students aren’t on the site looking for those things. I do some editing (conference paper abstracts, personal statements for grad school), but most students who contact me really just want to work on their speaking skills for work in international companies or academic exchanges. Interestingly, I’ve ended up with mostly Russian and Chinese students. Even if we only speak English to each other, they are more comfortable working with me (and found me through the teacher search tool) because I speak their native language. I’ve also ended up with a lot of academically-oriented students, perhaps because I emphasize that in my own profile. However, I’ve taught a lot in the past, but it doesn’t feel like development for me, and prepping for different classes takes time away from other things I’d value more. So once I’ve built up a certain level of experience on the site, in a month or two, I think I’ll limit my classes offered to only editing, college guidance counseling, and teaching through the book that I just wrote (a great way to work out the kinks!).

In short, if you have both a teaching certificate and some kind of academic or professional speciality, or if you are residing in some out-of-the-way region where there isn’t a lot of part-time work or the salaries are too low or people aren’t interested in paying for it, or if you want to build up your teaching experience for a long-term career, then italki could be a good option.
Kyrgyztsan doesn’t really have a local-international community forum and online classifieds section, so if you want to teach or work part-time here, it’s going to take a lot of networking, or you might be lucky and just happen to know someone who knows someone who needs exactly what you’re offering (which is how I ended up teaching private classes to the head of international affairs and editing English correspondences at a university for a wage I can deem legit). Most NGOs won’t/can’t pay for short-term work due to the extremely complicated system of payments and permits, and a lot of programs are winding down anyway. There used to be a lot of free programs for English learning and educational exchanges abroad, so most people aren’t willing to pay much for English teaching (I knew a college student at the London School who was offered $4 an hour to tutor). So, yes, if you’re residing in Kyrgyzstan as a language student or traveler or research fellow and would like to make above the minimum wage in your home country, then italki is a good idea.

So, if you do decide to teach on italki, some notes:
– When you create a profile, include all the languages you know. This is how almost all of my students found me.
– Find a niche or a speciality. Choose one to three things you can offer and that you are interested in working on. Discussing politics and the news? Academic editing? Business English for Marketing professionals? Pronunciation? Teaching Kids through storybooks and videos?
– Decide: do you want to create a standardized curriculum (more time at the onset), or plan every class as you go along (more time overall)?
– Create a fall-back list of discussion topics and activities to use during a lull in your lesson.
– Be really firm. You will get a lot of requests to do language exchange or give away your services for free. If the person offering is a teacher with the same experience as you, then maybe. But some college kid who’s never taken a course in linguistics, much less taught – probably not.