I get regular requests from people asking to guest post here at Pansy HQ. Generally, I politely refuse because the subject matter just doesn’t work for me – too commercial/ too dull/ too libellous/ too weird/ totally irrevelant (delete accordingly). Occasionally, though, something falls on the mat that rings my bell. This is such a post. Why? Because it’s from someone who’s written a fascinating memoir about Turkey and the post is about the agony of learning Turkish. I failed pathetically to grasp even the barebones of the language. Liam fared much better. So, ladies and gents, please give it up for talented bilingual Yankee author, Ann Marie Mershon.
Who would have thought I’d live in Turkey? It evoked an image of mustachioed Bedouins galumphing out of the desert on camels—and I could barely find it on a map.
No, thank you.
An American teacher, I yearned for adventure, an escape from a world that was imploding on me. A painful divorce had left me on the perimeter of social gatherings, keenly aware of my image as a divorcee. Not really a pariah, I felt like one.
This excerpt comes from the preface of You must only to love them, lessons learned in Turkey, which recounts my trials and joys adapting to life in Istanbul. Smarting from a recent divorce, I had decided to establish a new life overseas, intending to find a teaching job in Paris or Salzburg. Through a number of possibly serendipitous events, I landed in Istanbul instead (with my little dog). So began my love affair with Turkey and the Turks.
Actually, it wasn’t a love affair right off, as I battled loneliness and the frustrations of language as I navigated my new world. It was probably to my disadvantage that I lived on the remote and very English-speaking campus of Koç Lisesi (20 miles east of Central Istanbul), but the school kindly offered free Turkish lessons for foreign hires and there were a number of Turkish administrators living on campus. They also offered service busses to get us into the city on the weekends. which was a godsend.
I’d prepared for my move by purchasing and diligently studying a book called Teach Yourself Turkish. Each new lesson brought more questions than insights, but I forged on, thinking I’d learned the basics before moving to Istanbul. At least I knew tuvalet (toilet), bira (beer), and şarap (wine). What more could one need? Well, anlamadım came in handy (I don’t understand).
I thought I’d learned numbers, but once I tried to buy something in Istanbul I realized that Turks talked REALLY fast. Gosh, what was that word that meant ‘slowly’? My first forays from campus into the Turkish world were riddled with anlamadims and yavaşes. I guess that’s typical.
Turkish class on Wednesdays after school was helpful, but I needed more conversation and less grammar. My GOODNESS, the grammar was overwhelming. I wished that our charming teacher had first explained the basics of Turkish. Here’s what I think they are:
- Every sentence begins with a subject and ends with a verb with all the modifiers in between.
- Most languages have six possible verb endings (first person singular and plural, second person singular, etc.), while Turkish multiplies that by four. They like to vary those six endings with four variants order to harmonize with the verb. Twenty-four basic verb endings. ARAUGHHH!!!
- There are a few letters that are confusing but you get used to them: c sounds like j, and ç sounds like ch, ş sounds like sh and the only silent letter is ğ, which is sort of a placeholder in a sentence.
- The beautiful thing about Turkish is that every letter ALWAYS makes the same sound – hence, no need for spelling bees in elementary school. If you can say it, you can spell it.
It took me years to learn more than the rudiments of Turkish, and I’ve come to an amazing realization. The best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. When I finally lived off-campus in a sweet apartment up the hill in Arnavutköy, I began to truly learn Turkish. I had no choice if I wanted to survive, as few people in my little community spoke English. I chatted with the checkout person at DIA, I sat talking with the electrician as he fixed my hair dryer, and I met a boat captain who often invited me for a cup of tea on his back deck. It was a delight. The Turks helped me learn their language, just as they help us whenever we’re in need. It’s just who they are.
You must only to love them is available through Amazon.
About Ann Marie
Ann Marie Mershon is a Minnesota writer who taught high school students in Istanbul between 2005 and 2011. She kept a weekly blog while she lived there. She also published a guidebook with Edda Weissenbacher, Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter, Backstreet Walking Tours. She now lives on a lake near the Canadian border with her husband and their two dogs. Visit Ann Marie’s website at annmariemershon.com.