New country, new language
I crossed in the border into the Autonomous Province of Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan with curiosity. How much would my intermediate level of Turkish help me to read, understand, and communicate? Azerbaijani, also known as Azeri, and Turkish are from the same family. Wikipedia says there is a fair amount of mutual intelligibility. But what would my actual experience be like?
On that first day, my Couchsurfing host taught me some basic Azerbaijani. You can see the difference from Turkish.
Azerbaijani – Turkish – English
Neçəsən? = Nasılsın? = How are you?
Yaxşıyam = Iyiyim = I’m good
Mən gədirem = Ben gidiyroum = I’m going
This new word – yaxşı – proved surprisingly hard to remember. It reminded me of the long road of learning a new language. Every word is a hard won step forward.
I have begun to get used to new letters and their accompanying sounds:
x = to me, an Arabic-sounding “kh” with air
q = to me, an Arabic-sounding “k” from the back of the throat
ə = somewhere between the “e” in “met” and “mat” – I still haven’t pinned it down
I have also begun to notice that familiar letters receive different pronunciation:
g = “dj”
k = “ch”
Almost, but not quite
The most interesting thing has been words with slightly different meanings between the two languages. I heard my hosts talking about me with the word qonaq. Hmm. In Turkish, I know that a konak or konakevi can be a guest house. In this way I figured out that in Azerbaijani, a guest is a qonaq (versus Turkish misafir).
Similarly, I have been talking about my ancestors with the words atalar (people here always ask me about my nationality after I say I am from Canada; they are looking for something beyond citizenship). Turns out that this is correct in Azerbaijani, but ata is also used for “dad” (versus Turkish baba).
Finally, I have been using the word yaz (summer) quite liberally, to answer questions. “Yes, we also barbecue in Canada, but in the summer.” “Yes, we also have tomatoes in Canada, in the summer.” Turns out that in Azerbaijani, yaz is “spring” and yay is “summer”. Oh well. At least now the beautiful term yayla (summer pasture in the mountains) makes more sense.
Many people here actually try to speak to me in Russian. Azerbaijan was part of the USSR until 1991, so lots of Azerbaijanis, particularly older people, have some knowledge. They seem disappointed when I cannot give them the chance to use their skills.
As for Turkish, knowledge definitely varies, and seems to skew toward younger and more urban people. One university student said he learned because he likes watching soccer, which is televised in Turkish. A mother told me she learned from watching Turkish television shows. Last night I asked for directions from three strangers, just in Turkish, and they all responded easily in the language.
The call of the familiar
I have really enjoyed using Turkish as a common language with other non-native speakers. It reminds me of speaking French or Spanish in Morocco. I find that non-native speakers are often more adaptive and helpful in a language – maybe they don’t have the same blind spots to things that can be confusing.
This experience has also made Turkish seem more familiar and welcoming. Even though Azerbaijani is similar, it is different enough to make me feel alienated. I am confused by writing; I space out when I hear the more singsongy, up-down stressed cadence of Azerbaijani. A funny tip, then: To make a second language seem easier, spend time in a new one.