I can speak Turkish. Why can’t I understand anything?
These past few weeks I feel I can’t understand anything in Turkish. Meals are ordered, pleasantries are exchanged, buses are located, but as soon as someone speaks beyond a close range of familiarity, I become lost in a wilderness of sound.
“Wow, your Turkish is great,” other foreigners say, after I come away from a five-minute exchange complete with laughs and long formulations. I try to explain that I was mostly faking it, using context and guesswork to base responses. I may have only understood 10%.
I am not panicking. After all, I have plenty of time ahead of me to be in Turkey and improve my Turkish listening and comprehension. But in the meantime, it is rather disconcerting. I have been thinking of hypotheses for why my listening skills seem so bad.
A cognate is a word that looks and sounds more or less the same in two languages and means the same thing in both of those languages. Absurdo in Spanish. Fantastique in French. Even if I have never seen or heard these words, if someone describes a movie as absurdo or fantastique, I understand that it was absurd or fantastic. I can grasp new words on the spot. In Turkish, this basically never happens. If someone uses a word I don’t know, it appears as meaningless static.
This is actually my friend’s theory. In Turkish, the verb (for example, ‘to die’) comes at the end of the sentence. Included in the verb is the person (who died), the tense (when they died or will die), and any negation (wait, you mean she DIDN’T die?). As my friend complains, the end of the sentence is also where everyone tends to mumble. The result is that you might know something about death, but you miss who, when, or whether someone actually died or not.
I confess I have not been challenging myself. I have been spending most of my days in English – speaking it, hearing it, reading it, and writing it. The other day I stepped outside to buy groceries and felt surprised to see Turkish signs. Oh, right, I’m in Turkey!
I don’t have much trouble speaking. I can order food, tell people where to drive me, and talk about my past, present, and future. I can be egocentric, basically. If someone asks me for something, tells me to do something, or describes their own experiences and ideas, I may as well be be a brick wall.
How did this happen? When I started learning Turkish six years ago I focused on communicating in one direction. On buses, on the way to couchsurf with hosts, I pondered what I would want to say the hosts. I prepared myself to speak, using a grammar book and a little yellow dictionary. Perhaps I put too much time in that, and not enough time into preparing to listen to others.
It is time to plan some strategies for improving my listening skills. Perhaps they will inspire another post.