Language takes a long time to learn, especially the first time around. (If your metric of how well a person learns is time, then kids are terrible) Take any child born to a Turkish family born on March 27 2014 and ask him to read my new bed-time book (see picture) and see how well he does. However fast adults may learn, however, there are some lessons that are taught at certain periods of time.

You see, you forgot how much coaching you got from your parents. You didn’t only spend 1000s of hours hanging around adults listening to them –to their charging learning how to fucking curse, or how to destroy a marriage, but you also got coached.

  • “Shake Uncle Bob’s hand, honey.”
  • “Say thank you, honey.”
  • “Now is that how we sat thank you, honey”

Here in Turkey many children hang out with their older relatives at their places of work. In this environment they either interact with or at least witness another kind of language and set of words. But more importantly they learn what to say, to whom, how and when.

One of the things that has really flocking pissed me off is how for some cultural reason Turkish people feel the need to speak English with me. It really bothers me how outside of my English-Spanish teaching hours people simply insist on addressing me in English. Gosh it burns me.

Like all the things we thought we learned effortlessly, this Turkish culture of speaking “English” with any foreign looking person is taught and retaught throught childhood.

Today, I walked into this papergoods store to buy some A4 paper and a some writing utensils. There was a darling little girl sitting by a photocopier. When I walked in she had been talking to the shopkeeper. As is normal and customary here, I decided to say hi to her.

My style of course, is to tease and play dumb. So I asked her why she wasn’t at school. The precocious child quite articulately answered “because today is the weekend.” I countered that I was sure that it was Monday and that she was playing hookie. She didn’t fall for it. A sharp little 7 year-old she is.

However, much to my disappointment, after being handed the supplies I came into buy, mommy-dearest asked the child “what do we say to the nice foreign man?” Followed by “ “helloh, vere ar yoo frrom” ask him!” Containing my ongoing cultural shock, I said “well, no matter if she can’t ask me where I am from, after all we were speaking in Turkish” and I made quick escape to avoid the rest of a conversation I have had at least once for every day I have lived here.

If you read my other post Where is Your Memleket  you will see that I have struggled with this cultural difference of asking everybody where they are from is from before. It is Turkish tradition and meaningful in the context of this country. The added layer of having to speak in English with foreigners probably is only new in that in the past it was speaking French, and before that Arabic and before that Farsi. What foreign tongues the Turkish people encountered before coming to the Persian world, I do not know, so I won’t venture a further guess.

As I walked down the street, on my way to my office, I was offered a flyer by the proprietor of a new cafe that they opened in our neighborhood. At last! our 101st cafe. Seeing my not-turkish self, she said something in English. I politely tried to decline the flyier, in Turkish. She apoligized for having spoken English, saying that I looked foreign and didn’t know I was Turkish. I said, I am a foreigner. She was shocked, but your Turkish is so very good! —and tried to continue the conversation in English. I spoke in Turkish and said that my being a foreigner does not automatically mean that I speak English or that I prefer to speak English. She said, said “I can’t believe it, your Turkish is perfect!”

Here, the culture is “you speak the current en-vogue foreign tongue” with anyone who is foreign. Period.

The point I want to make is that, you have forgotten how your parents, relatives, friends, strangers, the TV and books all taught you your linguistic and cultural understanding of the world. The things you “know to say” as an adult where taught to you over the course of the 15 or 20 years of your childhood. The hard part of learning a language is not in having enough words and grammar to read a history of Turkish and Balkan Jews, but in understanding what and how to say what and when.