Reflections

Most of the insight that I have gained into the language acquisition process has been mentioned in a previous post. To summarize and expand upon some of my previous mentioned points, I am still not entirely convinced by the total immersion method often recommended for beginners. Immersion classes and, the associated, “forced conversations”, which are efficient over the long run, can frustrate 1) the shyest students in the case of complete beginners; 2) intermediate learners whose exposure to the language has primarily involved reading and/or grammar translations methods. I would advise anyone planning summer language study to immerse themselves heavily in the language before departure and drill their listening skills with comprehensible inputs (see Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition, and for listening based language methods, I wholeheartedly recommend Glossika).

My goals have been largely surpassed. As planned, I am now capable of reading intermediate level texts in Turkish with little difficulty. Most interesting is the progress that I have made in listening and speaking abilities. Thanks to the methods recommended above, and many hours dedicated to listening to Turkish, I am capable of watching relatively straightforward TV programs such as cartoons with little to no difficulty. Likewise, I am very confident in having small talk with native speakers.

My newfound skills in Turkish will be at the heart of my academic career. In the near future, I am planning to use it in two ways. 1) Next spring, I will put these skills to the test since I am spending the semester at a University in Turkey. 2) My comprehensive examination in May will have me engage with academic and non-academic literature in Turkish and debate nuanced points of scholarship. Regarding my further Turkish studies, my program is currently rigorously organized as follows for five days out of seven: 1) Watch 20mns of television in Turkish in the morning, without subtitles (usually something rather simple such as cartoons). 2) One hour of intensive reading every morning, divided between 30mns of folktales in modern Turkish and 30mns of folktales in Ottoman Turkish (this hour is dedicated to engaging cautiously with more difficult texts) 3) 20mns of extensive reading in the evening, usually something simple such as comics or newspaper articles on simple topics (sports, general news etc.).

From Superman to Ertuğrul

As a final note to this linguistic and cultural journey, I would like to address the statement of one of my Turkish friend during a breakfast discussion. “When I was a kid, twenty years ago, young boys and girls loved to pretend being superheroes like Superman or Wonder Woman, today, they all want to be Ertuğrul.”
In recent years, the Turkish series Diriliş Ertuğrul has reached a cult status in Turkey and beyond (it is available on Netflix in multiple countries, including the USA). Diriliş Ertuğrul narrates a fictional account of the life of Ertuğrul Gazi, the historically almost unknown father of Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Sometimes somehow stereotypical, Ertuğrul’s adventures are for their breath and scope, akin to American series such as Rome. Like Rome, the series has the eponymous hero engage with historical and non-historical characters alike. Although Ertuğrul does not possess the superpower of American superheroes, the aforementioned statement remains accurate. For his bravery and martial might (and his historical plot armor), Ertuğrul appeal to children looking for a national hero. Don’t be surprised therefore if, walking in the streets of Istanbul you see countless small shops selling replica of the weapons that Ertuğrul and his allies bear in the show.

Turkish cuisine

As an ardent follower of the great cult of the Mediterranean Diet, moving to Turkey has been a more than pleasant experience. Mostly known for the döner kebab, Turkish cuisine varies extremely across regions. Whereas Istanbul cuisine exhibits strong Mediterranean influences and is rich in vegetables such as eggplants, and carbohydrates the like of Bulgur, Black Sea cuisine is reminiscent of my own culinary traditions near the Atlantic Ocean.

The simit, a circular bread plunged in roasted sesame seeds – perhaps reminiscent of a bagel – remains my favorite choice for breakfast and pairs rather well with eggs and cheese. My simit is often accompanied by a glass of Karadut Şurubu, black mulberry juice. Lahmacun, also known (strangely enough) as “Turkish Pizza” is a delicious piece of dough topped with tomatoes, lamb and herbs, including parsley. As I was eating a Lahmacun at the terrace of a café, local wild cats (again) came to my side and asked for me to share the moment (and the food) with them. Local cats, seem to be not only clingy but also connoisseurs of fine food.

Indeed, little food on this planet can match a good Adana kebab, a mix of minced meat blended with flavorful spices and roasted on burning charcoal.

Some thoughts on the “immersion method”

As someone fond of language learning, it is not the first time I partake in intensive classes relying on complete immersion as a means towards improving student’s skills. Immersion is seen by many language learners as the absolute panacea for language learning. My experience at Ibn Haldun University led me to reflect on my previous experiences. Although proving tremendously useful and enjoyable, I have not always enjoyed my experiences of immersive classes. Quite the contrary, many of past intensive summer course are engraved in my head as painful experiences. Headaches of previous experiences aside, I ask myself, what has changed and what makes my current classes enjoyable compared to previous ones? Key difference lies in how I honed my skills previous to the immersion classes, in the past and how I prepared myself for this summer. The difference, I would argue, lays around one core element, my ability to listen/hear. In the past, training myself under the “grammar-translation” method, my ears were not ready for the pace and burden imposed by a professor speaking only in the target language. This year, my training prior to the summer course involved intensive listening sessions, and prepared me for the difficulties of immersion classes.

Would I wholeheartedly support immersion methods with this more positive experience as I prepared to study at Ibn Khaldun University? Not entirely. Ultimately, I believe that the immersion method has its limits. Speaking a foreign language can sometimes be a painful experience for beginners. Forcing introverts to talk in the early stages can lead to long terms fears of speaking. A more sensible method may involve intensive exposure to listening to a language, and then jumping into speaking after a solid foundation of listening has been built.

Humans of Ne… Cats of Istanbul

Anyone who has travelled to Istanbul has undoubtedly noticed with excitement the never ending presence of cats. From Pendik to Basaksehir, cats occupy every corner of the city. Mehmet, a local resident calls it, tongue in cheek, the capital city of cats. Mehmet feeds wild cats every day and has given names to most of them whom he treats like local companions. Names range from the most sophisticated (the little grey one, the alpha, that big ginger one) to the most simple (“Kedi”, aka “the Cat) .

Like Mehmet, Istanbulites are indeed fond of “their” cats and it is not rare to see food and water around public parks and pavements, similarly one can often see people suddenly stopping on a busy street to pat a purring kitten. Turkey love affairs with cats can be traced back to multiple hadiths illustrating the prophet’s love for cats.

Far from the streets, the mania continues on the internet where a Facebook group, “Cats of Istanbul” reminiscent of the famous “Humans of New York”, provides Istanbulites with the opportunity to share pictures of cats encountered in the streets.

As a cat lover, moving to Istanbul originally represented a rather difficult challenge. To feed or not to feed was the first question that came into my mind? A question answered by the end of my first week when some of the neighboring cats, in search for food, knocked at my door and meowed softly late in the evening.

Modern Turkish vs Ottoman Turkish.

Among the languages offered at Ibn Haldun University (Arabic, Persian and Turkish) one occupies a special place and seems to be favored by students from all over the world: Ottoman Turkish. Also known as Osmanlica, the former language of the Ottoman Empire attracts nearly as many students as Arabic, Persian and Modern Turkish combined. Although most of them are Ph.D candidates or well established scholars, some aficionados of Turkish culture and native speakers of modern Turkish complete the cohort.

In part due to History, Islam and the evident taste of high Ottoman culture for Persian literature and poetry, Ottoman Turkish was often “infused” with a significant amount of Arabic and Persian loanwords. Historically the predecessor of Modern Turkish, the language was stripped of many of its Arabic and Persian influences (including a shift from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet) as part of larger reforms aiming at modernizing Turkey in the aftermath of the Second World War. Today, without further training, most Turks cannot read the pre reform Turkish literature, in the way an English speaker can read Shakespeare with (minimal) effort. Unfortunately, to date, the 1920s reforms of the Turkish language remain a polarized issue dividing many Turks into “pro” and “against” sides.

From Başakşehir to Süleymaniye, the peregrinations of Ibn Haldun University

After two weeks in Istanbul, I cannot help but stand in awe at the investment of Ibn Haldun University in ensuring the success of their summer language program. Built a mere two years ago in the newly renovated neighborhood of Başakşehir (some may know It for its rising football club İstanbul Başakşehir F.K.), west of Istanbul, the University has secured the famous Süleymaniye Mosque and its madrassa as its headquarters for the program.
The famous architect Sinan (mimar Sinan), man of seemingly Christian origin built the Süleymaniye Mosque under the rule of Süleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The Mosque’s design took inspiration from the most famous Hagia-Sophia constructed under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The mosque was designed as a fully fledged religious complex including Quranic and Hadith schools. Fast forward to 2018 and the entirety of the classes, in the four languages offered by Ibn Khaldun University (Arabic, Persian, Modern and Ottoman Turkish), take place in the still used dar al hadith. There is no doubt that this environment plunges one into Turkish culture. As a Historian in training, I could not be more delighted than with the sight of grand Ottoman minarets every morning.