Saturday, 23 June 2012

A Smattering of Turkish


Türkçe öğrenmeğe çalışıyorum: ‘I’m trying to learn Turkish’, or ‘Turkish to-learn working-at-I-am’, to preserve the word-order of the original. Actually, I’m not putting a huge amount of effort into it - just acquiring a smattering from a book I found on the two-quid table at the second-hand bookshop up the road. The book is lying next to my laptop, pink Post-its flapping from its pages. These are not to bookmark important language points, but to flag up stuff that struck me as unhelpful. Language teaching is my thing, and I’m an ungenerous reader of teach-yourself books. I’ve never written one, of course: that experience might make me a little less snidey. Meanwhile, here's a thought from Teach Yourself Chinese: ‘The subtlety of the Chinese language lies in the way it conveys nuances of meaning’. There's a perceptive observation for you: c.f., 'the tastiness of Chinese food is lies in its flavour'. I am aware from personal experience that editors have egos too, and that stuff can appear in your books that you didn’t write and would never have written, so I don’t necessarily hold the authors named on the covers responsible for everything that appears between them. Also, I’m prejudiced in favour of books that present immediately usable language straight off the bat, rather than ones that sacrifice usefulness for grammar-thrashing. I want to know how to order a beer before I get into reported speech.

My book is called Colloquial Turkish. As a complete beginner, I have no way of knowing how colloquial any of this stuff really sounds. I have the Albanian book from the same series, and nearly every text is a schoolmasterly joke, like the little book of rib-tickling tales we used in the third form for Latin translation. Hardly any of the language presented is of any immediate use. I’ve trained dozens of teachers and it is the case that many of them start out with a tin ear for the sound of authentic human communication, and some never improve, so I’m suspicious when a book that promises colloquial language presents you with this:

Translate into Turkish:

1. The teacher is handsome.
2. She is not the pretty teacher.
3. The jobless electrician is a handsome man.

Of course, I know that my own students must utter sentences similar to number one in reference to me all the time, and possibly number two in reference to… well, better not. But it is hard to imagine a context in which number three could be seen as a useful phrase to have under your belt, as opposed to say, ‘two Heinnekens and a toasted sandwich, please’, or ‘have you got a single room for two nights?’. The writers would no doubt argue that the phrase exemplifies a grammatical pattern, here word order in a declarative sentence in the present tense. Language teaching books have been doing that for yonks, as though grammar were something that existed quite independently of real communication: learn a weird sentence first, then try to slip more likely combinations of words into the same slots. How hard would it have been to find a context for more realistic sounding language and more immediately useful vocabulary or chunks, something that would live up to the title of the book?

It’s perfectly legitimate to compare your students’ mother tongue with the target language if you are in a position to do so, but please, get it right. The verb geretmek means ‘to be necessary’ and you cannot apparently use it in the Turkish tense that might very broadly be compared to the English present continuous. The writers say: ‘This is logical if you realize that…you can’t say ‘I’m having to’ [in English] either’. Well, of course you bloody can: ‘I keep having to pee, could it be diabetes?’ Admittedly, my grammar-checker thing doesn’t like it, and on the strength of a quick googlement, it seems not to be very common unless it follows ‘keep’ as in my example. Any seasoned EFL teacher will tell you that you should beware of declaring that ‘you can’t say X in English’ because in a language which has so little context-independent grammar, you’ll find yourself contradicted in no time flat. OK, this has nothing to do with Turkish, I'm just chuntering.

Modality is a bugger in English, as anyone who has ever taught modal verbs at intermediate level and above is well aware. Verbs expressing concepts such as obligation, necessity, possibility, permission and deduction can be extraordinarily confusing if they are presented without a clear context. Indeed, just separating those functions one from another is no easy task for most learners. I’ve seen English teaching material in Greece that chucks the entire inventory of English modal verbs at students in one indigestible helping, and I can’t help thinking the Colloquial Turkish writers (or their editors) might have been exposed to this kind of thing too. There's a section on ‘Obligation or Need’. Get yourself a strong black coffee and I'll tell you about it. We learn:

[The suffix] –ecek may denote a necessity (‘still have to…’) the suffix –meli on the other hand indicates a moral necessity (‘should’ ‘have to’). In choosing between these two possibilities, think of the difference in English between ‘I should’ and ‘I was going to’. But be careful – tenses don’t tend to be the same across languages, [so much for it being 'logical' that you 'can't say this in English either'.] so you should try and get a feel for the Turkish system!’

'But be careful!' That reminds me of a teacher in Athens who gave her students grudging praise after a fluency activity, then said ‘but girls, watch your tenses.’ What exactly is it we have to be careful about? The meanings that ‘should’ (advisability, moral obligation, deduction based on personal experience) and ‘going to’ (intentionality) carry are so different it’s hard to see why one might be expected to hesitate between them. Doesn't 'still have to' suggest an unfulfilled necessity? 'Should' and 'have to' are not synonymous, so why are they presented together as the equivalents of the -meli ending? The examples that immediately follow this explanation throw light on matters hardly at all:

You must come

OK, but who is ‘you’? Who’s telling ‘you’ this, when and what for? What function is it serving? Is it an order? An enthusiastic invitation? A heartfelt plea? A threat?

You’ll come / you’ll have to come.

Same considerations apply as above. The phrase ‘you’ll come’ standing there on its lonesome like that conveys no information – again, is it an order? A prediction? A boast? How and when can the same verb form come to mean ‘you’ll have to come’, which expresses a future obligation or necessity? How do the translations ‘you must come’ and ‘you’ll have to come’ help to disambiguate two verb forms when in English, shorn of context, they mean pretty much the same thing? This is the point a worrying number of language teachers don’t seem to get: decontextualised language means absolutely fuck all. I could stare at those two naked Turkish verb forms and their ill-chosen ‘translations’ all day and be none the wiser. A couple of sentences down, we get to this stuff where some unknown person at an unspecified time is making an announcement to nobody in particular about buying a pop CD:

Yeni Sezen Aksu’yu almalıyım
I have to buy the new Sezen Aksu (‘I really must do that’)

Yeni Sezen Aksu’yu alacağım
I’ll buy the new Sezen Aksu (‘I still have to do that’)

Hang about. The first one is not a 'moral necessity' but a strong intention… unless of course it isn’t... in the absence of context, we have no way of knowing. The translation of the second using ‘will’ suggests a spur of the moment decision, but the added bit in brackets implies that the purchase is on my mental to-do list, which would more naturally call for ‘going to’. ‘…aw a muddle. Fro’ first to last, a muddle.’ Why didn’t they go for an inductive approach, scrapping the useless ‘translations’ and building mini-dialogues around the forms to give each of them some context and some indication of function? Then they could have set a few concept questions about the speaker’s intentions and the form he used to express them. The book would probably end up containing less than half the grammar it has now, but at least it would be comprehensible grammar.

Apart from a long-forgotten smattering of Japanese and a single phrase of Mandarin, I have never looked into a non-European language before. Most Turkish vocabulary looks utterly unfamiliar; there is none of the old-friends-in disguise feeling you get when you dip into one of our neighbouring tongues, however obscure. I once saw the headline ‘Masa të ashpra kundër krimit të organizuar’ in an Albanian newspaper, and immediately understood it to mean ‘harsh (ashpra) measures (masa) against (kunder) organized (të organizuar) crime (krimit)’, even though I hadn’t met any of the content-words of that sentence in Albanian before. No chance of this in Turkish. This is how my students from China, Thailand and Saudi Arabia must feel when they arrive in October, before they start to see the connections between words (possible, possibility, impossible, possibly, impossibility, could you possibly, an impossible task, there was no possibility of taking a walk that day …) and realize that words have their families and their mates, and the more words you know, the easier they become to acquire. New students also pore over verb forms, baffled, but fortunately they have teachers who most of the time are very clear about which is their arse and which is their elbow. Routledge, come and get me before you inflict your next project on the world. I’ll help you make Colloquial Western Peripheral Nahuatl a best seller.


Rob said...

"I'm having to": just been trying to work that one out. I think it implies that a current obligation to do something repeatedly did not used to apply

"I'm having to go into work every weekend" = in the old, carefree days, I didn't have to do that.

Agree? Or not quite right?

Vilges Suola said...

Yes, I'm agree for this. Some new and inconvenient circumstance. 'I'm having to watch my money a lot more these days.'

Candy said...

I nearly got to teach Sezen Aksu. She was going to come to the school for three weeks with her assistant. She sent her latest CD which is still at the school somewhere.

Vilges Suola said...

I had never heard of her - didn't even know it was a her. Was she the one that teamed up with Haris Alexiou once upon a time to make a Helleno-Turkic duo?

I don't expect to carry this Turkish thing very far. These days I'm too afraid that I'll forget what I know in Greek and French if I make room for new stuff.


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