Chapter 49 Language Learning
Our main task, once we had settled in, was to learn the local language. There was no established program at the time, so John found us a teacher, and we, along with John’s wife and two OM girls, started having language classes each day.
After our first week of intensive work Barbara said to me, “If we keep up this pace, we are going to learn this language really well in our first year!”
I smiled at that good estimate, “Yup, that’s what I’m aiming for.”
“But…” she continued, “we’re also going to be divorced!”
I gulped. “Ok, let’s see if I hear you correctly. You are saying that this pace is too fast. Is that what you are trying to communicate? If so, I guess we can slow it down.”
My enthusiasm, my desire to be successful, to make myself feel good by achieving a lot, again drove me to take on too much. My old lust for speed was still there. I praised God for an insightful and “weaker” wife who brought perspective and helped us move at a better pace.
No matter what we did, though, it was slow going, for this new language has no relation to English or German. Rather, it is in the same language family as Korean, Japanese, Finnish and Hungarian.
Here is where my high school Latin lessons came in handy. No one had to explain to me about the use of cases, I already knew them: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and ablative. this was a huge help to me conceptually.
In addition, although there was no actual relationship between Latin and our new language, the progressive addition of endings to words was also similar to the declensions in Latin.
The Lord had known I would have to learn this new language someday and had used my high school Latin classes to prepare the way. I wished I could have gotten in touch with my old Latin teacher, Mr. Daniels, and thanked him. [many years later I was able to do that.]
The locals view shame as a great motivator and it seems to work to a degree in their honor-based society —although I suspect it leaves untold emotional damage in students’ lives.
Our Turkish teachers tried to use this approach with me and would periodically say to our class, “You ladies are doing quite well,” and then, turning to me, add, “but you–you are terrible, an awful student.”
I did not find this particularly helpful, to say the least. Along with all the other pressures of adjustment, these denigrating statements from our teachers was almost too much for me to take.
Much of my “terribleness” had to do with pronunciation. Barbara had a great advantage, as the phonetic sounds of German were much closer to this new language than English, and also shared the umlauted letters Ü and Ö. For an English speaker, however, forming these and other sounds was a new and difficult task.
My self-consciousness also hampered me from being more aggressive in trying to make the right sounds. Sometimes when I was out with a local friend, I would say something to a shopkeeper who would then look at my friend and ask, “What did he say?” My friend would repeat exactly what I had said, and the store owner would understand him perfectly. It was frustrating.
I’d actually gotten my first lesson on the importance of pronunciation on that day of our arrival in the country when Howie and I had gone to the corner grocery. He had asked the grocer for a “mum,” a candle, which he pronounced in the American way, like the name of the flower.
The grocer had no idea what he meant, because in this new language the word is pronounced with an “ooo” sound: “mooom.”
Such a small difference, but such a gulf of misunderstanding it produced! We finally had to act out lighting a candle, and then the grocer understood and produced one from under the counter.
The Lord came to my rescue in my weak pronunciation by giving me Tom as my new language helper. He was an architectural student and had a marvelous ability to discern what I was doing wrong. He would say the word the way I mispronounced it. This enabled him to then draw a picture of the inside of my mouth to illustrate how it looked when I said it incorrectly, and then drew another to show me the right way to place my tongue to form and say the word.
Part of my problem was that almost all sounds of this new language are pronounced in the front of the mouth, while a lot of English sounds are produced in the middle. For instance, these folks trill an “r” sound, while we arch our tongues in the middle to produce it. In contrast, the Germans make an “r” sound in their throats.
Tom would have me practice just a couple of pronunciation adjustments in each class. I would then repeat these over and over again on the drive home until they became almost natural.
It is actually a beautiful language. First it is thoroughly orderly and is cited in the Guinness Book of Records as the language having the fewest exceptions in the world: three.
Each letter has only one sound. There are no glides. There are no masculine or feminine or neuter words like in German—that in itself removes half the complexity of a language. And instead of “he, she or it,” the third person singular is the same for everything: “o.” The way to figure out what the “o” refers to look at the context.
Syllables have only two or three letters, making it easy to pronounce. This means that little children can start speaking earlier than children who speak other languages.
For instance, say, “My daddy came.” Notice all the glides and extra muscle manipulation needed. In this new language it’s simply, “Babam geldi.” No glides, all in the front of the mouth, all easy to say.
On another front, it is a great language for literature and bureaucrats, for you can just keep adding endings to a word, resulting in long words like: “Hristianlastiklarimizdanbirimisiniz?” meaning, “Are you one of ours who has become a Christian?”
Every ending has an exact meaning, so if you know the root word, which is always at the beginning and very short, you can easily decipher a long word you’ve never seen before.
You can also build seemingly endless sentences, stretching out to a full page if you are a practiced bureaucrat. The difficulty in reading these marathon sentences is that the verb comes at the end, so you have to read the whole thing before you can get the meaning.
It’s also great for writing traditional poetry, because you can just add the ending needed to make it rhyme.
All in all it is a delightful language, but so different from English that it takes a while to lay the foundation that leads to being an effective speaker. Years, in fact. But with God’s help we persisted.
Picture: Tom with me and the boys