Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Old Dogs, New Tricks

I've always been a committed banner-carrier for the cause of life-long learning, believing both that it's essential and that it's possible. But lately, I start to wonder just how much we can learn as we age, and whether we are in fact able to grasp entirely new concepts once our brains have -- let's face it, it's true -- stiffened and begun to atrophy. Take learning a radically different language, for example. My whole life I've been stuck with this idea that at some point in time I will be able to speak seven languages fluently. Why seven? Who knows. It's just the number that's always popped into my head. Now here I am, at the ripe old age of 33, working on #4, and it's an uphill battle through quicksand. I began French at the age of 13, and it was easy. German, which I first sank my teeth into at the age of 28, was a lot harder, and for a good portion of the 4.5 years I spent living in a German-speaking country, I beat my head against the cases, the trennbare verben and, worst of all, the ridiculous unnecessary specificity of the language for some things, and total lack of it (where it was actually needed) for others. In the end I managed to leave the country saying, with a straight face, that I could speak German. But the cockiness I had developed when learning French was gone. I was bruised, battered and disheveled. It was a grueling and painful experience, one that I did not care to repeat any time soon. This despite the fact that I was about to move to Turkey. Well, hope springs eternal, and I assured myself that it would be very different with Turkish, since I'd be living with a Turk and surrounded by people who didn't speak much English.

I've been here three months now, and to be fair to myself, have to say that in that time I've learned a heck of a lot. But in those three months my brain and tongue have also gone through some agonizing contortions. This is a language so far removed from English, you simply have to abandon all of your normal ways of thinking and start over. But is such a thing actually possible? The thing that prompted my contemplation of this question was something that cropped up in my Turkish coursebook last night. I was learning about causative verbs and passive verbs; for example:

inşa etmek means 'to build (a building)' -- NORMAL ACTIVE VERB
inşa ettirmek means 'to have built' -- CAUSATIVE VERB
inşa edilmek means 'to be built' -- PASSIVE VERB

Nothing too terribly difficult, since we have the same sort of thing in English. But then came the following:

Çiçek Pasajı Sultan Abdulhamit tarafından inşa ettirildi.

Whoa. The non-bolded part of the sentence simply means 'the Çiçek Pasajı (famous building in Istanbul) Sultan Abdulhamit' . But what about the verb? It has both the 'ir' which signifies causative (to have something built), AND the 'il' which signifies passive (to be built). The 'di' at the end, incidentally, signifies past tense. My brain reaches and wants, it needs, it demands a translation. But I am stumped. How do we possibly combine building was built and the sultan had the building built. After agonizing minutes of mental gymnastics, trying to find SOMETHING that makes sense, some sticking point, some familiar expression that I can equate with this sentence, the best I can do is The Çiçek Pasajı was had built by Sultan Abdulhamit.

But who says that? I know what you're thinking. You're thinking 'don't translate, go with the flow.' But have those of you who are thinking that actually successfully done it, at least in the early stages of learning a language? I hear this again and again: Think in Turkish! Don't translate! Excuse me, but if I don't know Turkish, how can I possibly be expected to think in it? How can one possibly avoid the contortions that accompany the exercise of trying to make something that is incomprehensible, comprehensible? I have to wonder...if I were 13 instead of 33, would this be easier? Do we humans have the capacity to continue to learn entirely new concepts throughout our lifetimes, or is there a boundary beyond which no new tricks can be learned (future passive)?

The eternal shiny optimist in me continues to do battle with legions of invisible naysayers. The latter put me in mind of the pull-no-punches Chinese people where my mother lives, who from time to time urge her with these gentle words to abandon her language learning efforts:

''Forget're too OLD to learn Chinese.''

Friday, December 08, 2006

Karaoke at the Clubhouse

Turks love to sing. I've heard them do it on the street, on the bus, in the meyhane (a restaurant with live music where everyone sings along). I've heard my own Turk sing in the shower and, to my occasional embarrassment, at the top of his lungs in a crowd.

But one place I never expected to hear any singing was in the clubhouse of the Zirve Mountaineering Club. This is the place we meet every Tuesday night for our climbing course that will eventually end in certification. It's very serious. We listen to speakers and look at slides that educate us about nutrition, orienteering, adverse weather conditions, safety and equipment. We've quite possibly learned about nearly every aspect of mountaineering. What we haven't done, however, is cranked up the classical Turkish art music and had a big ol' sing-a-long. Until last week, that is.

Although we normally only go to the clubhouse on Tuesdays for our course, on a whim we decided to drop by on a Wednesday night. It was a different world entirely. The people gathered in the room differed significantly from the Tuesday night crowd in that they were (a) less athletic, and (b) more predominantly female. On the big blank wall used for projected presentations there was no picture of correct passing procedure for icy mountain passes, but rather a great big, red-lettered screen that read 'Welcome to Özcan's Karaoke'.

What ensued thereafter was a potent blend of comedy and tragedy. There were speakers that could scarcely project louder than a normal human voice, badly synthesized tracks punctuated with rap-like record scratches and ridiculous flourishes totally out of keeping with the original character of the song. There was a microphone that screeched bloody murder when held in practically any position, and singers so wildly off-key that it did prompt a bit of soul-searching within myself, searching for the ultimate answer to the question 'how do we define entertainment?' Seriously, why do people do this to themselves? Okay, for the ones who 'sing', it's fulfilling their '15 minutes of fame' fantasy. There are others who don't sing, but hope that someday they might have the courage to, because they really want to express themselves. There are others who never have any intention to sing, ever, but find it entertaining to watch others make fools of themselves. And then there are those who wind up there by accident, or because their friends wanted to go, who sit there listening to a bad rendition of cat-in-heat yowl, saying to themselves "why, why, WHY???"

Fortunately, the fridge was well stocked with beer, a situation which we quickly rectified, of course. By the end of the third beer, I was beginning to discover some entertaining aspects of the whole spectacle, and was learning a little Turkish (and a little Turkish culture) to boot. I reflected that these old songs, which form part of the national consciousness, might have been forever inaccessible to me were I only to have heard them on the radio or at the meyhane. (The lyrics are normally wailed and pretty unintelligible.) Here I got to read them from a wall, in bright red letters. So now when I hear that song about making love under the stars, or the drunken inkeeper, or the lout who forgot about his love (just for a moment), maybe I, too, can sing along. I just hope I have the good sense not to put a microphone in front of my face when I do it.