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.''


At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah... citizens from every country say their language is difficult for foreigners.. and the Chinese take particular pride in saying this...


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