I was a mere 11 year old when I started learning the Turkish language in school, and although I only studied Turkish for three years of middle school, the proficiency I acquired was equivalent to that of a native speaker. By qualifying for the Pakistan Finals of the Turkish Language Olympiads and competing against hundreds of able students for the much coveted title of “Pakistan Birincisi” – First in Pakistan, I showed that I was indeed worthy of calling myself fluent in the language of love, as the speakers so affectionately called it.
The way our teachers taught this language to us was subtle and mostly through activities, which is why it helped us learn so much of it in such a short time. My Turkish teacher had newly arrived from Turkey and knew not a single word of English, much less Urdu. Trying to converse with her was like a game of charades. We, her students, used to be on one end, trying to act out and explain what we wanted, with a Turkish to English dictionary in one hand, and a limited knowledge of how to accomplish it in the other.
Meanwhile, she, as confused and lost as us would be trying to understand what we were saying. It definitely resulted in some misunderstandings, but we almost always managed to successfully convey the message, and gosh what a successful feat it always was! It was elating beyond anything whenever we succeeded in communicating and thus slowly, but surely, we started to retain words and the situation that best fitted them.
There isn’t a better way to learn than actually working for it, is there? Our teacher was really sincere towards us. She knew we craved knowledge and had a thirst for learning, and she had as much love to impart her language to us as we had to learn it. From putting tiny post-it notes on absolutely everything with their Turkish and English names to having Turkish movie nights to learning Turkish songs, she arranged numerous activities for us to learn the language in the most enjoyable ways possible.
We would have competitions for a few of those activities, and reading books in Turkish was one of her favorites that she had us do. We started out with books that 7 or 8 year old Turkish kids would’ve read, and it was exciting beyond any end when we were able to understand and then accurately explain every word of the book as we gradually progressed onto harder reading material.
One of the many other things we used to do was enact situations. For example, once, before watching a movie, our teacher created the whole façade of a movie theatre and had us act it. With one of us selling tickets, another selling food, a couple as some other staff, while the rest as the audience coming to watch the movie. Everyone was supposed to interact with each other and the whole conversation had to be carried out in Turkish. Other times we had to come up with our own plays to carry out. My favorite still is when we dressed up as our teachers to mimic them in the funniest way we could and then presented it to them.
It was something that helped us observe how the person assigned to us carried him or herself, how they spoke, what specific words or phrases they had an affinity for using. It was fun, especially due to being carried out in such a comical fashion, and along the way we picked up some new expressions in addition to learning how to apply the words we already knew in a practical situation. Thus, with competitions and rewards, we learned the language, not realizing that these fun and games were actually a lot more than that.
In 8th grade, I went on a summer language immersion camp with my school to Turkey, and was actually able to apply what I learnt outside of classroom. I still remember quite a few people being shocked upon learning that I wasn’t actually a Turkish girl, but in fact Pakistani, and this made the people there give so much love to me. The adoration and respect the people of Turkey showered me with for being a Pakistani who knew their language is indescribable. I will never be able to do it justice by confining it in words.
Some people went beyond their way to accommodate me and my friends because we were so passionate about practicing their language and getting along with their culture. The whole country and numerous possibilities were open to us. I wasn’t barred by the wall of not knowing the language since Turkey is a country where majority of the people speak only Turkish and have little to no knowledge of English. It was a refreshing experience to be able to go and converse with just about anyone. I accomplished everything from haggling with shop owners to buy cheaper stuff from them to asking people to explain the significance of a historical place that we were visiting without once having to revert to talk in English.
All that time, I never realized how important of an asset it was to be so familiar with a new language. It was a huge wake-up call when one day, after a long time, when I tried to talk to a Turkish friend in Turkish and couldn’t string the simplest of sentences. I never realized when it had come to this! I had stopped taking Turkish classes in high school due to all the stress of O and A Level and whatever “important” things an adolescent presumably has. I also did not involve with a lot of friends that knew the language, and as slowly as I had learnt it, I had started forgetting it. A language that once was as natural to me as my own language. How could I forget something that I had so passionately learnt?!
That was when I decided to never let go of it. This was a part of me, as was the whole world it brought with it. Being multilingual is a gift which brings not just a different dialect with it, but a whole new culture and its people. It took forgetting and re-learning the language to come to the realization of how much it had shaped me and how important of a part it was of me, and I don’t plan to let go of it any time soon since that means letting go of a major part of my personality.
I felt so alone when I came to the USA for my undergrad. A new place, new people, just about everything was unfamiliar, and I didn’t have my friends or family here to support me. However, the Turkish people I met here took me in as one of their own. I was in such a faraway place, but my Turkish family here made me feel welcome, and this was only because I was familiar with their culture which came from knowing their language.
One of my Turkish friends once so affectionately called me the Pakistani version of herself, and I’m so proud of being considered so. It definitely proves that a language brings its whole culture with it. As is a famous saying in Turkish: bir dil bir insan, iki dil iki insan – one language one person, two languages two persons, meaning that you’re as many different people as the number of languages you know. I, for one, can attest to how true that is, and it brought me a whole new sense of belonging that I hadn’t expected to find in this alien place. I know that this is one of the most powerful skills that I have that will forever be helpful, no matter where I go!