Sunday, 7 December 2008


Every morning on my way to my school, I go up a long flight of stone stairs. I'm an ungainly person, so I tend to look down at my feet as I climb, and I generally have a lot to think about too, so I am always lost in thought. And because of this, I invariably don't see the cleaner, the lone person up as early as I am, until I am almost past her. She is a woman about my age who looks as though she could tell a story or two. She wears a bright red headscarf over her pitch-black hair, and she is very light on her feet, so I never hear her coming. And -- shame on me! -- the following exchange takes place every single time:

Me (Flustered and caught off guard) Oh -- good morning!

Cleaner (Pointedly) Günaydın!

Every single time this happens, I cringe. Here I am in this woman's country and I cannot even manage a simple greeting in Turkish! What kind of self-respecting resident alien am I?

I've been here for almost three months now and I cannot even manage Good morning in Turkish. Because my Turkish is nowhere near basic. After three months in Japan, I knew greetings, seasons, the days of the week, even a few proverbs. I could make simple sentences, ask for directions, get train tickets, order meals, and even understand some of the conversations I heard around me. It is true that I studied Japanese before I went to Japan, but I had to get a kick-start on Japanese, given the different writing system, so I don't really count that. It is also true that I am much older than I was when I started Japanese, but I don't count that either; I am convinced that even with my aging brain I can still learn a language if I put my mind to it. Personally, I'd like to blame my teenagers, both the ones I teach and the ones I live with -- they get me so bamboozled and take up so much of my time -- but deep inside, I know very well that they're not the reason.

In fact, my failure to learn Turkish might be a combination of all the above factors, but I suspect the main problem is that I have no real motivation to learn. When I lived in Japan, I lived by myself with only a handful of English-speaking colleagues to converse with for a few minutes every day. Very few people around me spoke English and none of my neighbors did. I quickly discovered that I needed Japanese if I wanted to get my toilet unblocked in a hurry or find the one brand of orange juice that didn't have added sugar. Learning Japanese also gave me a means of making friends, and because I was very lonely on my own, this became a huge motivation.

Here, I live with my family and have no time to be lonely, so where is my motivation?

Motivation is a huge factor in learning a language. Years ago, one of my fellow English teachers commuted to a factory in Japan every Wednesday to teach a group of engineers there. Like a lot of Japanese men, the ones she taught tended to put in ten- and twelve-hour work days. They were perpetually sleepy and exhausted, and the last thing they wanted to do was learn how to speak a language they were convinced they would never need. She planned the most useful, interesting, stimulating lessons she knew how to plan, but her class remained a group of disgruntled, monosyllabic drudges who could hardly open their mouths without yawning. Then one day they got the news that their company was planning to open a factory in Wales. Some of them would be needed there. Overnight, the drudges turned into driven, committed men. They stopped sleeping in class, sat up straight in their seats, and greeted her with enthusiastic smiles every morning. Every session fairly zinged with energy and good cheer. Wednesday quickly went from being the day she dreaded going to work to her favorite day of the week.

I envied my friend from the bottom of my heart. As it happened, I also taught a group of engineers at a factory, in Morioka. I used to have fantasies about their company building a factory in an English-speaking country, but it never happened. Every Tuesday, I set off to work with a heavy heart; on my last day there, I don't know who was the most relieved -- me or my fifteen miserable students.

By far the most motivated class I ever taught was a small group of housewives whose children all attended the same middle school. This little group of women had formed and bonded when their children were tiny and they had decided that one day, when their children were old enough, they would learn English. When their husbands retired, the four of them planned to see the world together. "What about your husbands?" I asked, but they laughed. "They don't want to go to places where they can't use Japanese!" Every week, these women brought me articles they wanted to discuss -- all of them as eclectic and interesting as could be. We discussed bullying in schools, race relations in America, Japan and South Africa, Machu Picchu, pedigreed dogs versus mutts, cooking, fairy tales, poisonous snakes and spiders, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Never have I had a group of students so dedicated or passionate about learning English: they were motivated to learn because they had a dream.

No doubt about it: I need a dream. I need motivation.

Here is how much Turkish I have learned thus far: I can ask someone if she can speak English and I can tell her that I cannot speak Turkish. I can say my name and ask for someone else's name. I can ask if there are persimmons, apples, or bread in the market; I can count to 29. I know how to say good morning, good day, good evening, and good night, but the sad truth is that I never remember which is which half the time. I can say please, bon appetit, and thank you, order a cup of coffee or a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I know the words for water, trash, cat, lazy, new, open, closed.

Now, what I know may not be much, but you've got to start somewhere, right? And nothing is as motivating as someone who doesn't speak your own language. My Turkish colleagues all speak beautiful English, but the cleaning lady is the perfect person to start with. And while I can't very well order a glass of orange juice from her, I can certainly wish her a good morning in Turkish. And who knows? Maybe we'll go from simple greetings to brief exchanges about the weather -- and beyond.

So last Monday, I got my Günaydın! ready. I rolled it around in my mouth a few times, repeating it nervously under my breath as I began my ascent, one eye out for the cleaner in her bright red headscarf.

She was not there.

On Tuesday, I was ready for her again, but sadly, our paths did not cross. On Wednesday, it happened: she was there, cleaning pail in one hand, a cigarette in the other, her shiny red headscarf bright under the December sun.

I smiled bravely and took a deep breath. "Günaydın!"

She took a drag on her cigarette and smiled back. "Good morning!"


Kim Ayres said...

Superb :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Delightful end to the story there. You are so right about motivation. Living within a language and having to use it to survive is a tremendous motivator.

Brian Barker said...

As a resident alien can I welcome you to the World!

As far as learning another language, is concerned, can I put in a word for Esperanto?

I know that Esperanto is a living language, but it has great propaedeutic values as well. It helps language learning!

You might like to see

Confirmation can be seen at

Barbara Martin said...

Perfect ending to your story, and brilliant as well.

Eryl Shields said...

Ha! I'm sure you'll find your muse, and you haven't done badly so far, it seems to me.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Thank you!

Charles -- Yes, and it's a shame we can't all have that motivation to get us moving. I really could use it here, but I fear that it may take me some time to work up the energy.

Brian -- Thank you, fellow resident alien. I had friends in Japan who spoke Esperanto and they used to recommend it as a good way to boost language learning. I have found that my most successful students are those who have already learned a language or two; they know all the strategies and they manage to steer clear of the pitfalls others fall into, such as making direct translations.

Barbara -- It is good of you to say that, but how I wish my Turkish speaking skills were worthy of praise...

Eryl -- You'd have to hear my pitiful efforts. People have to ask me to repeat myself several times and then I suspect that they don't really understand me but just pretend to in order to spare my feelings. I'm finding Turkish vowels rather devilish.

adrienne said...

After sixteen years, I still can't converse with my in-laws. We rarely see them and I'm a coward at languages (especially with them), but it's still no excuse...

Love the end to your story.

debra said...

what a great story, Mary. You'll both learn from each other :-)

Robin said...

Yay! You did it! Do you think she has a blog in Turkish where she has been writing about the nice English lady she meets on the stairs each day, and wishes she could greet you in your own language?

I think you should write a Turkish children's book about the "cat in the trash" who unfailingly says "good morning".

Kanani said...

Ah! See? Your motivation was the lady on the steps!

Charlie said...

I'm beginning to think that you could write a story about dishpan hands and somehow it would turn out to be delightful.

laura said...


Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- There are people who think having in-laws who speak a different language is a distinct advantage. There have been times I've agreed with them. In-laws are tough going no matter what language they speak.

Debra -- Ideally, we would, but I wonder if we will -- we obviously live in such different worlds. But she looks a little haggard and I suspect that she too is the mother of teenagers. If we ever met each other with teenagers in tow, I'm betting we'd bond quickly and start greeting each other like old friends.

Robin -- Oh how I wish she did -- I would absolutely love that! And your idea for the children's book isn't bad: there are certainly a lot of cats in garbage bins around here and most of them look like they've got stories to tell.

Kanani -- Problem is, she's not much of a motivation anymore because she knows at least two words of English. Now I'm wondering if she wasn't doing what I was doing -- steeling her nerve to get just that one greeting right.

Charlie -- Aw, gee -- thank you! As it happens, I do have dish pan hands, but I'll spare everyone the details until I'm really stuck.

Laura -- I was a little nonplussed at the time, but at least it gave me something to write about.

Christy said...

Well, if not the cleaning lady then there has to be someone. What about the neighborhood alderman or whatever-his-title-was? It would certainly be useful to be able to converse with him!

Jacqui said...

Ha! Love the ending.

Kara said...

so what do you see in a person's face to indicate the presence of stories? and what do you do if you happen to be someone who's got stories, but is missing the facial cue. or vice versa. i see a thesis here.

Tabitha said...

LOL!! Great story, as always. :)

I can totally relate to motivation to learn a new language. My husband's native language is Tamil, and when we first got married I was determined to learn it. Not all his relatives spoke English, plus our kids would need to learn this language. But we only go to India once every couple years, and when we're there, he's always around to translate. We've been married eight years, and I still only know the basics. I knew more before we had kids, but I didn't use it so I forgot most of it, managing to retain the basics. I still want to learn, and I know I'm perfectly capable, but...well, there's not much motivation anymore. :(

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- He would be ideal, but for the fact that he is a very busy man and seldom at home. But then you could say the same for me too...

Jackie -- Thank you! At the time, though, I didn't like the ending at all. That 'good morning' really took the wind out of my sails.

Kara -- The cleaner has a certain ironic look on her face -- a rather wry expression, as though she is considering something long and hard or maybe asking herself 'Why me? Why do I have to clean the toilet all the time?' It's hard to pinpoint -- you'd know it if you saw it.

Tabitha -- Tamil sounds like a fun language. I have two students who are native speakers of Tamil.

I know how you feel! You start off with great expectations and the best possible intentions, but then you discover how easy things are the way they are, and before you know it, a comfortable inertia has set in. I fear this will be me in a year or two, so I'm going to try to set a very low goal and learn one useful sentence a week.

The Quoibler said...

Seems she has quite a wit about her, too! I sense the potential for a meaningful friend... and a motivation to learn her language.


Mary Witzl said...

Angelique -- I wonder if she was steeling herself up to speak in English to me and when I said hello to her in Turkish, she was all geared up to speak English and so did? Or maybe she just had a sense of humor...

Danette Haworth said...

Perfect ending and great insight!

Sarah Blake Johnson said...

Motivation is hard when I move so very often. I've learned 3 languages in 6 years and haven't the heart to learn Chinese when I'm here for less than a year.

So I'm learning something I can take and keep with me forever--a new musical instrument, a Chinese one. :)
I'm having so much fun. I'm still picking up some Chinese of course. I have an odd mix of Cantonese and Mandarin my kids tell me. And my Mandarin has a distinct Cantonese accent. The Chinese in the north of the country--where I recently visited is so much easier to understand!

What I should be doing--working on my German for when we move there.

I think it is okay to not focus on becoming fluent in a language, though learning the language can enrich our stay in a country.

Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- Thank you! I've seen the cleaning lady around a couple of times since. She's said "Günaydın" back almost every time.

Sarah -- I think what you are learning is incredible, and I would love to be able to do it -- if only I could read music. I can generally always reproduce what I hear, but I am virtually illiterate, musically. It's so sad.

I agree that one year is too short a time to learn a language -- the commitment involved is so great. I envy you the chance to learn German!