Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Turkish Waterloo

Some years ago, I spent a summer working as a dishwasher in a Japanese restaurant in Amsterdam. I got to be pals with the sushi chef, a shy, gentle man who did not speak English. One day, he confided that he had given up trying to learn English as it was too hard to pronounce. I was young and stubborn and believed that I could help him. I asked him what words he found so difficult.

"Some English words sound exactly the same," he told me.

"You mean like here and hear?" He had asked me about these words earlier.

He shook his head. "No, different ones -- words that mean entirely different things."

"Such as...?"

Looking embarrassed, he answered. "Ugly, angry, agree, hungry." He ticked them off on his fingers, considerately adding the Japanese meaning for each one in case I had trouble understanding him. I was grateful for this: he pronounced all four words exactly the same.

At the time, I was halfway through a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and fired up with teaching fervor. I told him that vowel sounds are shaped by the position of the tongue in the mouth; that some vowels, like the ee in agree are made with the tongue held high, but others, like the uh in ugly are formed with the tongue in a low position. I told him that other vowel sounds were actually a combination of two vowels, or diphthongs, like the a sound in angry. I talked about stress and I demonstrated with examples.

My chef friend listened politely and he was a good sport about playing along. When I wrote out four sentences, he gamely gave them a go.

"I HANGREE with you!" he intoned, brow knit. He licked his lips and made a stern face. "You make me very HANGREE! He frowned and held the paper closer. "Those shoes are HANGREE!" He took a deep breath. "I did not eat lunch. I am HANGREE!"

When he looked to me for approval, I tried to smile. I explained that H is aspirated, that it starts in the back of the throat and is pushed out. I wrote out more sentences and he did his best to pronounce them. And he produced the exact same results.

After about a week, I gave up. The sushi chef smiled and shook his head in a resigned way. "It's really no big deal," he told me. "At least I don't need to use English."

I felt bad, but I couldn't help feeling a little superior too. I'd never had any trouble pronouncing foreign languages. Thank God I didn't have a tin ear for foreign vowels like my poor friend!

Fast forward to now. I am taking roll in a class of twenty-five restless Turkish teenagers, including Gökay, Özlem Çınar, Osman, Unsal, Ünal, and Tufan. I call out Gökay's name and am met by a burst of snickers. Gökay corrects my pronunciation -- "Guuh-kigh, not Goo-kay, tee-cha!" -- and I give it my best, but it only makes everyone laugh harder. Ö, my daughter keeps telling me, is pronounced like the first syllable of Ermintrude, though how this is supposed to help me, God knows; I never have occasion to use Ermintrude in speech.

Osman's name is mercifully not a challenge, but Özlem's thoroughly flummoxes me. I can feel sweat beading up on my neck as I try, again and again, to get the vowel right. Özlem is nice about it -- "It is okay, tee-cha, it does not matter" -- but she is an exception. Çınar and Ünal rub my nose in it.

The sad truth is that while I can sometimes hear the difference between O, Ö, ı, Ü, and U, I can't pronounce them. My daughter, who can pronounce Turkish just fine, finds this hopeless vowel butchery of mine a little exasperating. She cannot see why I can't distinguish between the ı in Çınar's name and the Ö in Özlem's.

Agree, ugly, angry and hungry all sound very different to me. O, Ö, ı, Ü, and U all sound pretty damn close. Sigh: I've reached my own linguistic Waterloo.

Good thing my kid is learning Turkish.

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22 comments:

Carolie said...

Great story, Mary, and great insight! I have to admit I've been a little patronizing (though I've struggled to hide it) while trying to explain to my Japanese studens the vast difference between "club" and "crab" -- which they simply do not hear.

I guess I should remember how difficult it is for me to hear (and pronounce) the second 'i' in shiitake...

planetnomad said...

Oh I can so relate to this! I had a student named something like "Ghkalouyia" and I always murdered her name. Or, in French, sus and sous, which are pronounced IDENTICALLY and yet one means above and the other means under.

On the other hand, the difference between "ship" and "sheep" is so vast! Don't you think?

Vijaya said...

Great post! I think some things you have to learn as a child. Hindi alphabet is very organized. The first line is: k, kh, g, gh (all k-type sounds) but Americans find it very hard to hear the differences.

I have a Vietnamese friend who'd laugh at me because I couldn't reproduce the varying pitches -- each word could be said four different ways with completely different meanings. Very musical, very pretty to listen to, but so easy to insult someone ... you could inadvertently say "your mother is a cow" or some such.

Ello said...

Mary - you are the best story teller in the world, I swear! What a great post! And languages are so very difficult!

Angela said...

Boy there are so many thing I take for granted being English as my first language. And there I was feeling bad for those folks on Amazing Race who had to recite Manderin food orders...

English is just plain confusing!

Robert the Skeptic said...

I think that trying to explain where one places their tongue within their mouth is akin to trying to teach someone to ride a bicycle by describing how you move your legs. Both skills get more difficult with age.

For me, I believe a Japanese student has mastered English when they can say the word: "Squirrel".

Robin said...

How funny! Little did you know you would go the way of your Japanese friend. That rotten karma!

I'm sure your Turkish is wonderful. After all, how many native English speakers can speak Turkish? Betcha not a whole lot! Yay for your daughter, though!!!

Martha Flynn said...

this reminds me of that saturday night live skit...her name is noonie...noonie? don't be silly, noonie is a girl's name!

Kit said...

I so feel for you - I'm all admiration for you having mastered Japanese.

As for me I learned Italian with no problems, my French is OK still, my German rusty but I used to speak it OK. But now I'm in SA and I just can't get my head around the flat vowels of Afrikaans and even though the language is grammatically simple - it is a complete mystery to me!

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- Even now I roll 'crab' and 'club' around in my mouth and I cannot see how anyone could fail to hear the difference. But Turkish vowels -- well, you have to hear them to believe them. If I could scientifically measure phonological difference, I am positive I could prove, once and for all, their insidious nature. As for the second 'i' in shiitake, it's a lot more important when you're putting this word in romaji...

PN -- Yes! Ship and sheep are entirely different! And Ghkalouyia's parents ought to have known better than give her a name like that. The same is true for half the kids in my intermediate classes -- how dare they have names I can barely pronounce! (Note to literally minded people: self-deprecatory joke attempt.)

Vijaya -- I struggled terribly with Vietnamese vowels when I taught Indochinese refugees; I had half a dozen people named Bao, and I could never get it right.

Hindi vowels look interesting! It is just possible that consonants, unlike vowels, are my friends. Japanese consonants are dead easy, I'm okay at Turkish consonants, and I've always done well enough with Spanish and French consonants too. I wonder what Hindi vowels are like?

Ello -- Thank you! (Can I quote that on my C.V.?) Languages ARE hard, but they're fun. It's just that they're even more fun when people understand most of what you're saying...

Angela -- I have got to watch Amazing Race, whatever that is: I would LOVE to try Mandarin food orders myself!

But you're right about English: it's devilishly confusing. If I hadn't learned it myself, I'd be having a tough old time.

Robert -- That is a perfect analogy. You can tell someone very well how to move their legs, but there is so much you cannot possibly describe: how to balance, how to sit, how to distribute your weight. All of those things have to be struggled through by the learner. Who at some point probably needs to fall off the bike...

As for 'squirrel' you are right again. This word used to practically reduce my Japanese students to tears. 'Refrigerator' is a close second, and my own last name was no picnic for them...

Robin -- A couple of my colleagues are native speakers of English who have mastered Turkish. It makes me so mad: if it weren't for them, I would not have to feel so guilty and incapable! And karma comes and swats me in the face every time.

Martha -- Eek!! I no longer get SNL references -- I'm that old and out of it! I used to watch SNL religiously back in -- well, never mind. I'm way behind in my American culture...

Kit -- Africaans is similar to Dutch, isn't it? And if my memory serves me correctly, Dutch vowels are just as nasty as Turkish ones. Maybe if I'd had to study Dutch, I'd have met my Waterloo earlier; as it was, I only needed to make the odd trip to the greengrocer; everyone in the Netherlands spoke English. Though I used to have some serious trouble with 'egg' and 'onion'.

You know Italian? I swoon just thinking about Italian!

Bish Denham said...

Ahh yes...The West Indian dialect (which is English, though people hearing it for the first time swear it's a different language) has lots of sublte sound differenences. Here, hair, hear are all pronounced similarly, but with ever so slight differences. Unless one learns to speak it as a child (as I did) it's about impossible to pick up the subtleties later on.

Christy said...

I remember in one of my linguistics classes way back when, the instructor played a recording of a person rolling through vowel sounds. There was a ridiculous number of sounds on the tape - like 40+ or somesuch. I heard 14.

Vijaya said...

Mary, you would love Hindi. I've always loved how organized it is. We have our consonants (32) and vowels (12). It's phonetic and easy to read. Of course, understanding comes a bit later :) You'd do great since you can hear all the differences. I'm amazed at how many vastly different languages you do speak!

Anne Spollen said...

I am one lesson ahead of my students in an Italian class I am teaching (no, I have no experience at all in Italian, only in Spanish). There seems to be so much to remember that it's good for me to be in the students' shoes for a while. Language is a struggle, at least initially.

adrienne said...

Some people must have more of a knack for picking up languages, too (I'm not one of them).

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- I had a Japanese friend with a boyfriend from Jamaica, and she struggled mightily with West Indian English. She used to come to me with questions, poor thing. Too bad she didn't know you!

Christy -- I'll bet a fair number of those vowels were from Turkish --- the Turks have plenty to spare! I can't imagine I'd fare any better than you did. I'm beginning to think the reason I've always liked learning Japanese is because the vowels are so easy.

Vijaya -- Yay for phonetic and easy to read, but boo for 12 separate vowels. Is it REALLY possible to hear all the differences? My students seem to think Turkish vowels are a snap. Japanese has five pure vowels and a number of diphthongs. They're all so easy I could weep just thinking about them.

(You wouldn't be amazed if you could hear me speak those languages! Japanese is the only one I can say I'm fluent in.)

Anne -- Good for you, managing to teach a language you're learning! I have nightmares about the two weeks I once taught Japanese to Germans, in Japan, and I knew it pretty well at the time.

Sigh...I'd love to learn Italian...

Adrienne -- Until I started making a stab at Turkish, I included myself in the 'good at languages' group. Since my encouter with Turkish, my confidence has taken a real nose dive.

poppy fields said...

I have the same angry/hungry problem with my French husband. I can't always tell what he's saying and respond inappropriately, saying "I'l sorry" when really he's just hungry...then he does get angry :)

poppy fields said...

"I'm"

Kim Ayres said...

When I was in Canada, I knew a Norweigian who kept trying to get me to hear the "distinct difference" between about half a dozen vowel sounds. I never stood a chance.

Mind you, she had a real ear for languages. When I first met her she had a Sussex accent, but within a month she was speaking pure Canadian.

Mary Witzl said...

Poppy -- You're right: the French tend to shave off the initial H too, don't they? 'Angry' and 'hungry' end up sounding very similar; my sushi chef friend would be thrilled to know he wasn't the only one who found these tricky.

Kim -- Most Scandinavians tend to be great language learners, I've found. I don't think I could count the times I've met someone with beautifully precise English diction, only to discover that they're not British, they're Danish -- or whatever. And when it comes to accents and dialects, they're linguistic chameleons.

Charlie said...

Perhaps the ancient Hebrews were on to something: NO vowels.

My exasperating problem is trilling Rs in Spanish--one trill or two, made with the tongue behind the upper teeth.

I guess it could be worse if I had no upper teeth . . .

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- (Jinx: our posts crossed!)

I love that trilled Spanish R. My very favorite word in Spanish is 'ferrocarriles' (railroads), which allows for maximum R trilling. But you're right: no front teeth would be worse than an inability to trill.