Why I don’t speak in Turkish…

This message goes out particularly to my Turkish-speaking students who might be thinking why I never speak in Turkish. It might come to you as a surprise but as a linguist I am a real Turkish Language activist. It is extremely disappointing that most linguists who have conducted scholarly works on Turkish linguistics are non-Turks (e.g.  Geoffrey Lewis, Celia Cerslake, Johanson Lars, etc.). The status of the Turkish language in Turkey,  by contrast, is somewhat  contradictory. The Turkish language is not respected or protected as much as it should be. Moreover,  the Turkish Language Association has given way to endless number of English loanwords in to the 2005 edition of the Turkish Dictionary, which I label as ‘pollution’ and dreading to even open the first page of the next new edition.

I count myself somewhat lucky that I was brought up in London, as I had the chance to learn pure Turkish from my parents, and kept away from this so-called pollution. My mother taught me to read and write in Turkish and practiced my Turkish reading skills by reading Turkish columnists such as Emin Colasan, as there were no advanced internet or satellite resources when I was a kid or teenager, so newspapers were some of the few resources we had.

Having been born and raised in London has meant that I grew up as an English-Turkish bilingual. Hence, when I am in London with my bilingual friends I code-mix and code-switch and this is pretty much innevitable! What’s most important though is that when I am in Turkey I use Turkish only, as the motive to mix two languages in a bilingual and monolingual context appears to be pretty much different. Code-alternation in Turkey usually means inserting English words while speaking in Turkish. This is usually done for several reasons, but the common motive is to sound some-what ‘intellectual’, yet it often leads to humour as they may misuse the English words. Why take such risk? Politicans are a typical example where they resort to English wordsto sound intellectual and mask themselves from the public. This can however have an adverse effect, as one can also come across extremely unintellectual.

Unsurprisngly though English loanwords in Turkey are often misused by the public as well.  One of those words that gives me real cold shivers is HAMBURGER. If you do not eat ham or pork meat it is illegal to pronounce HAMBURGER in an English-speaking country, since HAM means PORK meat so instead you will use beef burger or chicken burger. So imagine you walk into a fastfood chain restaurant in Turkey and order a hamburger over the counter and they serve you pork meat; can you go to court and sue them? Obviously NO as you are using a word without even knowing what it means! So maybe they are serving you pork meat? Buna ben kendi kendine teslim olmak derim. So think twice before you speak.

I am reluctant to use English words while speaking in Turkish in Turkey. My motto is to speak proper Turkish in order to avoid humiliation, plus I want to improve my Turkish. It is rewarding to speak proper Turkish, especially for someone like me who was not born and raised in Turkey.

So having said all this is it not contradictory that I don’t speak Turkish with my students? Well there are several reasons for this. Firstly, I feel more comfortable using English in an academic environment, as I have no academic Turkish and my competence stands at social level only. Secondly, if  I am lecturing to pre-service and in-service English teachers I should be using the Target Language right? What use is it me speaking in Turkish with such audience? It might make Turkish-speaking student’s life a little more easy for me to speak in Turkish, but if one cannot express themselves freely in English, inside and outside the classroom, that would be very unimpressive. Destekten cok kostek olurum diye dusunuyorum!  There’s no use in holding a BA, MA or PhD qualification in ELT if one cannot speak fluent English, and most probably no employee will employ a teacher with poor language skills. I also believe that it makes it all the more difficult to criticise a student’s poor language skills if the teacher barely uses the Target Language with their student in the very first place.  So to put in a nutshell, my reluctance to speak in Turkish may be regarded as torture or snobbishness by some, but it’s purely for the student’s own good, not mine! So please bear in mind that there is a good well-thought out reason for every action I take.

Hepinize basarilar diliyorum…

Yasemin Yildiz



Filed under Food for thought

2 responses to “Why I don’t speak in Turkish…

  1. isim olmayıversin..

    gayet güzel ifade etmişsiniz..

  2. Rudy Troike

    Dear Dr. Yilmaz,

    I’m a professor at the University of Arizona, and had the pleasure of
    teaching in Turkey in 1959-62. I was interested in your discussion of
    ‘hamburger’. I well remember the disgust of a Turkish friend of mine who
    was offered a ‘hot dog’ when he was in the US. (It was just as well that
    he rejected it, since hot dogs were then made of pork — it is now possible
    to get beef or chicken or turkey.) The term ‘hamburger’ comes from the
    name of the city in Germany, ‘Hamburg’ (the ‘ham’ part refers to ‘home’),
    and has nothing to do with pork, so you can be perfectly comfortable
    ordering a hamburger in the assurance that it will be made from beef.
    The term arose in the US from the usage of German immigrants in the
    US, and was originally called “hamburger steak”, and got shortened to
    just ‘hamburger’. The -er on ‘Hamburg” refers to someone or something
    from Hamburg.

    Turkish is a wonderful language, and endlessly fascinating in its
    structure and history. I’m currently working with two PhD students in the
    Linguistics department here who are working on issues of Turkish.

    Best wishes,

    Rudy Troike
    Professor, Dept. of English
    University of Arizona
    Tucson, Arizona

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