You asked: “How did you learn an unfamiliar language like Turkish?”

March 30, 2020

Note: This is a part of a new series on Smart Polyglot called “You Asked”. You ask your questions and I try answering them as efficiently as possible in a blog post! Enjoy and feel free to ask me your questions on Twitter or Instagram!

First of all, thank you for trusting my experience and taking the time to ask this question! Let’s see if I can come up with a satisfying answer.

I was completely ignorant before I started learning Turkish.

Learning Turkish has changed my life in ways I cannot quite put into words. Before Turkish, I had only learned languages that were reasonably close to Portuguese or English, like Spanish, French and German. At the time, I was a fresh language learner, so…

  1. …I had no idea how to pronounce letters like ğ, ı or ş. In fact, I had never seen such a thing in my life, because Turkish is not a common language in Portugal.
  2. …I didn’t know there was such a thing as an agglutinative language, which is what Turkish is.
  3. I knew almost nothing about Turkish culture, had never visited the country, had never lived there, and knew nobody who came from Turkey. Only 3 years later, I had managed to accomplish all of these and spoke Turkish comfortably.

What does it take to learn a language that is completely foreign to you? Here are some suggestions (in no particular order).

1. Build a support system immediately.

When I started learning Turkish, almost nobody around me knew anything about the language. My mom supported my mission to learn it, but Portuguese people in general are not very knowledgeable about the Turkish language and I can count only two credible schools that taught Turkish at the time.

For that reason, I made the immediate decision to find the nearest Turkish association and take casual, in-person lessons with them. This helped me to start creating connections with actual Turks, not to mention I got to meet two other students who were also curious about the language. They gave me interesting materials to study from, books to get me started, and helped me to speak from the beginning. I had to let go of shame, shyness, embarrassment or awkwardness as soon as I started reading texts and building my own sentences!

My advice? Start finding native speakers immediately, as well as other learners of the same language. Join a good online support group (too many groups might overwhelm you with notifications). This might seem like too much effort at first, but it’s an important first step if you’re serious about learning the language to an intermediate or advanced level.

2. Take advantage of all sorts of media (unlike me).

Back when I started learning Turkish, I was still a fresh language learner and didn’t know half of the apps, language books or exchange platforms I know today. I also didn’t have access to Netflix. I didn’t know how to take advantage of online resources the way I do now. If I did, I probably would’ve seen even better results! Instead, I learnt the language mostly by listening and repeating (which is positive, but has its disadvantages).

Check what apps, manuals or programs are available in your new target language. Collect suggestions of series, movies, YouTube channels or listening practice platforms you think you might enjoy and save them under a tab.

It’s important that you organize these resources in a way that makes it easy for you to click and access without too much effort. Languages that feel unfamiliar to us typically exhaust our brain as beginners, and it’s easy to fall back into our comfort zone and avoid spending time with the language.

3. Accept this language as an independent being.

When it comes to languages that are radically different from your mother tongue (in my case, Turkish was definitely so), constant comparison can be a losing game.

I remember there was a girl in my Turkish class who kept reading the letter “ı” as an “i“. The reason is clear: they are similar in writing. The problem is that they sound completely different in Turkish. She wasn’t dumb, stupid or careless: she was just relying way too much on what she knew. After a while, a pattern had been created. Her mistake became her norm. It must’ve taken ages for her to reverse that habit, if she ever did.

When I learn a language casually, I don’t mind not having an approach. But when my goal is reaching advanced proficiency, I try to let go of anything I already know about other languages. Even if two languages are similar, I avoid relaxing and thinking that they’re “pretty much the same”. In my opinion, that’s an invitation to years and years of mistakes, all because I didn’t take my new language seriously from the get-go!

4. If your target language uses a different alphabet (eg: Arabic), get used to it right away. Don’t rely on transliteration.

This one’s not about Turkish, but I think the point still stands, considering that we’re talking about unfamiliar languages. I’m a Portuguese speaker, so Arabic definitely counts as an unfamiliar language to me, too!

Many people get surprised when I say that I learned to read and write in Arabic in one day. I sat at my desk and repeated the script so often – for hours upon hours – that it became natural. Truth is, learning a new script is not that difficult.

Problems start when you realize that vowels are usually not written in Arabic, so you have to guess them in context or through a lot of repetition. You’ll also feel overwhelmed when you see entire websites in Arabic. But I think the reason I felt so helpless after a certain point, was because I learnt to read Arabic but never put that knowledge to good use. I was constantly relying on transliteration to save me from exhaustion. In fact, I would write entire texts using the Latin alphabet, just to help me speak more quickly.

This gave me faster results, but I screwed myself over in the long term. Whenever you can, stick to the original thing and try to make it your second nature. It’ll take longer, but results will stick more efficiently. Transliteration should be a handy tool used on the side, not our main support system.

5. Get used to the way people actually speak.

How do you say “I’m going” in Turkish? Gideceğim (guee-deh-djeh-eem). How do people actually pronounce it? Gueede-djahm. Any unsuspecting listener could perfectly listen to these two versions and assume they were different words.

That’s why we must always make sure we stay in touch with native speakers, series, movies, YouTubers and the like (music and classic literature aren’t always good references, though, because they occasionally teach you poetic words that are no longer used). My advice? Start finding all of these as soon as you get started. I know this isn’t always easy, but it’ll save you tons of energy and frustration in the future when you no longer question why things sound so different from what you’ve been studying for years!

Extra points because you’ll be learning slang at the same time you get used to shortened words!

6. Keep it consistent (unlike me)!

If there is a single thing I regret regarding my Turkish studies, it’s the fact that I took a break from it. It wasn’t purposeful, but I spent more than a year without looking at the Turkish language: I stopped watching series in Turkish, speaking to Turkish people, reading news or books in Turkish. That was the death of about 60% of my vocabulary.

Nowadays, I consider myself an intermediate learner in understanding and an upper-beginner when it comes to speaking. It’s a little sad, considering I was able to have full, complex conversations in Turkish back when I was living in Istanbul. I’m having to review basic grammar concepts, re-learn the language, and go through the same struggles beginners have. Yes, some concepts were still present somewhere in my brain, but I often find myself getting surprised: “Wow! I hadn’t heard that word in ages, I had completely forgotten it”.

Please don’t make the same mistake! Once you achieve incredible progress in an unfamiliar language, keep it alive and healthy by nurturing it.

7. Don’t forget that all skills matter.

When language learners ask me how I managed to learn Turkish, the answer is a little complex: I started by studying some basics, then stopped studying formally and my fluency came from literally hanging around Turkish people and reproducing everything I heard. I then had the opportunity to study Turkish in college as an exchange student, but meanwhile there was a huge chunk of content that was lost in between.

This means that nowadays I struggle with writing. I’m able to say a couple of common expressions that I didn’t know were written so differently from the way they’re pronounced!

The trick to not doing the same thing I did is nurturing all skills simultaneously and not letting one single skill dominate (unless, of course, your goal with the language is speaking only).

8. If you ever get the opportunity to spend time in the country, do it and absorb everything!

I know, I know. It’s quite a jump. But while I agree that we can learn a language without ever visiting the country, it’s no secret that spending quality time there helps. A lot.

Living in Istanbul as an exchange student, I was surrounded by Turks. I lived with a Turk (my partner at the time), was constantly interacting with his family and friends, had Turkish classes in college and spoke Turkish with waiters, store clerks, and people on the street. Because a large part of the population isn’t fluent in Turkish or prefers not to speak it due to shyness, I had plenty of opportunities to practice. Because many Turks saw how I was making a serious effort to speak their language, I even unintentionally motivated some of them to start learning English and Portuguese!

If you ever have the same opportunity, grab it. Enjoy it, savor it, immerse yourself in it, speak as much as you can. I couldn’t believe my own progress when I did exactly that.

I hope these tips were useful. I look forward to hearing more about your own experiences with unfamiliar languages in the comment section below! Thank you for your question, and I wish you much success!

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