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The Language

There are few things more frustrating than walking into a foreign supermarket trying in vain to find soy milk. I'm staring at labels, looking at different cow and sheep graphics, and bottles and cartons desperately trying to find one of the foundations of my diet. Welcome to one of my daily struggles trying to learn Turkish.

Walking through the Migros supermarket I flashed back to a similar transition I made from Florida to Sao Paulo, Brazil when I was 23. It was my first time moving out of the country and I had no idea what to expect at the time. What I soon learned is that a city or country is only as big as your ability to interact with the people. And that's where the language comes in.

A foreign language is your key to the city. It's a key to the hearts and minds of the people you will be meeting. It's an access code that unlocks a world of possibilities. With the language in tow, everything is an option.

I vividly remember those early days in Sao Paulo before I learned Portuguese. Eating at McDonald's twice a day everyday for a month because the only thing I could correctly pronounce was "numero um" which got me a Big Mac combo. I couldn't even order an apple pie because I didn't know the word for pie. Or getting so lost one day when I rode the bus to the end of the line, that I was almost stranded. And there was the embarrassing first impression I made on my new boss when he thought his new intern would know Portuguese, and I didn't.

Having learned this during my Brazilian experience, I swore that I would do my best to pick up Turkish as fast as possible, in order to enable these types of options as soon as possible. I purchased Turkish levels I-III from Rosetta Stone and decided I would allocate an hour a day to learning the language.

With Rosetta Stone, you insert the CD-Rom and you are speaking the language in minutes. Via images, repeating words, spelling guides, you begin to believe you might just learn this strange new terrain. Still, it doesn't start in order. I learned the word for apple (elma) before I learned how to say good morning (günaydın). I learned how to say thank you (teşekkür ederim) before I learned how to count to ten (bir, iki, üç, dört, beş, altı, yedi, sekiz, dokuz, on). I learned how to pronounce the very different sounds before I learned the alphabet. I learned the names of animals and primary colors and articles of clothing, but could not string a coherent sentence together. Very frustrating!

During the month of January, I actually did a pretty good job studying, but as work at my new job picked up, my studies soon went out the window. Before long I had completely lapsed and even though I had access to many Turkish speakers, I wasn't taking advantage of the opportunity.

I realized I needed to learn more about the basis of the language to better relate to why it was so different and what I would get out of investing the time to learn.

From Linguata: The Turkish language shows the influence of the many different cultures it has come into contact with over the course of its long history. After the adoption of Islam, Persian and Arabic became the major influences and the official language of the Ottoman Empire, referred to as Ottoman Turkish, reflected this. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic the language reform initiated by Kemel Atatürk not only Romanized the Turkish alphabet but also 'purified' the language by removing many Persian and Arabic loanwords from official discourse. New words were derived from Turkish roots to replace them and Old Turkish words which had fallen into disuse were brought back into circulation.

Turkish actually belongs to the same linguistic family as Finnish and Hungarian which explains why it sounds so foreign to me. I had to admit to myself that Turkish was going to be a lot more difficult than Portuguese. For one, I'm thirteen years older than that kid who went to Brazil with different responsibilities, and aptitude. Secondly, the language is just strange! Although phonetically based (a taxi is a taksi), the rules of the language are very different than anything else I've encountered. From trying to find the right way to explain to a taksi driver where I was going (google maps helped tremendously), to figuring out what the hell I was buying in the grocery store, everyday was a lesson in patience. I became timid when dining out, sticking to the easier to pronounce items or having Turkish friends order for me. Already a homebody, not speaking the language exacerbated this trait and I found myself spending weekends in the apartment rather than venturing out and exploring.

But this city, culture, and people will remain a mystery to me that will only be revealed with daily practice and use. I did eventually find my soy milk (soya sut), but I have to do better. I'll update you in six months to tell you how it's going!

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