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To Turkish or Not to Turkish

That is the question. For many expats living here it may not be instantly clear how, on more than one occasion, having terrible Turkish is a blessing in disguise. Indeed, with a little cunning, it may even get you out of a sticky situation. Here’s more, from Liam Murray.

• Fighting talk

I’ve heard that this is especially effective for women, but gents too, would do well to employ English when in a tight spot – if only to confuse or bemuse your aggressor into passivity. Threats like “Do you want to dance around my garden darling?” and “I’ll rip the stuffing out of your pillow, you oik” will sound as menacing as gangster rap if your assailant is unfamiliar with English.


• Neighbors © Julius Motal

live a double life. In one, I am 28-year-old boy from Birmingham who is quite likable in social situations but who will shy away from calling people to come out. I listen to American punk music a little too much for someone my age, and have never really figured out how to open a bottle of wine with finesse. In the other I’m the same, just in Turkish. Seven years ago, after the initial surge of mastering the basics of the language I, like many others, found myself spending year upon year not seeming to get anywhere – and it drove me mad. I ended up taking my frustrations out on the waiter who automatically gave me the English menu in a restaurant, the new friend who seemed to just want to use me to practice English, and the people who talked about me while I was right there. These small yet significant moments made me lose that bit of hope that I would ever have the chance to complete my quest for polyglottery. In linguistics, they call it the “learning plateau.” The language geeks who came up with the term would have done better to call it a learning desert – a vast, unending one, caked sky-high in dunes of cow turd. But eventually, you make a breakthough. You know you are getting somewhere when you find yourself laughing along with that well-intentioned waiter at no expense to your pride, and causing

gossipers to blush with a cheeky one-liner indicating their murmurings have been understood. Another thing that comes with proficiency is the dawning realization that actually, you needn’t have bothered at all in certain situations. In fact often, keeping your Türkçe on the down-low is a vital survival skill. Thus, I aim to shed light on the life-giving oasis of willful ignorance.

• The friendly waiter.

As a general rule, you should reply in the language you're addressed in. So if you’ve sat down and been asked “yes please” then just go with it. After all, this guy has probably attained the job by telling the boss that he has a pretty good level of English, even if that is not the case. So help a brother out and enjoy the more-attentive service.

• Can I use the toilet please? In Turkish, the answer is generally a close equivalent to “piss off – customers only”, so if a call of nature

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catches you unaware, it is better to pacify all resistance by barging into the establishment of choice firing volley after volley of foreign verbatim as you weave your way towards the bogs.

• The constabulary

Being stopped and searched can be a hassle – if not a little intimidating. But you know what is even more of a hassle? Being a cop in the last hours of a twelvehour shift and stopping and searching someone who is just going to go on, and on, and on, in English.

• Seduction

You’d think it was an attractive trait to have learnt Turkish. Not true – you are just as ugly and boring in a second language, and nothing is going to fix that. Speaking Turkish also increases the chance of your irreverent faux pas and bad jokes being picked up on and thus lowers your already-thin veil of exotic charm. So use the barrier to your advantage and geek-out in your own tongue undetected.

One doesn’t buy a house, one buys neighbors. And if they realize they can communicate with you they will make your life hell, complaining about the slightest noise, sending their kids around to get free English lessons and regaling you for hours about how the municipality should do more for street cats.

• Clipboards

Be aware of clipboards and whosoever carries them. I used to have this job, and there’s nothing more annoying than someone who stops to chat with you for like an hour and then says they have no money, are foreign so don’t have a credit card or (worse) tells you,“I already give regularly to a cat charity”.

• Creeps

You know if a guy comes up to you on a side street in the middle of the night, nervously scratches the back of his head and asks if you’d like to get soup with him and go back to his hotel room, then this is not going to be an interaction really worth pursuing (unless you really love soup, in which case go for it). If palming such creeps off in English doesn’t work, see point 5.

Profile for Julius Motal

To Turkish or Not to Turkish - TOI May 2015  

To Turkish or Not to Turkish - TOI May 2015