Friday, May 16, 2008

Words fail me

It's not funny. The longer I remain in this country the more tormented my mother tongue sounds as I attempt to communicate with both native speaker work colleagues and my students of English.

Daily I bemoan the fact that both my written and spoken expression of English worsens. I've gone from having words on the tip of my tongue to an almost complete inability to cough up the mot juste as required. Extracting abstract nouns is now more often than not a chore and, more than usual, I'm avoiding conversations where opinions rather than fact are necessary. I'm tired of hesitating and stalling my interlocutor while I rack my brain to search out the words or phrases needed to complete my sentences and convince the listener that I am not in fact just a near-native speaker. For God's sake, how can this be happening?

Help me, O dear, dear prescriptive grammar

Well, this shouldn't be happening. Of course, we all suffered intermittently from tied tongues. Especially when exhausted it's often difficult to take in, let alone produce a stream of the vernacular. We've all sat through dull, pointless meetings where our train of thought has erred, only to be expected to proffer some learned opinion on a subject discussed for the last half an hour about which we have no idea. This happens to me all the time because I detest meetings. They're rarely necessary, intensely infuriating and to be honest, for the handful of people who clearly enjoy the limelight I'd be happy to let them make all the decisions regarding agenda items.

However, I digress. My complaint revolves around my loss of naturalness, fluency and proficiency when talking about the most everyday subjects. My grammar falters, nouns have disappeared almost entirely from my vocabulary and it might even be that I can no longer use irregular past simple verbs. I gived up.

Naturally, there are those of you out there who would perhaps suggest that no Australian, regardless of education or upbringing, speaks an English worth listening to. I'm often subjected to opinions regarding bad English, lazy English, inferior speech. I'm not a fan of the prescriptive grammarians nor those who think a certain sociolect exists, namely theirs, that is more correct than others.

Bad English (food).

Although most arguments claiming superiority of one English over another usually boils down to what we like to call accent. From the English-speaking arena, those originating from Australia, Birmingham, Liverpool and the Black Country in England, and probably many Southerners from the United States, will have no doubt at time been subjected to or subject of arguments regarding deficient speech that of course doesn't measure up to those bright young things graduating from Oxbridge-upon-Pretense.

Accent aside, I find that Turkish words and grammar are having an immeasurable effect on my speech and writing. I am still yet to master Turkish yet clear progress has been made over the past few months. I have learned reported speech and can form definite clauses. In short, my Turkish is becoming more flexible, more elastic, and is rarely misunderstood. My English is raising eyebrows.

Below are some recent observations.

First, I'm thinking seriously about visiting the Spain and the Portugal during the summer break. I plan to spend a lot of time idling on the beach but then heading over to the Balearic Island to catch up with friends in the Majorca. you get the idea. The use of the definite article, otherwise known as the in English is sometimes difficult to teach and for all but the upper-intermediate learner, cumbersome to employ correctly.

That said, the use of the with geographical place names is straightforward and amounts to learning by rote a few rules. Exceptions are rare. We say I'll visit Germany but I'll travel to the United States. It would be pleasant to sip a mojito on a yacht in the Caribbean but find accommodation on Lake Como. And the rules appear to have slipped out of my head. But I'm still planning to visit the Spain regardless.

A possible birthday present for those who feel the need to offer something

Next in importance is the in-creep of Turklish, a phenomenon itself divisible into the art of inserting Turkish words when English suffices and the mollifying habit of Turkifying English words. Utterances such as yani, o kadar, tamam, evet, hayır, bitti, yok ya and değil mi? have all but wiped out the equivalent so, that's it, ok, yes, no, it's finished, no way, and really? Not that big a deal I suppose but at times it bugs me.

More problematic is Turklish, most noticeable in my miseuse of phrasal verbs and collocations. I often can't remember whether I should open or answer the phone if someone calls and either turn off or close the lights when I exit a room. I'm constantly giving notes to my students after marking tests and they take permission from me to visit the toilet during classtime. I overuse nice and good because in Turkish it's almost impossible to avoid the ubiquitous güzel, an adjective used to cover every possible positive situation in Istanbul. Interesting, good, delicious, pleasant, beautiful, impressive, fascinating among other seems to be shrouded in a halo of güzel-ness. I can't decide whether adjectives are lacking or I have reached saturation point for learning descriptive words.

Obsolete forms are seeping in. Where, whither and whence have all been used in the last month. I am Charlotte Bronte. I am James Hardy. I sound like a twat. Hither and hence are likely to follow.

Bad Turkish (hair and shirt)

But phrasal verbs. That's what I wanted to mention. Turkish has them, and most of them are rendered with etmek and yapmak, to do. I do party, do my work, do my duty, and strangely, in an unusual twist of fate and lingusitcs, do myself. I even confused my head last week but it was understandable since my day had been very crowded in the school.

The list goes on. Adverbs of position confound me greater still. I cannot distinguish between above and on, below and under, behind and between, but I am sincerely over it.

Many moons ago, when I live in Paris, I told a visiting friend that I was interrogating my answering machine from a distance. Some things never change.

And by th way: These people ought to be punched. Hard.

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