Your Language App is Lying to You

Lately a targeted ad has been showing up a lot in my Facebook newsfeed: it shows a picture of a smiling woman above the headline “Three weeks to learn a language?”  It’s from Babbel, a language learning app.

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Screenshot from my phone: LIES, ALL LIES

Every time I see it, I end up either wanting to laugh or throw my laptop out the window, because that claim is 100% bullshit.  Learning a new language in three weeks is impossible.  I know that.  You know that.  Babbel knows it, too.  Why they claim it’s possible, I don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong– language apps and programs like Babbel and Duolingo can definitely serve a purpose.  If someone is going on a short-term trip abroad and just needs to know the basics, like how to politely greet someone and ask for prices and directions, they can be immensely helpful.  Or, if someone is a beginning or intermediate language learner who is taking a class and just wants a way to learn/practice vocabulary, they’re good for that too.  But anyone who has put the time in to actually learn, really learn, a new language knows that’s more than just memorizing some words and phrases.

Here’s the truth: I’ve been living in Istanbul for two and a half years and my Turkish is still really rough.  I can bumble my way through most interactions by now, and I can understand or at the very least get the gist of most of what is being said, but I still make a ton of mistakes and I am a far cry away from being fluent.  (I read once that it typically takes 3-5 years of immersion to become conversationally fluent in a new language.  I’m apparently on the 5-year track.)  (And, according to the same article, it takes 7 years of immersion to become academically fluent in a new language, in case you were wondering.)

When I first moved to Turkey, I arrogantly thought that I wouldn’t have much trouble picking up the language.  After all, I was a foreign language major in college (Italian) and am typically pretty good with words, plus I would be immersed in it– how hard could it actually be?

Really freaking hard, it turns out.  Turkish is nothing like the other languages I’ve studied.  I took Spanish and Latin in middle and high school, which helped with learning Italian in college, but Turkish is so completely and totally different that, looking back, it’s hilarious that I thought I would be able to teach it to myself.  I got a couple of grammar books and I bought the Mango Languages computer program for Turkish, and for a few weeks, I really did sit down and work on the Mango program each day.

Then I stopped, because I was learning nothing from it.

For starters, it mostly taught tourist Turkish; secondly, it didn’t explain grammar at all.  It was literally just memorizing a bunch of phrases.  And when you’re living in a country, knowing how to ask “How much do the evil eye beads cost?” or “Can you show me where Hagia Sofia is on the map?” (and even that is an incredibly difficult sentence in Turkish that beginners could never hope to actually say) only gets you so far.  What I needed to learn was how to build sentences and how to adapt what I was saying/understanding depending on context and how people were responding to me.  I needed to know those things even at the very beginning, when I was just starting out.

And that is exactly what you can’t get from those programs and apps.

Instead I signed up for an intensive language course which met for three hours a day, four days a week, for six weeks.  Taking an actual course, with an actual teacher, taught me the grammar basics that I so desperately needed in order to put sentences together.  Like Finnish and Japanese, Turkish is a languages of suffixes, where you pile suffix after suffix onto the end of a word rather than splitting ideas into separate words.

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Like this.

I absolutely needed someone to guide me through all of it, step by step, and yes, it involved a textbook and a lot of grammar exercises and repetition.  Even learning the basics wasn’t easy.  But it gave me the foundation I needed to absorb, learn, and adapt as I continued to be immersed in the language by living here.

Even with the language course, the first year or so of really trying to use Turkish on a daily basis was a challenge.  There were so many times when my language skills weren’t enough and I wasn’t able to do the things I needed to (like deal with the administrative staff at my former job, who spoke little to no English), or where I ended up feeling stupid and embarrassed.  It still happens sometimes– I ran into my neighbor in the hallway the other day and we exchanged pleasantries, then she asked me a question.  I understood that she was asking a question, and I understood the kind of question, but I didn’t know the main word she was using.  It was one I had never heard before.  So I couldn’t do anything but smile and say, “Anlamiyorum,” which means, “I don’t understand.”  And she smiled back and nodded and said, “Anlamiyorsun” (“You don’t understand”) and said goodbye and went into her apartment.  She was perfectly nice about it, but I wanted to shout after her, “I swear I do know some Turkish!  I promise I’m trying!”  (It turns out she was asking if we had bugs in our apartment.  I didn’t know the word for bug, since it’s not something that had ever come up class or at work or in a social situation.  Something tells me the Babbel app probably wouldn’t teach that one, either.)

Yet, even with all the frustrations and feelings of inadequacy, I know I’m getting better.  At some point along the way, I was able to start joking around with my husband in Turkish (or, as he calls it, being sassy in two languages).  There was the thrilling moment when I watched a 10-minute environmental PSA video in Turkish and was able to easily follow along.  In fall of 2015, I went to the bank to open an direct deposit account for my job and had to speak all in Turkish, and it was an unmitigated disaster; the banker and I couldn’t communicate sufficiently, she kept yelling if there was anyone who could help translate which led to about thirty people standing around and watching as I blushed deeper and deeper red and as she got more and more frustrated.  It took forever and did indeed end up requiring a translator.

However, this past fall, I went to a different bank for the same reason (direct deposit accounts are required for each job in Turkey) and was able to figure it out.  I knew I was making grammar mistakes as I was speaking, but the banker was able to understand everything I was saying, including when I explained the US tax system to her.  To me, it was a huge victory, in large part because I remembered vividly how humiliating the previous bank experience had been.  It’s times like those, when I have a measuring stick of sorts to see how far I’ve come, that make me want to continue rather than throwing in the towel.

Learning a language is a slow crawl, an uphill climb, a journey rather than a destination, a vast and ever-changing ocean that overwhelms as often as it delights (more often, usually).  And if all you need is to learn how to ask for directions to the Eiffel Tower or how to tell a waiter you want chicken for dinner, then by all means, download a language learning app.  But if you’re in it for a the long haul, gird your loins and prepare for a lot of setbacks.  It doesn’t come easy.

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