A True Turkish Fairy Tale (by Beatrice Cale)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

Cappadocia, Turkey

Come gather around, children, and hear this true-to-life language-learning fairy tale.

Once upon a time, a person could pack their worldly goods in a small bag and with no more than 20 dollars in their pocket and a spirit of adventure, set out and see the world.

Perhaps, to begin with, one might need more than 20 dollars, as the airfare on a Virgin Atlantic flight to London, England was $100. However, once across the ocean, the entire world was at one’s doorstep.

As we continue this fabulous story, we discover a world that was wide but welcoming at the same time. Everywhere opportunity bloomed.

Here, was a beautiful island in Greece, groves of olives, fields of watermelon and plenty of offers to work, harvesting the bounty.  This manual labour was often rewarded with an al fresco lunch, the sweetest of melons complemented by salty feta cheese.

There, right across the water from Greece, was the intoxicating land of Turkey. During this long-ago time, it was mysterious, unknown, with few tourists, and was even considered slightly dangerous. How is it that our friendly traveller managed to thrive and explore? The secret answer is that people everywhere are generally good, and curious, too.

Map illustrating the entirety of Turkey and neighbouring countries. Notice how the easternmost of the Greek islands (Simi, Kos, Rhodes etc.) are nestled against the western Mediterranean shore of Turkey. One can often see across the water to the other side.

Ultimately, the best reward of this mythological journey was the never-ending opportunities for language lessons. Lessons that were inadvertently given by patient and proud speakers of every land. The learning of language was done naturally, nonchalantly, freely and above all with great facility.

Our adventurous vagabond immediately found themselves in a natural language immersion program. There was no alternative, as the speakers of Turkish and Kurdish did not know English, but why should they? In remote Anatolian villages deep in the east of Turkey, local people spoke of Alexander the Great as if he had just passed through. The blue eyes of Asia Minor were a reminder of his era.

Magically, our intrepid traveller found employment, for in every rural village there were students eager to learn English. Globalization was just a glimmer on the horizon. People spoke their dialect and at that time had little need for the English language. The schools were proud bastions of Turkish language education. It had been a mere 50 years since the institutionalization of the Latin alphabet as a writing system for Turkish, a switch from the Arabic script of yore. Sadly, the politics of control were exerted over the teaching of the Kurdish language, and it is forbidden from instruction until today (Sheyholislami, 2023; Zeydanlıoğlu, 2012)..

The modern Republic of Türkiye was founded in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The education system transitioned away from teaching Arabic and Persian for religious purposes as a second language, to teaching German, French and English.

This strengthened ties with the Western world.

English began its ascent, and in the villages of Turkey the farmers, shepherds, tradespeople, the bakers, and the butchers wanted their children to benefit from the arrival of the English-speaking guest. They felt that the key to learning a foreign language was exposure to that language at a young age allowing the learner to interact and assimilate the language. Clever indeed.

And thus, like magic, a career was born!

Classroom in Anatolia circa 1970s

Local schools opened their doors to this unexpected treasure. An English speaker direct from Canada! It was a veritable bonanza. Young and eager students in regulation uniforms stood up straight, wide-eyed, the moment the English teacher entered the classroom. Generous villagers competed over who could offer the best hospitality and host the teacher in their home. Some families slept all together, in a row, on a wide mat. The father and the mother were followed by all their children in descending chronological order of age. The teacher would sleep at the very end of the mat, the place of honour.

The Hostess with the Mostess!

An even greater effort was put into mealtime. Delicious feasts, that to this day, have no equal in the traveller’s memory. Fresh, organic, and locally sourced, all the trendy buzzwords were just ordinary food offerings. Vegetables harvested from the neighbouring field; fruits still warmed from the sun. And a curious first-time flavour; green almonds, not yet hardened in their shell, crunchy, tangy, a delicacy.

All this bounty was a reward for basic English lessons.

Gentle reader, please bear in mind that this young traveller was a recent high school graduate, and untrained in the finer points of language acquisition. Aside from an inquisitive nature, this wanderer had the benefit of an ancestral history of hearing, listening to, and deciphering many languages. This self-erudition was their strong point.

Turkish is an agglutinating language The morphology of Turkish is marked by extending the essential stem with distinctive additions and assigned syntactic ideas.

The English Teacher

Turkish phonetics is subject to vocalic harmony, of which palatal and labial vowel agreement is the foremost attribute. The palatal agreement is based on the relationship between front vowels (e, i, ö, ü) and back vowels (a, ı, o, u). It sounds really quite lovely and rather musical. These linguistic features allowed our traveller to speak and write the language in a scant few months.

All good tales must come to an end as does this one…they lived happily ever after, in a life of language!


Basic Turkish dialogs for beginners on Youtube

Sheyholislami, J. (2023). Linguistic Human Rights in Kurdistan. In Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Phillipson, R., & Wiley, J. (Eds.). The handbook of linguistic human rights. John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Shohamy, E. (2005). Language Policy: Hidden Agendas and New Approaches (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203387962

Surprising facts about the Turkish language

Zeydanlıoğlu, W. (2012). Turkey’s Kurdish language policy. International Journal of the Sociology of Language2012(217), 99-125. https://doi.org/10.1515/ijsl-2012-0051

Closer view of Greek islands next to Türkiye
Urban areas in Türkiye

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *