Learning Turkish in Taxis

There is a common idea, stated by the Syrians trying to settle and cope and work here, but also from those Turks with a Mediterranean or cosmopolitan perspective, that Turkish people are by and large rabidly monolingual. They speak Turkish and that is enough for them.

Yet every time I apologise for my Turkish to a taxi driver, he apologies for his lack of English. This happens in Gaziantep, in Hatay, in Bodrum, in Istanbul, in Ankara. It happens all the time.

And this apology is distinct from them telling me not to worry. They do that too, and then we both say, “yavaş yavaş” — but the majority then go on to say they don’t speak English or that their English is terrible.

If Turks were so closed to the rest of the world in their mind’s eye, they wouldn’t need to be making this further observation. But they do.

Often a cab driver will have a relative or a friend who has either lived in, lives now, or visited, Canada. And then, and this happens most often, they will ask me about the distance in hours it takes for a direct flight from Istanbul to Toronto, ~11 hours, and the snow and winter temperatures in Canada.

I don’t do well in these conversations, but I am doing better. The single best way I have experienced to learn a language, practical phrases, is to be put in a situation where you have no choice and no escape. My Turkish has come a very short distance in a very long time, and for that I am much ashamed. But the Turks are still all extraordinarily polite and gracious to me. So how is that?

Just now crossing into the airport through security, I was asked to unpack my bag, which I did happily, well early. I couldn’t understand what they had seen in the X-ray that they were looking for. It turned out to be my eyeglasses case. By the time we were resolved, my green gym shorts had fallen on the floor. I didn’t pick them up immediately, repacking other things. To this a security guard seemed to take note and borderline offense, as if something had been exposed. I told him “hac efendim” which is probably untold amounts of rude. He was a bit taken aback, then smiled and wandered back to his station.

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