My grandmother is getting old. Her English is surprisingly good at this age, but words sometimes escape her. I see her struggle to hear my brother and mother over the phone, whenever they sit down to chat over WhatsApp. She used to struggle to understand me, too. In fact, she probably struggled to understand me most in my first two years of Turkish study, when I insisted on practicing but could hardly pronounce my vowels correctly.
It isn’t like that anymore. Whenever I get on the phone and switch to my father’s tongue, she radiates joy and confidence. I had never anticipated that learning Turkish would change my perception of people in my own family, but it’s true that people have a different personality for every language they speak.
I grew up going to Turkey pretty much every other summer. It was important to my parents that I stay entangled in my Colombian-Turkish roots. In their defense, they tried to raise me trilingual. In the earliest days of my childhood, a sneeze at the dinner table was quickly followed by “Çok yaşa!” “Salud!” “Bless you!” Then five years passed and I could understand it all, but nothing would come out. I could only speak a garbled mess of gibberish. The speech therapist concluded that everyone should give it a rest, so we went to English-only mode and soon enough my parents had wished I stayed silent.
For all my chattiness, I was incredibly shy. I picked Spanish up very quickly after settling into English, attaining fluency but hating to practice aloud. Living far away from all my Colombian relatives certainly didn’t help the cause. At some point, my neglect caught up and I lost the language. As for Turkish, I never picked it up – I didn’t need to, because my relatives were fluent English speakers for the most part.
Being a first-generation American and human smorgasbord always felt hard enough, but as I grew up and sought community and connection with the different cultures I could claim, I realized that not knowing the languages was a huge setback. I was especially interested in learning Turkish since I had always been interested in moving to Istanbul, a city that I used to always leave crying in my youth. However, the resources available for learning Turkish were few and far between.
When I looked at colleges, I prioritized Turkish studies. The University of Pittsburgh’s Less-Commonly-Taught Languages Center immediately stood out to me. Once admitted, I enrolled in Turkish 1 – and to be completely honest, I was shocked at just how bad I was. I really shouldn’t have been, considering I had taken 5 years of German with hardly any traction, but it stung to suck at something that I considered integral to my identity.
The worst part is that two years of Turkish classes passed, and I didn’t get any better. At least that’s what it felt like. Sure, I was learning new words and improving my grammar, but compared to my classmates I always felt stunted. Honestly, I felt like I was doomed to never learn the language beyond the beginner level. As someone who has always set their mind to anything and everything, and never turned down a challenge, I was beginning to think I had met my match. Even with the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship to help fund my studies, it felt like I was moving at a snail’s pace.
My teacher told everyone in the class we should apply for the Critical Language Scholarship. It is a fully-funded program run by the Department of State to encourage the overseas study of languages that the government has high demand for. My freshman year I applied and was an alternate, but for my age that felt like a huge feat. When I filled out the application again sophomore year, I felt like I had an even stronger shot. Unfortunately, I was an alternate again. That was probably one of the most painful moments for me, because it wasn’t just an academic defeat. It was also a very personal letdown. I knew that I was not going to reach Turkish proficiency without overseas immersion.
Luckily, I ended up getting of the waitlist. (It does happen!) Happy ending, right? Not quite. That summer in Baku, Azerbaijan was everything. The language and cultural experiences were incredibly formative, and I met lifelong friends who I still talk to every day. The truth is, however, that fluency isn’t achieved overnight. Like I said, I was coming from a position of being a very poor Turkish speaker – and a lot of the people in the program, even those who were younger than me, blew me out of the water. It was only when I took myself out of a competitive and comparative mindset that I was able to start getting outside of my head and gaining ground.
I went from intermediate-low to intermediate-mid that summer, which was about expected for the average program participant. For me, it was like winning a million bucks. I finally felt like I was about where I should have been for two years of Turkish language learning. But best of all, I was nowhere near done with my overseas immersion. I had also won the year-long Boren Scholarship, and I was set to stay in Baku nine more months.
While the pandemic cut things a bit short, I still finished my overseas program with full proficiency. I think that it’s important to note that my biggest accomplishment in college has not been winning the Critical Language Scholarship or the Boren Scholarship, although those were part of my journey and what made my biggest achievement possible. I really feel that my biggest achievement was learning Turkish, and that encompasses every step from my first day of Turkish on the G floor of Cathy to my last day at the Azerbaijan University of Languages. For me, learning Turkish did not exist in a vacuum. It was the gateway to cultural belonging, self-confidence, and comfort in my liminality. And most importantly, it has brought countless smiles to my grandma’s face.
Next up: Spanish.