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Pardon, anlamadım… / Sorry, I don’t understand…

by Julika Steglich, ANAMED PhD Fellow 2021–2022

It took me some time to think of a topic to write about for this blog. Looking for inspiration, I wandered the streets of Istanbul, photographing various things that interested me. I came across very modern hamam buildings (Fig. 1) and started to think maybe I could write about bathing culture, since my PhD topic is the analysis of a Roman-imperial thermal bath located in the microregion of Pergamon. 

 I reconsidered because, firstly, Roman thermal baths are different from modern Turkish hamams in Istanbul and even conventional Roman baths. These differences and recent news about Roman thermal bath research within the whole Roman empire are available to read, for example, in the articles and on the blog of a dear colleague, Silvia González Soutelo ( Secondly, I was not sure if there is, apart from the tourist attractions, still a Turkish bathing culture at hamams among my generation and younger people in Turkey. So, another option was to visit different hamams and ask the staff and visitors about the current bathing culture. I then remembered my first visit to a hamam in Bergama; I could not understand the woman who worked there trying to explain the process in Turkish to me. She wanted me to lie down and relax. But I had problems with relaxing, since I could not understand what would happen to me. Unfortunately, my Turkish is still limited to basic vocabulary and grammatical knowledge.

And that was the moment when I became more aware of the thing that permanently influences my daily life at ANAMED and in Istanbul: it is the language barrier. Sometimes I even experience some cultural differences with my English-speaking friends, since my native language is German and I grew up in Germany.

Before my time here, I took Turkish courses in Germany and tried to practise vocabulary and grammar regularly. My teachers and quite a few of my fellow students were children of Turkish immigrants. It was interesting to see and learn that they grew up speaking Turkish without knowing the grammar and often even the written version of their mother and/or father tongue. I felt sorry that they could not learn it in elementary school as they had done for German and that they needed to be at university to finally take a Turkish class, even though there is such a large Turkish community in Germany. But I rarely thought about their parents or grandparents and how it must have been to come to Germany in the 1960s, a time when you could not easily use Google translate, internet forums, or Wikipedia to get an idea of what someone wants or what needs to be done. Now I am the yabancı (stranger) in Turkey. It is not fully comparable, since I will leave after the nine months of the fellowship. However, there were moments when I got an idea of what it must have felt like: for example, my first hospital visit here in Istanbul to test for Covid-19. I had a fever and felt horrible. I was standing in line for the registration, and as I am, on the one hand, German and used to standing at a distance from others and, on the other hand, reserved by nature, people did not understand that I was also in line and passed me. When the receptionist simply did not understand me, even though I tried to explain to the person in my best Turkish that I had a fever and needed a PCR test, I was firmly convinced in my feverish delirium that every person in that hospital was terribly rude. Even after a person asked me in English how he could help and repeated my questions in Turkish, I got even more flustered, since I had the feeling that he said almost the same words in Turkish with almost the same pronunciation to the receptionist as me, but this time the receptionist finally understood. When it took me almost half an hour to fill out a very simple registration form for the test, bursting into fits of laughter because Google translate was translating total nonsense, I was ready to apologize personally to every tourist and migrant in Germany for our complicated bureaucracy and every bad experience they had with the German language.

I really wanted to be back at ANAMED, my comfort zone (Fig. 2), where everyone at least speaks English. But of course, my so-called comfort zone also demanded some linguistic thinking from me, and now and then, some information got lost in translation. Sometimes I was even happy about the loss, and sometimes, it caused unnecessary trouble. Of course, not everyone has the exact same experience, but I think we all know those moments when we don’t have the energy to leave our comfort zone, when we are relieved to meet someone who speaks the same language, with the same cultural background, where we don’t have to explain ourselves so often. This kind of experience may be one of the reasons why foreigners of similar origins often gather in one place and form communities.

Fig. 2. ANAMED terrace: a place made to be a comfort zone (Photo by the author).

But it would be sad if we always stayed in our comfort zone. That is why I want to give some, of course not new, ideas on overcoming such situations to everyone who might sometimes feel and experience the same at ANAMED or in Istanbul:

For English, I can highly recommend that you not only watch TV shows in English but read English newspapers more often. In this way, you will learn the vocabulary for discussing not only academic or simple stuff. But the most important thing is to accept that you need time and practice until you understand and can express almost everything, even in places where it is very loud and crowded. And if you need a quick and excellent translator, use this link:  

For Turkish, the most important words to survive in the first weeks are:

Merhaba – Hello

Teşekkürler – Thank you

Nasılsın? / Nasılısınız? – How are you? informally/formally

Iyiyim, teşekkürler, ya sen? – I’m fine, thank you, and you?

Pardon – Sorry -> You can also use it to get the attention of the waitress or waiter.

Menü, lütfen – Menu, please

Hesap, lütfen – The bill, please

Bir su, lütfen. / Bir su istiyorum. / Bir su alabilir miyim? – A water, please. / I want a water / Can I have a water? -> The last option is the nicest way to ask for something.  

Kolay gelsin – Good luck.

Anladım – I understood.

Pardon, anlamadım. – Sorry, I didn’t understand.

Don’t be discouraged if your pronunciation is not immediately understood. Sometimes people are not expecting you to speak Turkish. Keep on doing it, and the slower you speak, the better the other person will understand what you are trying to say. If they ask you something back and you cannot understand, you can say: “Pardon, anlamadım. Maalesef, sadece biraz Türkçe biliyorum.” – “Sorry, I don’t understand. Unfortunately, I only speak a little Turkish.” Since you are in Istanbul, you might be lucky, and someone may help you who can also speak English. And even if not, you have your hands and facial expressions, and in the age of internet translators, you are never completely lost.

Another thing you can do is to take a Turkish course with someone recommended by ANAMED and/or try to find a Tandem partner. But be careful if it is a good friend. You might end up drinking beer and talking about everything and anything in English…

If everything does not help and you want to let go of any intercultural understanding during a conversation, you can put your thumb together with your fingertips, move your hand up and down and say “arkadaşım” (my friend). That would be a very Turkish way of expressing the end of your patience. Use it wisely!

Anyway, everything will turn out fine, and maybe you will have a similar experience to mine. Not only do I feel motivated to improve my foreign language skills in general, but the experience also even changed my opinion about my native language. I really had no high opinion of the German language, as it will always be linked to our past and everyone makes fun of the harshness and the absurdity of the articles. I like the sound and grammatical structure of French and Turkish more. But I have noticed, for example, how nice it is that German has so many special words that have no equivalent in English or Turkish. I learned to love my own language, so to speak. This positive experience has somehow inspired me and will give new impetus to the writing process of my dissertation.

I also wish you a great time in Istanbul, and kolay gelsin!