Friday, August 18, 2017

The truth of studying Turkish in Azerbaijan

Herkese merhaba.

As promised, I'm back to spit some hot fire of truth on what it's like to learn Turkish in Azerbaijan. Disclaimer: this is purely my own opinion, based on my own experiences and observations having been someone who has studied Turkish in Azerbaijan. I in no way claim to represent CLS, American Councils, or any other organization, or their views and policies.

Okay, so let's start with a little linguistic background:
The only official language in Azerbaijan is Azerbaijani, which is a Turkic language of the Oghuz branch. It shares a lot of common grammatical, phonetic, and syntactical similarities with Turkish, and the two languages are reputed to have varying degrees of mutual intelligibility, even as high as 90%. However, Azerbaijani preserves a lot of older Arabic and Persian-based vocabulary, never having been subjected to Ataturk's reforms in Turkey that purged these in favor of more ancient, Turkic-based root words, as well as many Russian loan words as a legacy from their belonging to the Soviet Union. What language people speak natively at home varies by family and experience, but nearly everyone in Azerbaijan is bilingual in Azerbaijani and Russian, as those who grew up in the Soviet Union were educated in it, and it continues to be an important language of business, international outreach, and education in Azerbaijan today. Interestingly, this is not based on ethnic affiliation; by and large, most Azerbaijanis who speak Russian at home or with their families are not ethnic Russians themselves, but simply ethnic Azeris who chose to use Russian, often as a way to indicate appreciation for Russian culture, or as a slightly bougie status symbol.

Turkish is widely understood in Azerbaijan, as most people in the country grow up with extensive exposure to Turkish through their consumption of Turkish media, and the two languages are, as previously mentioned, connected through many shared linguistic roots. In many cases, the younger generation is typically more adept at understanding and especially at actually speaking Turkish, as it's only been in more recent years that this consumption of Turkish media has become commonplace. Back in Soviet times, most outside media was coming in from Russia, especially given the fact that Azerbaijani identity grew largely due to Russian influence as a "divide and conquer" method to separate Azerbaijani and Turkish identity to prevent them from allying with Turkey and fleeing Soviet control.

In all honesty, at least for me, learning Turkish in Azerbaijan was a very frustrating experience much of the time. Much as people claim to be able to understand or speak Turkish, or that the two languages are "the same," it often feels like neither of those are true. Even native speakers of one of the two languages often struggle to make heads or tails of the other, and so for me and most of my group, as imperfect speakers that only really knew haphazard Turkish at best, making sense of Azerbaijani beyond a very simple level was near impossible.
Locals find it difficult to perceive this difference, somewhat optimistically calling their language "Azeri Turkish" and saying "Why? It's the same," when asked to speak "Istanbul (read: ACTUAL) Turkish."

I'll be honest in saying that a lot of the time, I struggled to communicate with people. Even though I did find myself picking up on bits and pieces of it over time, I was never able to understand it beyond a most basic level, and certainly not at a true, native fluidity and speed. It got frustrating, to the point that at times I would avoid speaking to people in public at all costs because I figured that it was pointless - we wouldn't be able to understand each other anyway. I was never able to have meaningful conversation with my non-Turkish speaking Azeri host mother without her niece there to translate for us.

The reason I'm writing this post is for it to serve as something of a reality check and insider perspective for anyone who might be planning to embark on some program to study Turkish in Azerbaijan, as given the current security situation and travel warning out on Turkey by the State Department, a number of, particularly government-funded, programs for Turkish study have been moved to Azerbaijan.

Be prepared for people to adamantly insist that they are speaking "the same language" as you when you have absolutely no idea what they're saying. Be prepared for there to be a glaringly obvious discrepancy between what you're learning academically, and literally every other aspect of your day-to-day life on the ground. Be prepared for what you study in the classroom to feel like it has no practical value as soon as you step off of campus into the real city. Be prepared to be frustrated and aggravated at times - potentially frequently. Be prepared to feel discouraged and angry at times, to feel like you're not accomplishing what you came to do, that you can't. Be prepared for your frustrations to occasionally amount to so much that you resent being there. Be prepared to cherish any truly Turkish-speaking teachers, friends, language partners, or host family you may have, as they will be the most crucial force in the improvement of your actual Turkish language skills.

Be prepared to be exposed to a truly fascinating, dynamic, and multilingual place with a diverse and unique history at the crossroads of so many worlds. But that is not, ultimately, what you set out to learn.

I'm sorry that this is somewhat negative, but these are my honest feelings on what this experience consisted of for me. And I think that since organizations and locals on the ground alike can be very big into the whole bullshit "they're basically the 'same' language" narrative, it's important for people venturing into such an experience to be aware of the reality of what they're getting themselves into.

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