Last week, a local Turkish student came to interview one of the Syrian women I volunteer with for a project she was doing on refugees. She, an Armenian 10th grader, speaks Armenian, French, Turkish and English. The woman she was interviewing speaks Arabic and minimal Turkish, and I speak English and Arabic. Because she was more comfortable with her French than her English, the student preferred to ask questions in French, a specification that required another translator- the program coordinator, who’s fluent in French and English.
In the end, the student would ask the questions in French, the program coordinator would translate them from French to English, I would translate them from English to Arabic, and the responses were translated back from Arabic to English, and then from English to French. A little excessive, but effective nonetheless.
Growing up as a native English speaker in America, I never thought of language as a privilege. Being able to communicate anywhere with ease was something I took for granted, and it wasn’t until coming to Turkey and being humbled by my own struggle to communicate that I began to realize both how restrictive and unifying language can be.
When I go out, my accent and limited vocabulary immediately expose my status as an outsider (ethnic ambiguity can only take me so far). I’m weary of being taken advantage of by taxi drivers or shop owners, and am conscious of approaching someone who I expect to understand me if I need to ask for directions. I’m in no place to complain, though. There’s a level of ethnocentrism in expecting everyone here to speak English. Half the beauty of traveling is being immersed in the new and unfamiliar; I can’t come to a new country and interact with others exactly as I do back home. If that were the case, why even travel?
Though at times limiting, language also holds the power to unite. I remember my first conversation with the women I’m volunteering with and their looks of relief when they realized they could communicate with me in their native tongue. It’s the reason we’ve been able to get so close and connect on a deeper, more meaningful level. It also allows us to lean on each other during our weekly Turkish lesson, working as a team to decipher new sentences and contextualize unfamiliar words.
I recently read that people have different personalities in different languages, a discovery this didn’t surprise me in the slightest. When speaking Arabic, I tend to have trouble finding the words I’m looking for and thus speak out less and with less confidence. This quieter version of myself contrasts with my more outgoing, talkative personality in English.
I’ve noticed a parallel in the way some refugees are perceived here in Turkey. The program coordinator at Yusra, for example, thinks that the women involved with the sewing project are shy and reserved, only because she’s observed them in instances where they must rely on someone else to help them communicate. When they’re speaking in Arabic, they are confident and quick-witted, traits that just don’t translate quite yet.
In closing, I just spent longer than I’m proud to admit trying to figure out how many stops I had left on my bus ride home, but the girl that helped me out had a sweet accent that I’d have never heard if I hadn’t asked for her help. I’m lucky and thankful to be fluent in a language that I share with so many people worldwide, and eager to become fluent (or at least to know more than three words) in a couple more.