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March 09, 2012, Friday

Living in a diverse world: the life of an expat (2)

Perhaps you are familiar with the Dennis the Menace cartoon where Dennis explains the concept of being bilingual.

Dennis says, “Gina is by lingol… this means she can say the same thing twice but you can only understand it once!” Everyone who has worked in a bilingual setting knows how it feels to understand only half, or maybe even less, of what is being said.

The need to communicate is crucial to living in harmony in our world of diversity. I began to explore six aspects of cross-cultural communication in my last article, including language, humor, culture, ethnicity, religion and history. I mentioned in my previous piece how language and culture go hand-in-hand. I have learned a couple things from my cross-cultural experience. First, words and body gestures can have different meanings and be interpreted differently. Secondly, meanings can differ.

Probably by communicating with another person you have found yourself accidentally discovering how words and body gestures can have different meanings. An example of this is how any given word may mean different things to different groups of people, even within the same society. This cannot always be learned a in language class, but it can be learned by being around native speakers.

An English teacher shared how she always tells her students to say “I feel bad” instead of “I feel myself bad.” The two have very different meaning in English. In case you are studying English as a second language, the first sentence infers something naughty and the second is the primary meaning of the word bad, denoting unwell.

In my Feb. 28 article, “What do they really mean when they say…,” you can see a few examples of when interpretation and meaning differ in English. As for English speaking expats in Turkey, they discover while studying Turkish that, while some words or concepts can be expressed with one simple word in English, this is not so in Turkish! In Turkish, it may take a few words for the same concept to be expressed. A word that comes to mind here is “frustration.” This is a common feeling sometimes experienced by expats everywhere. Many expats who come to Turkey will feel this emotion, frustration. Interestingly enough, they will become even more frustrated because they cannot figure how to express it in Turkish because there does not seem to be one word for doing so… I must confess I have been there and done that!

An important note here on language and culture is that vocabulary is developed based on what is important and what people want to talk about.

I have shared this next illustration before, but for those of you who have not heard this, it perfectly demonstrates what I am trying to explain, with an experience many of us have had. Lawrence Raw, instructor at Baskent University’s department of English, shared this with me when I interviewed him about his book “Exploring Turkish Culture: Essays, Interviews and Reviews.” Raw says: “The funniest thing that happened to me was when I first came to Turkey and I saw shopkeepers lifting their heads upwards and clicking their tongues when they did not have what I wanted in stock. I only later discovered that this meant ‘No.’ Now I use that gesture so often myself; while abroad, no one ever understands what I mean by it!”

I like to ask expats in Turkey what they enjoy about Turkey. When I asked Raw this his spontaneous reply to me was the fact that everything is unpredictable. Raw replied that every experience allows for something unexpected and by the unexpected you never truly really know Turkish culture. Raw finds this challenging. He added, “It keeps you having to think and respond quickly.”

I will continue this series in my next piece and explore the role of religion and history and more. For now, I will close with a quotation from the book, known by Turks as “Son Tramway,” published by Can Publisher. The book has been translated into English by Nedim Gürse, titled “The Last Tram.” I find the following quotation perfectly expresses the life of an expat and his identity struggle.

“Have I been living as if on a bridge? Between two continents, two languages, two women? Perhaps I am a bridge, a causeway, without solid foundations. Neither there nor here. Both there and here. But bridges help to keep everything going. Rivers flow beneath them, torrents of traffic on them...”

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey, 2005.” Please keep your questions and observations coming, I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]

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