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March 08, 2012, Thursday

Living in a diverse world: The life of an expat (1)

If a person has not had the opportunity to travel prior to university, when he or she enters university a whole new world opens up.

I was recently invited to give a 90-minute presentation in Turkish at Sakarya University on the topic of this piece. Having not taught full-time at university since the early 1990s, I was impressed by the questions the students asked after the presentation.

One of the many things that impressed me as I spent time with the faculty was that they were committed to their fields of study and developing their students. The development of education in Turkey at university level has come a long way and continues to improve. From what I observed in my one-day visit to this university -- which is situated on a hill with a view of Sapanca Lake about 140 kilometers away from İstanbul -- it seeks not only to be a place where students acquire fundamental and commercial knowledge, but is becoming an institution where students are developing their self-learning skills and using technology, social skills and group effort to improve their critical thinking.

One of the things that struck me about this particular university is that although they are in a more rural area, they are aware of global current affairs. This was obvious in the questions they asked me about the diverse world we live in and the life of an expat. Beginning the presentation with a picture of three dogs and a kitten sitting together on a chair caught the student’s attention. I used this to point out that this is how it is in my flat. People tend to think that cats and dogs do not mix. They are enemies. Even cats and dogs can live in harmony if they are taught. Animals are like us -- humans: We all sleep, eat and live for the adventure of the day. We humans are the same; whether we are from China or America or Brazil, we have the same needs. We love deeply. We want to learn. We have hopes and aspirations. We have fears and experience pain. The need to communicate is crucial to living in harmony in this world of diversity. This raises the question: What is cross-cultural communication? I explored six points. You can see these below. I believe interactive messages between people of diverse backgrounds involve having an awareness of the following:

* Language     * Humor

* Culture         * Ethnicity

* Religion        * History

I hope to discuss each point in the coming days. To begin with, language for the expat can make or break the expat’s experience. I always chuckle when I see the title of a book that implies you can learn the language in 30 days, or whatever. I do believe it is important to give it all you’ve got to learn the language, but have fair expectations. I have attended a few conferences on bilingualism in my time and, at one of them, found this multilingualism quiz to be thought-provoking, especially for expat parents. As you read each one you need to decide if the statement is true or false.

1) Speaking two or more languages places unnecessary effort on children.

2) Children who learn more than one language can’t become fluent in all of them.

3) Multilingualism is a positive social and personal resource.

4) Speaking more than one language retards children’s intellectual development.

5) Children have to be schooled in only one language; when they are literate in one language they can start with the other(s).

6) It is important educationally that children learn in their mother tongue in the early years of schooling.

Drop me a note if you want to check your answers. Some useful books by C. Baker on the subject are: “A Parents’ & Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism” and “Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.”

Any expat or individual studying a language will have stories to tell of mistakes they have made. We learn languages by making mistakes. Moving on: According to Lambert’s theory on sociopsychological language acquisition, language and culture go hand-in-hand. Lambert states, “An individual successfully acquiring a second language gradually adopts various aspects of behavior, which characterize members of another linguistic-cultural group.”

I will close for now with this story that an instructor at a Turkish university shared about how he came to his first class and introduced himself thus: “My name is Don.” All the students laughed and it was not until later that he discovered his first name meant “knickers” in Turkish. When I heard this, the first thing that came to my mind was the front cover of a popular children’s book called “Captain Underpants!” You can imagine the ridicule this instructor receives because of his name.

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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