field notes, languages

5 months with Turkish: a recap of my language-learning strategy

It’s time for an update on my language-learning project, a cup of tea! (Turkish edition: bir fincan çay.) In preparation for my trip to Istanbul (and continuing into the months I spent in lockdown there), I started to seriously invest some time into learning Turkish. And now that I’ve returned to the States, I’m winding down my Turkish studies and will go into maintenance mode, where I won’t expect to make any more progress for the time being. Instead, I’ll go back to shoring up some Romance languages, as well as dialects of Chinese. But for about 5 months, I was able to focus primarily on Turkish, and this post goes into the learning strategies I used during that time.

I. A bit about the Turkish language

Turkish is a pretty interesting language, especially in terms of where I’m coming from as a learner. It’s the first language I’ve seriously studied that is completely unrelated to either English or Cantonese (which I consider to be my native languages). It really makes me appreciate how extreme the boost is from related vocabulary when learning, say, French or German. Without that, almost every single word seems totally arbitrary. Examples: English information, French information, Italian informazione, German Information, Turkish bilgi. English justice, French justice, Italian giustizia, German Justiz, Turkish adalet. You’re going into this whole new world, where you have to learn everything from scratch, and almost nothing comes for free. (Though I was surprised to find a lot of loan words from French, which helps me. There is also a lot of vocabulary overlap with Arabic, which doesn’t help me at the moment, but maybe will someday!) But Turkish is a pretty regular language–it’s very pattern-based, follows its own rules and has few exceptions–which makes it “guessable” now that I’ve made some headway and built a base of vocabulary. But it wasn’t guessable from knowing words from English or any European language.

Turkish is a whole new world to me not only in vocabulary but also in syntax, where it has paradigms that are new to me, like agglutination–basically, you take a word root and pile on suffixes to add units of meaning which in English might be expressed via a long string of separate words. “I might be able to go” can be said as one word, via suffixes. In addition to that, almost everything that can be in reverse order from English, is. In Turkish, the verb is at or near the end of the sentence. Prepositions are actually postpositions–they come after the thing they refer to (which is actually the same in Chinese). And so it goes, inversions everywhere you look, at the sentence level and within parts of sentences. I love this tweet which diagrams the mind-bending inversion in Turkish sentences, as compared to French or German. (If you’ve seen the movie Arrival, this one is great too.) It can be kind of frustrating–for me, the feeling of parsing a long sentence was the feeling of waiting until the very end, to find out the core of the sentence from which to “hang” all the other bits of meaning encountered on the way there. It’s again a much more extreme divergence from English than you find with Romance languages or Germanic languages. It’s pretty taxing on my brain, and makes me extra impressed by Turkish people who are fluent in English.

II. Current state of my ability in Turkish

Whenever I study a language, my skills develop unevenly, where my reading ability way, way outpaces my ability in writing, listening, and speaking (in that order–speaking is always the least developed), and Turkish is no exception. At the level I’ve gotten to, I can read without too much difficulty on the easier side: signs and notices, magazine articles, news, probably young adult (YA) books; but nothing very literary or technical. It’s easier with the help of a dictionary, but I can get the gist of things without one. I can write understandable sentences, with some errors. I could probably write this post in Turkish, but it would take forever and have a fair number of errors and awkward usages. In listening, I can only fully understand short sentences/questions that I can hear very clearly. With anything more complex than that, I can often understand very vaguely what is going on and what people are talking about, and I can catch parts of sentences, but not enough to do a full translation. In speaking, where the opportunities were especially lacking due to months of lockdown in Istanbul, I can sometimes say tiny 1-4 word sentences as needed. (“Half kilo, please.” “I have a bag.” “Excuse me, is this yours?” As people with tiny children are aware, you can get amazingly far with micro-sentences.) Often I blank out in the moment, then think of the correct response to something after the moment has passed. It’s annoying. But at least I think of it eventually.

After checking some mock exams at different levels from TELC, which provides language certifications (but without actually doing the exams, because they looked boring), I’d put my level at around A2 or B1. Far from fluent, but I’m happy with that.

More importantly, I attained that experience of “breaking through” to where something like a bit of overheard conversation floating by as I walked down the street, which just months ago was a completely opaque, mysterious string of random sounds, is now full of meaning and expression, full of humor, caring, full of logistical details, pop culture references, political rants, sarcasm, and all the things you can say and understand. That’s the ultimate high that I’m always striving for, that’s what gets me through the many hours of tedium especially in the beginning, when it feels like a slog and totally impossible and pointless to imagine that I would ever understand what people are saying.

III. Summary of the strategy

As I briefly mention in my post Language learning advice I freely ignore, I always tend to heavily prioritize input over output (reading/listening over speaking/writing). There are good practical reasons for this, but it also boils down to the philosophy that there is no true expression without first understanding.

The specific strategy I tried for the first time here with Turkish involves first focusing intensively on grammar until I’d been exposed to all the rules needed up to an intermediate or advanced level; then switching over completely to only consuming real-life material (stuff for native Turkish speakers, not for language learners), including readings, podcasts, and TV. And compiling and reviewing vocabulary throughout.

IV. Components of the strategy

According to my logs, I spent about 250 hours on various forms of Turkish studies. I tended to put in about an hour or an hour and a half each day, with some periods when I wasn’t feeling it and spent much less time, and some periods where I studied more intensively. I studied DIY-style, without any class or teacher, just some occasional help from a friend when I was stuck on something. My studies can be broken down into the following activities. I also logged how many hours I spent on each activity, so I’ve included the percentage of time under each. (They only add up to 90% because a few hours went to miscellaneous other things.)

Grammar (20% of hours)

From the outset I started working through a textbook, The Delights of Learning Turkish. I always feel ambivalent about textbooks, but I’d say it was a decent textbook and probably about as good as any other. My routine was to go through each chapter in 3 steps: first, read through the chapter; next, input all new words into my Anki deck (more on that below); finally, do the exercises and check answers. The time investment for these steps divided pretty evenly (60-90 minutes for each), so I got into a rhythm of doing 1 step per day, so 1 chapter every 3 days.

I also started my own grammar cheat sheet, a doc where I would add new rules as I learned them. The benefits of making my own cheat sheet are that I can organize the rules in a way that makes sense to me (for example putting similar/complementary ones next to each other, not just in the order they show up in the textbook), and I can describe them in a way that helps me remember (for example rearranging charts/tables or using different examples than the textbook). And generally that describing stuff in your own way vastly helps retention, which is one thing teachers have always said that is actually true.

I also kept a list of just the verbs I learned, in infinitive form, alphabetized. This started out as just a helpful reference because lots of verbs sounded so similar to me, I could never remember whether I had already seen a verb or if it was new. It helped me answer my own questions like, “I feel like I’ve seen a verb that sounds a lot like this.. what was it??” and thus differentiate verbs that often only differed by 1-2 letters. Over time, it just became fun (and compulsive) to keep the list up to date. I think there are 500-600 verbs on the list now.

Vocabulary (40%)

For vocabulary retention, no strategy in the world has yet been found that can hold a candle to SRS (spaced-repetition software). (Google it.) (Btw, “can hold a candle to” means “can compare to.”) SRS is just a special form of flashcard review. As my SRS app, I use Anki; I add cards using the desktop app, and review them on the iPhone app. The time spent adding cards and the time spent reviewing cards are both reflected in the 40% of hours that I spent working on vocabulary.

For the first time, instead of using someone else’s pre-made deck, I started my own deck for Turkish words/phrases. But I hate adding cards–I find it a boring chore–so I keep them super simple, just the Turkish word(s) on one side and the English on the other. Sometimes I have the TV on while adding large batches of cards, just to keep me company through the slog. It’s not really recommended–classic high school / college student shenanigans–but hey, if it’s TV in the same language, maybe you could get two things done at once!

This is one of those areas where teachers are probably teaching all the wrong strategies. I’ve never heard a language teacher (or any teacher) mention SRS, but if you’re not using some form of SRS, it’s likely that you’re wasting a ton of effort and/or simply not retaining words.

(See my post 中文: the first 1000 characters for more on my thoughts around rote memorization, and how I used Anki to learn to read Chinese.)

I started my Turkish deck on Day 1 and started with words from my textbook, then later words from my readings. Every time I came across a word I didn’t know, I would add it to the deck. I was very strict about this; if I didn’t add it then I didn’t learn it. This was confirmed by how often I would totally forget a word just one day after “learning” it. So every single word has to go into the review cycle, or it is lost forever.

I found a great online dictionary, Tureng, whose autocomplete search was a lifesaver. So when I came across a new word, I would look it up in Tureng to get the root form and multiple definitions, and add the card in Anki.

For review, I went through the cards once a day, and tweaked the daily limits such that it took 20-30 minutes per day. (For me, after some tweaking this ended up meaning a max of 300 review and 30 new per day. It varies by language.) That’s my happy spot where it feels productive but not tiresome/overwhelming. I review them by having it present me with the English, then I guess the Turkish and check it. Because English to Turkish is harder for me than the other way around, and because it mimics the feeling of trying to come up with a word when I’m speaking.

My deck now has about 3700 cards, I’ve reviewed nearly all of them (I’ve stopped adding cards, so in a couple of days I will have seen all of them), and I’ve been maintaining about 80-90% retention. I’ll probably continue my 10-20 minutes a day of maintenance review for a few more weeks or months.

Audio input (listening) (12%)

Listening to podcasts. I also started this on Day 1, with real, full-speed Turkish podcasts, not the kind for language learners. In the beginning you can’t understand anything of course, but according to the passive-input theory/method, it still gets you used to the rhythms, intonation, and phonetics of the language, and this has been my experience. So in the beginning I just put them on in the background while doing whatever and didn’t try to pay attention; but later, as I started to be able to catch phrases here and there, I would listen carefully to try to parse as much of it as I could, which was also great practice and enormously improved my ability to understand real-life speech.

In my experience, it’s really hard to find real podcasts by googling. A really easy way to find them is through the iTunes store: change your iTunes region to the target country, then go to the iTunes store for Podcasts, and browse it for ones that seem interesting. Then you can subscribe to them via your favorite podcast app. (If you have a media library on iTunes, don’t forget to change your region back to the original, or else it may not let you access some of your own movies/music that have regional restrictions. Yay Apple.)

This iTunes-store trick completely changed my life. I started collecting podcasts by language and have found lots of cool ones. For Turkish, I listened to a few, but the one I eventually settled on, especially as I started to be able to understand a little, was one where each episode, the hosts interview a Turkish author. They read aloud the first page from one of the author’s books, then ask the author about their writing process, thoughts on the publishing industry, etc. The episodes are 30-50 minutes long, and I’d listen to 1 or 2 around lunchtime.

Textual input (reading) (8%)

I started reading real stuff only after I finished going through my textbook, so it was only for the last 6 weeks of the 5 months. I love dual-language materials (target language + English, side by side), because the English translation helps confirm/correct your understanding, and it can also introduce you to new meanings of words that you didn’t know or that aren’t given in the dictionary. As a makeshift dual-language reader, you can also get an easy-to-read book that is available in both languages, and read both copies together. Plenty of language learners swear by the Harry Potter series for this, as it’s one thing that’s available in pretty much every written language in the world. I’m relatively new to serious language learning, so my reading choices are pretty random; I just go with whatever I feel like reading.

Early on, on my flight to Istanbul, I discovered a dual-language reader in the form of the Turkish Airlines in-flight magazine, Skylife, which has Turkish and English side by side from cover to cover, and was also the perfect level to start reading at. So that was my primary reading material, once I was ready for it. Each session, I would read a couple of pages, comparing my understanding with the English translation, highlighting words I didn’t know, then later adding them to my Anki deck.

I’ve just finished all the articles in the magazine, and that marks my stopping point in the language. If I were to keep reading, I’d probably go for a YA novel next, and order two copies in Turkish and English.

Video input (10%)

Normally TV and movies are a large part of how I absorb a language. For Turkish I just happened to not have that many TV series or movies I was dying to watch, so it was a smaller part of my routine. Actually I watched live Turkish TV on YouTube for a while, but I stopped when it became close to 100% coronavirus news. Other than that, I only watched Şahsiyet, which is a great murder mystery miniseries (some would say, the best-produced series to ever come out of Turkey, to date). I do recommend it, and it has English subtitles, but you have to VPN into Turkey to stream it (or physically go there).

Typically I watch TV with audio in the target language and subtitles in English. (People say not to do this, but I ignore them.) I listen closely to the audio and read the subtitles at the same time, which helps solidify the meanings in my mind. Occasionally I will watch a movie in English with subtitles in the target language. I guess for me the main thing is to have the audio in its original language; I don’t like dubbed versions, I find them gross.

I haven’t found an easy or systematic way to discover TV series and movies in a given language and on a given streaming platform. I usually just google around and look for recommendations on Reddit or other sites, or attempt to browse Netflix, but they don’t make it easy to do this. Letterboxd lists can work for movies. If you have any tricks, I’d love to hear them.

A few other things I tried and abandoned

Just for completeness’ sake, a few things I tried but didn’t commit to:

  • Duolingo. Duolingo is nice for getting a taste of a language, and to have something to fiddle with on your phone, but I find it to be extremely inefficient for getting practical results of any kind. In general, “fun”-oriented language apps have a fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to learning: if they are going by the standard mobile-app playbook, then they want to give you lots of little rewards frequently and make you feel good about yourself, so that you’ll keep using the app. But the fastest way to learn and retain anything is to struggle to remember things, without hints, and fail all the time. Most apps don’t make you fail nearly enough (or ever). This is my personal opinion. For more on this topic, see the book Ultralearning by Scott Young.
  • Using a pre-made Anki deck from someone else. This can be helpful–I used it for Chinese–but for my purposes here, there was no shortcut or substitute for locking in my understanding by making my own deck of words as I encountered them. The pre-made deck had all kinds of minor annoyances that I disagreed with and that would end up confusing me, so I abandoned it.
  • A different Turkish textbook. I’d started with Elementary Turkish by Lewis V. Thomas, a decades-old book I randomly found at the used bookstore. It was fine, though a little on the persnickety side, like drilling you on details and edge cases and prioritizing 100% correctness, rather than a more holistic understanding. I didn’t really have a problem with it, but I decided to try a different textbook, and just never looked back.

V. Conclusion

Is there anything I would do differently? The kind of routine I’ve described actually took a few months to get settled into, so I’ve already gone through a few iterations towards practices that seem to work better. For the next language I start, I’ll be able to use this routine that I like right from Day 1, so it will already go differently.

For reasons I went into above, Turkish has been one of the most daunting languages I’ve encountered so far, and the first real blank-slate experiment in my language learning. It’s given me a lot of confidence that, with any language, there’s a recipe that works, and that you can start from zero and eventually break through. Whenever things felt hopeless, I would tell myself: before you complain that it’s not working, go through a full textbook, memorize at least 3000 words, listen to 50 hours of audio, read one book/magazine, and watch one full TV series. You can’t fail to understand something after that. Understanding just enough to feel excited to keep going, is much more important than whether you’re fluent or not. It worked this time and it will work again.

This wacky language has also been mind-expanding and changed my perceptions of what paradigms are possible in human languages. It’s made me appreciate how other “foreign” languages I’m familiar with are really not so foreign in comparison, but are practically close siblings of English. I’m super thankful to have been able to spend the past few months in the company of this language.