Tag Archives: Language Learning

I Speak A Little Bit of Japanese, But Not Very Much Turkish!

In early 1991, three and a half years after our Kenyan adventures, Ruth began suffering the initial pangs of travel withdrawal since she had not joined me in Japan–the only time we traveled apart.  We started throwing out options for where we might live and work, and it was my wife who suggested Istanbul, a destination she had dreamed about visiting for years.  (Thank God she had not seen the 1978 Oscar-winning movie Midnight Express describing the experiences of an American tourist thrown into a nightmarish Turkish jail. That movie single-handedly killed Turkish tourism for years.)

However, a working vacation in Istanbul posed a new and potentially fatal problem:  Like Japan, Turkey is a nation where English is neither an official language, as in England, Australia, and Kenya, nor a semi-official language, as in Israel. I could no more assume to walk into a classroom and begin teaching in English than a Ph.D. from China could arrive in the U.S. and start lecturing in Mandarin.  Sure, I could (and did) learn enough Turkish to greet friends, go to the bathroom, and order a shish kebob, but that still left me a long, long way from standing in front of a class lecturing on computer science.

I visited my school library to do a little research on Turkish universities and, to my utter surprise, discovered that the catalog for Bogazici University, the premier technical university in Turkey—essentially, their MIT—stated right on page one:  “The medium of instruction at Bogazici University is English.   Applicants must either have a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score of 550 or they need to sign up for an English language proficiency class.”   Yet another “flashbulbs and trumpets” moment—that one paragraph guaranteed there was at least one school in the country where I could apply.  When I then scanned the catalog of Bilkent University, their second best technical school, I found an identical disclaimer:  “Proficiency in English language for non-native speakers is a must in admission since all departments, except for Turkish Language and Literature, use English as the language of education.”   This fortuitous circumstance repeated itself in virtually all the college and universities catalogs I perused.

The Blue Mosque Built Around 1600. It Is One of Dozens of Superb Sights In The Istanbul Area

One of the unexpected but pleasant surprises encountered during my overseas job hunting is how rapidly English is becoming a global medium of instruction for tertiary (college and university) instruction. This is particularly true in technical fields such as the physical sciences, natural sciences, earth sciences, engineering, mathematics, and medicine, but it is also becoming more widespread in other quantitative fields such as management, finance, architecture, pharmacy, and urban planning. In addition to Turkey I have lectured in English in Mongolia, Nepal, and Vietnam—none of which have English as an official language.  In Malaysia I attended a graduation address by then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad on the role of English as the lingua franca of science, technology, and international business.  On our drive to the Ngorongoro Crater, described in the post The Most Beautiful Place in the World, I stopped at a remote Rift Valley gas station where a Masai warrior in flowing red robe had set up a souvenir table. I was interested in buying his hunting spear so I dug out my phrase book and uttered in grammatically butchered Swahili, “Nini gharama mkuki?” meaning “What price spear?” He smiled and replied in perfect New Yorkese, “No sweat, man, I speak English. It’s how I do business.”

I don’t share these stories because of any Anglophone chauvinism or deep devotion to my mother tongue. It is simply to convince you not to immediately abandon hope for that dream working vacation in Surinam, Sarawak, Senegal, or Sri Lanka because of any perceived language inadequacy.  Yes, there will be times when the medium of classroom instruction is some utterly incomprehensible tongue.  But there will also be times when English speaking and writing skills work in your favor as overseas schools look to hire native speakers to improve their students’ proficiency. In addition, if your spouse has ESL credentials, he or she should be able to find a teaching or private tutoring position, and might even wind up being more in demand than you!

So, with the language issue essentially resolved, all I needed to do now was find a job.


Skoshi Nihongo de Hanashimas

That month in Japan flew by quickly as all my previous working vacations had lasted at least three times as long.  I spent one week on campus giving talks, observing lectures, and advising students–trust me, I was not overtaxed!  Following these required duties I was given a Japan Rail Pass, a thick wad of yen, and told to spend as much times as I wanted, or at least as much as the money and rail pass would allow, traveling the country learning about Japanese society.  No fixed itinerary, no packaged tours.  Since many American visitors would find this freedom a bit daunting and, given that English is neither an official nor semi-official language, the school offered to provide a student translator/guide/assistant.  However, traveling with an 18- or 19-year old did not appeal to me, and paying their food and hotel costs would significantly reduce the amount of my travel time.  It was then that the wisdom of an earlier decision became evident.

I was selected for the program in July although departure was not until the following January.  (My school was on a 4-1-4 calendar, with January a self-contained four-week semester.  This visit met my teaching duties for that one month term.)  Since I had sufficient advance notice I signed up to take Japanese 101 in the Fall.  While many tourists learn a few simple phrases such as “Good morning,” and “Where is the bathroom?”  I wanted to learn enough to become an independent traveler, even to remote towns where English speakers are few and far between.  I spent four months studying elementary Japanese and reached the point where I was able to tell people a little about myself, ask for directions (and even understand the answer), get a hotel room, and order meals at cafes well off the beaten tourist paths.

A Ryokan, Traditional Japanese Inn, of the Type I Stayed In During My Three Weeks Traveling In Japan

When I departed Miyagi my hosts were nervous about sending me off without a chaperone, but it worked out far better than I could have imagined.   Of course I went to the “biggies” of Japanese tourism–Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima–but instead of staying at a Sheraton, Hilton, or Holiday Inn, I was able to walk into a local ryokan, a traditional inn, book a room, have meals, and enjoy the hot baths, even if the proprietor did not speak a word of English.  Having learned a minimal amount of Japanese allowed me to visit villages such as Takayama, Kanazawa, and Ise without worrying about whether I would be able to find someone who spoke English.  The smiles on the faces of people I met when I said skoshi Nihongo de hanashimas, “I speak a little bit of Japanese,” was priceless.  When I told them Watashi wa kyoju desu soshte Miyagi Kiyuiku Daigaku ni oshiemashta “I am a college professor and taught at Miyagi University” it produced some (albeit very simple) discussions about where I was from and how long I would be in the country.  I know that I routinely butchered the grammar, just as I probably made errors in this post, but it did not seem to matter.  I had made an effort to learn the language, and they were grateful and appreciative of that effort.  Errors be damned!

When you set off on a working vacation I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning a bit of the local language–the more the better.  I was lucky enough to be able to register for a university course at no cost.  If that is not an option then look to a local community college or adult education center.  As a last resort consider Rosetta Stone or a good textbook.   Anything is better than nothing.  (I would love to receive comments from anyone who has studied a language in order to interact with the local community while living and working overseas.  Please share your experiences with our readers.)

I know English is the lingua franca of world travel, and you can usually get by with just this one language in your repertoire.  Learning the local language is not done as a survival skill but as a way to create opportunities to get away from overcrowded tourist haunts and see places and sights not often visited.   Speaking a bit of the local tongue also makes an important statement.  It says that you care enough about the history and culture of your host country to spend some time learning their language, at least enough to interact with locals at an elementary level.   The appreciative smiles on their faces will make it worth the effort, errors and all.