Turkish couple married for ninety years

ISTANBUL – Adbullah (112) and Elif (110) Adigüzel from the Central Turkish village of Arguvan have been married for ninety years, according to a report in today’s daily paper Radikal.

The couple met during the Ottoman era and they say they married out of love. They had 10 children and the number of grand- and great-grandchildren has reached 113. The couple, who didn’t let go of each other’s hand during the interview with the newspaper, believes that the secret of their long relationship is that they always loved and trusted each other. Their longevity is due to the healthy food in the village, Elif thinks. They live with their youngest child, a son of almost seventy.

The euphoria of a new language

Lots of young people enrol in courses at all sorts of language schools to learn a new language. From business English to Japanese, from Spanish to Turkish and Arabic. Freelance journalist Fréderike Geerdink, herself studying Turkish in Istanbul, explores the backgrounds of this language passion.

Evelien still feels the euphoria when she thinks back: in a supermarket in Utrecht she heard two men talking in Arabic about which bean would be the best for a certain dish, and she gave them advice in reasonably fluent Arabic. ‘Their mouths literally fell open, they were dumb-struck’, she says, ‘and after that they stammered ‘thank you’ in Arabic. I felt so good when I walked away!’
Evelien Meijs (29) learns Arabic at the Alifba language school in Utrecht, after earlier efforts in Wageningen. She’s been busy with it for four years now and quit once. ‘Sometimes I felt like I would never ever learn. But I started again anyway, because I was still motivated, and I still am. The fire is also re-ignited when I find that I actually did learn something, like that time in the supermarket.’

Language learning for seniors? Something you start doing when your working life is over, and then choose Spanish or French because you want to spend some of your retirement days in Spain or France? No: even though quite a few seniors enrol at language schools for exactly that reason, there are also many young people in their twenties. They also learn Spanish or French, but often choose a much more exotic language: Japanese, Arabic or Turkish for example. And Polish and Russian too are in demand, as I discover from calls made to several language schools and adult education centres. Most of the language schools don’t routinely register the ages of their students, but distance education institute LOI does. Jan Jelle Bouma of LOI: ‘Almost half of our students are under 35 years of age, and 60 percent of those are female. We don’t exactly ask why people start learning a language, but the statistics show that young people more often learn a language for their career than older people: young people are an absolute majority in a course like Business English’.

‘I picked up street-Arabic pretty well’

As a freelance correspondent in Turkey I have good reason to learn Turkish: not only do I want to do my work with as little help from interpreters as possible, but of course I also  want to learn the language of the country I’ve been living in for three years now. Without the language it seems impossible for me to really understand a country and get to know it better, and that is both my personal and journalistic goal.

A similar situation applies to Evelien, even though she didn’t choose to live in an Arabic-speaking country. She has been learning the language in Utrecht after she became acquainted with it in Yemen: ‘For my studies, International Development Sociology, I lived in Yemen for six months and picked up ‘street-Arabic’ pretty well. I had to, because in Yemen hardly anybody speaks English. Before I left, I did a crash course of ten lessons, and when I came back, I could communicate reasonably well. Without the language, I would have learned a lot less about the country and would have gotten to know the people a lot less.’
That she wants to upgrade her Arabic now, after completing her studies,  is not just for hobby reasons, but also because she expects to be able to use it in her work. ‘I’d love to work at a university, and then I would like to return to Yemen to do research. It turned out to be hard to find such a position, but I can probably use the language in another job as well. My studies were aimed at an international work field, and Arabic is spoken in so many countries that it will surely be useful one day.’ Even in her current job helping immigrants to integrate in the Netherlands, she occasionally uses her Arabic, ‘even though most of my clients already speak pretty good Dutch’.

A carreer in language

Career is also an important reason for young people to learn a language, according to Jan Jelle Bouma of LOI. He already mentioned Business English, but also the choice of many young women is remarkable: ‘Women more often than men aim for a career in languages by enrolling in a complete higher-level vocational course in translating, where English and Spanish are very popular.’ Theo Ruiter of the Adult Education Center in Rotterdam says:  ‘For business reasons, here in Rotterdam Polish and Russian are rather popular. Poland and Russia are countries where a lot of entrepreneurs see growing possibilities, as do young men and women.’ And the Alliance Française in Amsterdam declares with a thick French accent that many students between twenty and thirty years old want to learn French for work, for studies and for exchange programs, ‘but also just for fun’.

Fun, that’s what it started with for Julie Soedirman (27), who learns Japanese. ‘Since childhood I have been interested in Japan. I got that from my mother, who was very interested in Japanese culture. Once I even started studying Japanese.’
Private circumstances prevented her from finishing those studies. After that, she had several jobs, but with no satisfaction. ‘I was so confused about what kind of work I wanted to do’, she says. ‘And it turned out that it was right in front of me without my realizing it: Japanese! I already knew quite a bit about the country and the culture, I had a Saturday job at The Japanese Shop in Amsterdam, and when there was a job vacancy in the Japanese travel centre, I knew that was it!’ She got the job and now works daily in an environment that ‘breathes Japan’, as she says. ‘I want to make a career in this world. I picked up the language course again, and even though I have to push myself sometimes to learn new kanji, (the Japanese characters), I am delighted that I found my destination.’

For lack of money she is yet to visit Japan, but she’s looking forward to going and starting a conversation with her beginner’s Japanese. ‘But I also get insecure when I think of that’, she admits. ‘Japanese has several politeness forms. What if I use the wrong one and appear very impolite? That would be horrible!’

‘My Arabic appeared to be full of mistakes’

Julie’s answer to the question “will she ever speak fluent Japanese”, sounds self- confident: ‘yes, definitely.’ That quick come-back is also a sort of incantation to keep her courage up: ‘I just started again this season with the lessons, and my goal is within two years to be, not fluent, but to reach a reasonable level. I work on it an average of ten hours a week. That should lead somewhere, shouldn’t it?’
Evelien didn’t set herself any time limits. She doesn’t have the illusion that she will ever speak Arabic fluently. She says: ‘The language is way too complicated for that. But I do want to keep increasing my communication skills.’ After she returned from Yemen four years ago, she subscribed to an intermediate level course. She spoke some Arabic, but didn’t have a good foundation in grammar. Evelien recalls: ‘The Arabic I spoke appeared to be full of mistakes, and I had a strong Yemeni accent. I had to un-learn a lot, I lost all my courage, and after two lessons I quit. I thought: Never mind, I’ll do it myself!’

But when she went on a holiday to Yemen, it turned out she hadn’t made any progress in those years. On the other hand:  ‘I was also surprised that my level hadn’t gone down , even though I hadn’t visited Yemen in three years. That motivated me to do better and to find another course in the Netherlands. Now I go to a language school that teaches both grammar and conversation. That suits me better than just memorizing rules. And when something happens, like in the supermarket with the two Arabic men, that is really great. It re-lit my fire for learning Arabic. I want that world to open up further for me.’

Oh, how familiar is the frustration of grudgingly coming to the conclusion that it will never work out between you and the longed-for language, and the euphoria when you notice you make progress. Okay, I would have done better if I had closed myself off entirely from Dutch and English and immersed myself in a bath of Turkish language, but that’s just impossible in my life and work. I don’t go very fast, but I learn thoroughly, and I don’t doubt that fluent Turkish is within reach!

Learning a language: hard work for adults
Neurolinguist Peter Indefrey is a specialist in multilinguistics. He is convinced that not only children, but also adults can learn to speak a language fluently. Only your brain has to work a lot harder: ‘When you are young, the neurones are still flexible. They pick up new information more easily and also reproduce is with less effort. As an adult it’s harder, but it’s definitely not impossible.’ He adds that ‘older’ and ‘younger’ are not easily defined, and that it also comes down to which part of language learning you are talking about: ‘To learn to speak a language without any accent, you have to start as a child, but your vocabulary can be expanded right up to old age.’ And he has a nice tip: sleep a lot. ‘And learn new words before you go to sleep. While you sleep, the brain will store those words systematically.’
He rejects the notion that children learn a language in a trice: not true. ‘Learning a language takes years. A three year-old doesn’t speak his mother tongue fluently, does he? A child is at best six years old before it can express itself properly, and then it still makes a lot of mistakes and keeps on learning new words all the time until it is an adult, and even then the learning continues.’

Self-censorship

The government is doing nice things for journalists: the discounts for press card holders have been extended. Most of the public transport is already free all over the country, but now my colleagues and I can also get discounts (up to 50%!) with some privately owned long-distance bus companies, and for flights with national carrier Turkish Airlines. And, this is a funny one, when my kids get married, I get a discount for household equipment from Arcelik, a big Turkish brand-name – well, as a plan coming from conservative AKP, I could also find this one stupidly conservative.

Anyway, my joy quickly faded when I heard the latest figures on Turkish journalists in jail: 33 at the moment. Convicted for all sorts of writings and broadcastings, often, for example, for ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’. That’s what you can be accused of if you interview a pro-Kurdish politician, for example, and quote his or her opinions on, for example, the PKK or Öcalan. Last year too seven papers and magazines were temporarily banned, sometimes once, sometimes several times. Kurdish newspapers are most often victims of that, but in December the leftist-nationalist weekly magazine Aydınlık (Luminous) was banned for one month. Also accused of making propaganda for a terrorist organisation, but in their case not the PKK but Ergenekon – the editors of Aydınlık initially had no idea for precisely which articles they were being convicted.

The Turkish journalists’ union especially wanted to draw attention to the suspended sentences many journalists get. Usually there is a probation period of five years, which inevitably leads to self-censorship. And that is one of the most effective ways to shut a journalist up and to weaken press freedom. If the government really wants to do something to make journalists happy, I propose they change some laws. Right away please!

The Roma of Selendi

There is a debate going on about how it started: did the Roma man light up a cigarette in a teahouse, where it is forbidden to smoke, or did the tea house owner refuse to serve the man tea? The testimonies about how the tea house fight started differ, but the outcome was clear: the windows of the teahouse didn’t survive, and a few days later a group of about a thousand men went up to the Roma neighbourhood and became violent. And that further led to the expulsion of the Roma community from the village of Selendi (province of Manisa, West Turkey). The Roma were escorted by police to the train station and were taken to another village to stay with relatives.

Was that for their own safety, or did the village just want to get rid of their Roma community? It is not clear if the Roma agreed to this ‘solution’, but according to some newspaper articles, they were forced to sign an agreement about leaving Selendi. However, the mayor says that the Roma wanted out of the village themselves, because there is no work for them there. Sounds like crap to me. I mean, if they could have gotten work in another district, they would have moved there themselves, since people can live where ever they please.

Most important however, is of course the message that is now apparent: being violent to a minority group is a quick and effective way to get rid of it. The task of the police and the mayor was of course to stop the violence effectively, protect the Roma (and the coffee house, for that matter), arrest everybody who used violence, and then reconcile the groups with each other. But it’s still not too late for that. The Roma who left Selendi and want to return, must be given the opportunity to do so, and their safety must be guaranteed.

Old coins

‘I cannot take that coin’, says the dolmuş driver. He hands back the fifty kuruş coin to the passenger in the shared taxi and mumbles: ‘It’s old money, you know’. The passenger knows: as of the first of January, the ‘new Turkish lira’, which was replaced by the ‘Turkish lira’ on January 1st 2009, is not valid anymore.

The new Turkish lira notes have already been out of circulation for months, but the coins are still very common. And what is in your pocket, you use. The old money can still be brought to the bank, but who wants to make the effort for a few coins? Big businesses do, as I noticed at a supermarket where I got rid of my last 25, 10 and 5 kuruş coins. But taxi drivers, small shop owners, hair dressers, market vendors, simit sellers, all these small guys, they don’t want to go to the trouble, and nor do ordinary citizens.
It leads to endless discussions all the time. In the dolmuş I was in, the guys even started shouting at each other. The passenger said quite rightly: ‘If the coins are on the market, how can they not be valid, how can you tell me I can’t pay with it?’ And the driver had a point when he answered that he can’t use the old coins to pay at the petrol station. Luckily, in the end they agreed: it’s the government’s fault. They should have taken more action in the last twelve months to take not only the notes, but also the coins out of circulation. I couldn’t agree more.

New year, new prices

It’s rather sneaky to announce tax rises on the day before they come into effect, as the Turkish government did on the last day of 2009. The rises are not small: petrol prices, already high in Turkey, went up by about 20 kuruş to 3,63 per litre (€1,70). The tax on cigarettes went op from 58% to 63% (I support that one), the fixed tax on wine and rakı goes up by 1,15 lira and 3,90 lira respectively, on beer from 26 kuruş to 35 kuruş (I don’t support that one). Passports: up 10%. Toll for bridges and roads: up 14%. The smallest rise is in the price of electricity: up 1,3 percent – but that one affects every Turk, even the poorest.

Also raised was the minimum wage, up by 5,2%, making it 577 lira (€269) per month. Impossible to live on, especially if you have, for example, an average family of five. Later this year it will go up again by a bit more than 4%, but overall it doesn’t even keep up with inflation, so in the end, people’s incomes go down.

The government says the price increases are needed to reduce its budget deficit, and they have raised prices of goods with a ‘low price elasticity’. Meaning people won’t change their driving, smoking and drinking habits too much when prices go up, so the profits for the government are huge. So let’s go on drinking, smoking and driving as if nothing has changed, and thus lend a helping hand to the government. Then maybe next year they can start making some policies on urgent matters, like youth unemployment, improving education and better health care. Happy new year!