My son gave me a picture of an owl he’d colored in preschool with the word “Merhaba” written above it. A scholar from Turkey has been visiting his classroom while on a one year fellowship in early childhood education.
“Merhaba means hello!” I say, hoping he’ll be impressed.
“I already know that!”
Oren, not yet five, is confident about non-English languages. When his best friend’s mother spoke Chinese during soccer practice, Oren asked her if she also knew Spanish.
“No, I don’t.” She shrugged.
“Why not? I speak Spanish!”
“I guess you’ll have to teach me.”
“And you can teach me Chinese!”
I can still remember the excitement and awe I felt when I brought my first non-English word home from school to my mother.
“Do you know how the Sioux Indians say hello?” I handed her this grade school question much like I had handed her a yarn covered jar pencil holder and a caterpiller magnet. Getting older meant I could give her gifts of the mind.
“Hau,” Mother said triumphantly, forming a stop sign with her raised hand. Although she spoiled my chance to wow her with my new knowledge, I was proud of her Lakota fluency. When she later greeted some of my grandmother’s neighbors in Spanish, I was overwhelmed with pride.
I learned “merhaba” ten years ago from my friend Serif who had also had a one year visiting scholar position at my university.
“Incredible! Incredible!” He said when I returned a book to him at his small campus apartment. I can see him now: one hand raised above his head, the other grabbing a slice of white bread or cup of tea.
After eating a meal in the dining hall, “incredible!” After watching the annual town bike races, “incredible!”
“How was your day?” I asked when I’d run into him at the bus-stop.
He did not strike me as unusually upbeat or awestruck, so after several months of new friendship I asked, “How do you say incredible in Turkish?”
“Inanilmaz! Inanilmaz!” The same inflection, the same gestures to the heavens, the same stress pattern and number of syllables. From then on when he shouted “Incredible!” I parroted the word back to him in Turkish.
I packed this one word with me when I visited his family in Turkey the following year. I was giving a paper in Spain and it seemed easy enough back then (single and childless) to continue my journey East to see Serif at home, roasting kestane kebap (chestnuts) with his mother on an electric stove, watching his daughter pass out tiny glasses of copper-colored tea. I couldn’t make out much of what he said to his family but I had no trouble hearing this common interjection. Inanilmaz! wasn’t very useful when they sent me on an errand to buy a loaf of bread (ekmek), but it brought a smile to new Turkish friends’ faces.
Oren wasn’t as impressed.
“Inanilmaz, means incredible!” I said, as if I had given him fifty cents for the toy crane machine in the mall. He’d already clawed something better.
“What I’m learning is mor. Mor means moth.”
The next day his regular classroom teacher explained, “They’re learning colors and there was a purple butterfly. Mor means purple in Turkish, that’s where he probably got that from.”
Turkish has an unimpressive rank among the world’s most commonly spoken languages (between 20 and 30). There are few Turkish speakers in our town; no Turkish restaurants, no Turkish cartoons, and I can’t think of a single Turkish actor. However, in our university town, we can regularly find a handful of Turkish academics and this year one has decided to teach in the campus pre-school class. While learning more commonly spoken and/or highly valued world languages (e.g. Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic) may feel more vital for Oren’s future in the “linguistic marketplace,” the reality is that in the United States few children learn the importance of any language relative to English. Colin Baker (2011) writes that fewer than 1 in 20 U.S. Children become bilingual through foreign language education (p. 116 in Foundations of Bilingual Education). While people around the world manage to acquire fluent English as a second language, monolingual Americans relax in the clouds, much like Jack in the Beanstalk’s giant, mindless of his golden egg-laying goose.
Oren has just started making connections between spoken and written English, asking to title pictures and to “make books,” cutting images of animals out of the New Yorker, taping them to the inside of a folded piece of colored paper and dictating sentences for each “page.” Why not add another skill in early childhood, to learn to say the “same thing” differently in non-English languages, and to use context cues to make sense of differently patterned sounds and syllables.
When I left his classroom, another child and his mother were counting the school steps in Spanish.
“…siete, ocho, nueve, diez!”
“¡Muy bien! ¿Y dónde aprendiste español?”
“Oh we don’t speak any Spanish,” the mother apologized. “We only know to count from one to ten.”
While my question seemed to have blown an adult fuse, I perceived a flicker of understanding from her son. He knew the exclamation of praise and the upward inflection of a question. While he might have remained silent or mistakenly answered “Purple!” or “Moth!” I could sense he captured the rhythm of adult-child turn-taking.
How many other American children might become at ease with other languages through early exposure?
The demand for early childhood English instruction is huge the world over. How to read English fairytales, how a boy can learn to catch the giant’s goose while he sleeps.
Proud of the little Spanish and less Turkish he’s learned, I know what Oren would say.
“I already know that!”