I’m accompanying a dozen Turkish students on a bus going to the Aegean Sea for a boat ride. I’ve joined with other Americans whose purpose is to spend a week with these kids helping them with conversational English through the EngliverCity English school.
My seatmate, 14-year-old Burak, has middling English skills. However, what he lacks in competency, he makes up with in desire.
We start out slowly by my asking if he plays football (soccer), as that is a nearly universal pastime of foreign boys. After a few false starts, he nods yes. I ask what position, then draw on my hand a soccer pitch. He points to the field on my hand saying, “Left forward.” I shared, “I played center fullback” pointing the position on my hand. I add with a salute and say “I was captain.”
I ask what American music he likes. He understands and says “Hot Cheelie Peppers.” I say “Red Hot Chili Peppers” and he says yes.
We’re gaining momentum now, as I ask about favorite songs, he begins to sing them to me. Then he shares more artists, and I ask about a few. “Lady Gaga?” I offer, since she has such universal appeal. “No” he says, shaking his head. “Why?” I am curious.
He pauses and searches his internal English dictionary. He suddenly remembers he has a translator on his phone. He types in Turkish, hits a button and shows me “character.” I’m puzzled, “You don’t like her character? Her personality?” He nods yes. I try to understand more. We make a little headway.
Now he’s offering conversation topics. He tells me the meaning of his name. I repeat to make sure I understood.
We turn to favorite foods. I try to explain shrimp. I got out a pad and pen and drew some. He nodded enthusiastically. Yes, he, too, likes shrimp. The paper gave us a new tool to expand out discussion.
For two hours we continue, going back and forth, working to help the other understand. We use the tools at hand, as well as asking other busmates to help us with a word. The time passes quickly.
I notice how intense the time has been. We have to focus on the other fully — no time to daydream out the window. We want to be engaged, so we work to figure it out. I can see why others around me haven’t even tried, or gave up and are now listening to iPods.
Good communication — whether between two native speakers or non-speakers — takes focus and some effort. But if both parties want to work through the challenges of understanding the other, it can be done. It can’t be any harder than a young Turk with some English trying to communicate with an American with no Turkish.
(If you are interested in applying to attend the next trip to help Turkish EngliverCity English students, put “Turkey trip” in the subject of an email.