The Garden of Forking Languages: Turkish Coffee

“Do you like this coffee? I’m glad. Once you have finished it, turn the cup upside down on the plate: I will read your future. A friend back home taught me how to.”

It is my new Turkish friend who asks me to do so. She’s twenty years old and has just arrived in Italy, where she’s on an exchange for one year. I proceed to do as she says, without questions, partly because I’m subject to the instinctive admiration that The Young has towards The Slightly Older, and partly because I’m not sure what I’ve just been told. I’m fourteen, and my understanding of spoken English is definitely not flawless. I nod and smile, so the prediction begins.

She speaks for a long time, but I only grasp a few words: an encounter, a journey, something about a horse? She might have given me an accurate enough prediction to challenge my rooted scepticism towards the art of divination, but I will never have a way of verifying that, as I’m not sure that I’m understanding everything she’s saying.

I nod and smile, hoping it is an appropriate reaction to whatever she has just said. For a moment I fear that she’s been telling me something terrible and that my reaction will appear strange, so I go back to being serious and I thank her for her prediction.

Apparently she is satisfied with my reaction, because she smiles back at me and says, “your English is getting better!” (“Is it though?” I frustratedly ask myself. I don’t express my doubts out loud, however, and instead decide to accept the compliment that I so badly needed to hear.) Another smile follows on my side, followed by a “thank you very much!” (Very much! What an exaggeration. I always overdo it! I should have just said “thanks” – that would have sounded much more natural. I should save my “thank you very much” for bigger compliments; now it’s going to sound like I have never been complimented in my life!)

I force myself to get out of my inner dialogue in order to focus on the much more challenging outer dialogue. I notice that she doesn’t seem too shocked by my overly enthusiastic reply, which makes me regain some confidence. She says, “now that your English is better, perhaps it’s time for me to teach you Turkish! I’m thinking of starting a Turkish course. Obviously, I can’t speak Italian yet, so the classes will be in English. I’m worried that no one will join my course, though. Do you promise that you will come if I actually start it?”

“Of course I promise that I will come if you actually start it!” (Again! I did it again. Unbelievable. Since when does one repeat someone else’s sentence word-by-word when replying to a question? It sounds like a dialogue from a textbook. And again, with the enthusiasm! Of course I promise… Who says that?)

I try to save the situation by adding: “I mean, I will think about it.” (Great! Now this is A Good Reply. “I mean,” to sound like a real native speaker, and “I will think about it” because I’m a busy person who doesn’t enthusiastically agree to be part of just any project without any hesitation.) I’m extremely satisfied with my nonchalant reply, so much so that I repeat it in my head a few times. The more I examine it, the more I’m happy with it. (Impeccable, I sound like someone from a movie! I’m so cool! Was I ever not this fluent?)

My suddenly high self-esteem relapses when I realise that she has said something else which I have missed entirely because I was too busy having a mini-celebration of my most recent language achievement in my head. I try not to be too disappointed with myself.

Once again, I reply with a big smile, hoping that she hasn’t been talking about something sad or upsetting. She responds with another smile. Excellent.

And so it began. The course which taught me how to ignore my anxious inner dialogues — for the most part — and had me talking fluently in another language for the first time in my life! Of course, I’m talking about English. Turkish is a beautiful but extremely complicated language that I couldn’t hope to learn in a few months. However, I did achieve a very basic knowledge of it which proved useful later on in life when I was working in Paris and made friends with a few Turkish speakers –  whom I would frequently surprise with a few sentences in their language, before begging them to switch back to French as their replies became too complicated for my understanding. However, that anecdote belongs to my French adventures, which I will explore some other time.

[Viola Ragonese – she/her]

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