Matthew’s language abilities were first revealed to me during a discussion in the Babbel kitchen whilst we sipped strong coffees in the early hours. Colleagues rolled in and out and Matthew greeted each of them in their native tongue, which is not unusual at Babbel – we’re a language learning company, after all. But by the time Matthew had greeted the eighth person in a fifth language, curiosity got the better of me.
“So how many languages do you speak?”
He didn’t really know. Somewhere between 7 and 20. That was impressive enough, but when I learned that he has a twin brother who is also a polyglot, I was floored. After one monologue and some interviews I was convinced of their talent, but I wanted to know if there was a limit to their abilities. What would happen, I asked myself, if we gave them one week to learn a language that they had never touched before? I put it to them and they both chuckled at the thought.
“No no, I’m serious.”
They scouted one another’s expression, as they often do, to affirm that they were of the same opinion. A glint appeared in their eyes along with an air of mischievous excitement. And which language would it be?
Turkish, of course. It’s the second most widely spoken language in Berlin, it’s really, really difficult, and it’s far removed from anything else they’d ever learned. They’d make it their full-time jobs to pick up as much Turkish as possible in seven days, and we’d document the whole process. Perfect. They agreed on the spot.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the 7 Day Turkish Challenge.
“Impossible! Do you guys realise how difficult Turkish is? It’s not like learning Italian or Spanish. I mean, it’s really hard!” Kutay, a colleague and a bonafide Turkish person, announced on the morning of Day 1 when we arrived at Matthew and Michael’s flat. The brothers met Kutay’s scepticism with bright-eyed enthusiasm. They’d stuck to their plan to start at eight in the morning and had already devoured two books in under 90 minutes.
As they powered into an animated conversation in the hallway, Kutay’s expression switched from convivial to flabbergasted. His initial scepticism dissolved into a conviction that they’d have the language figured out before the week was over. Matthew and Michael played off one another as they cycled through sentences and tried out new grammatical structures before eagerly checking Kutay’s reactions for signs of endorsement. The three of them snacked on Turkish crisps and sweets as they discussed the slogans and nutritional information that decorated the packaging. After an hour, it was time to leave the twins to their own devices. We handed them a small handheld camera to record a video diary and practice their pronunciation, and bid them adieu.
There’s a Turkish market every Tuesday and Friday at the Maybachufer in Kreuzkölln, Berlin. White canopies draped chaotically over stands, the market stretches along the Neukölln side of the Landwehrkanal. The twins were only 26 hours into the challenge when the camera crew and I joined them on one of the bridges spanning the canal. Their first real-world test was quite literally just around the corner. They’d been swotting up on fruit and veg vocabulary in preparation, and had decided they would buy some armut (pears) and some elma (apples), at which point the neural associations started forming and firing: armut, Michael noted, was both easy to remember and mildly humorous because Armut in German means poverty, leading to the notion of purchasing poverty, and elma strikes a phonetic resemblance to alma in Spanish, which means soul.
Michael was first up and successfully negotiated the exchange of “poverty” for money. He was grinning from ear to ear when he turned to face us; another of those all important micro-motivations on the road to learning a language. As we strolled and he bounded along beside us, we rounded the market and came level with a stand full of rosy-red apples. Matthew’s turn. He sauntered up to the stall and announced his intentions to a slightly surprised vendor. Wanting to converse with the vendor is not the usual reason for purchasing food, but this is where we had landed. If they’d known the Turkish for kumquat and lychee, they would have no doubt come away with substantially heavier bags.
We said farewell to the brothers on the bridge overlooking the canal and they departed in the direction of the metro and the awaiting afternoon of intensive study.
Day 3 was given over exclusively to study. We entered their flat briefly to be met by a vastly different decor to the one we had seen on Monday. The walls were completely covered in post-its, and books were strewn across every available surface. The twins were still in high spirits, preparing themselves for their first attempt at a conversation in Turkish with a Turkish native the following day.
Alican hails from Istanbul and is now studying Computer Science in Berlin. He also works as a translator and proofreader. We met by the Rote Rathaus (the red town hall) and then strode off towards Matthew and Michael’s apartment. Alican was as sceptical as Kutay had been on the first day. Like a cryptographer who’s developed an ostensibly unbreakable code, he enthused about the myriad difficulties faced by learners of Turkish and questioned whether we really expected him to endure a stilted conversation with two complete beginners.
The film crew of the popular German talk show “Stern TV” were just packing up when we arrived. They had been equally as intrigued by the twins’ undertaking as us, and after a morning of swift interrogation in German, (arguably) the twins’ third language, we fully expected to find some starstruck twins spaced out on the couch, but they pounced upon Alican as soon as he entered the flat, posing question after question of why is that like this and this like that and do you really say this like that or is this book outdated? We quietly set up a camera in the dining room and then beckoned them to continue the conversation. As the twins tired of concocting oddly ordered sentences and the conversation began to tail off, Alican lent forward to offer his analysis; “I think it’s pretty amazing that you can talk this much after just four days; you can even connect sentences. I’m impressed that you guys are so fast!”
Just around the corner from our office is a bustling Turkish restaurant where waiters swoosh from table to table taking orders and delivering dishes enveloped by the sound of excitable voices and a teaspoon or two clinking against the inside of a dainty tea glass. As we sat down, the owner rushed over to greet Matthew and Michael personally. For the next hour or two the twins conversed with Kutay, deciphering the menu and tracing the origins of each dish through the clues in their names. Leaning back in his chair at the end of the meal, Kutay then said, “so I’ve been living in Berlin for a while now and I’m still struggling with German, and you guys have basically reached my level in four and a half days. What’s your secret?”
The week had flown by, the post-its had successfully maintained their stickiness and now stood as mini technicolor shrines to a week of dedicated study. It was a mere 24 hours until they would have to demonstrate their level of fluency, and for the first time both the twins appeared a little nervous. They were concerned that they had spent too much time memorising nouns and not enough time focusing on modal verbs – the musts, cans and mights – and if-clauses; such are the preoccupations of a polyglot under pressure. The curious thing about modal verbs in Turkish, apparently, is that they don’t really exist. All modality is communicated by way of suffixes. Conceptually this is not particularly taxing, but to place the right suffix in the right place on the right verb at the speed of speech is quite a different matter. With the forthcoming challenge at the forefront of their minds, the twins had switched to communicate in Turkish with one another, creating a world within their flat that was essentially impenetrable to us in the relative poverty of our trilingualism. A joy to behold, as behold was all we could.
A week is not a very long time. I had invited the twins around to my flat for the final challenge, where they would be presented with the final boss of the Turkish challenge: a conversation with Kutay. This time, however, he had been instructed to speak Turkish and only Turkish to the brothers. Kutay posed the first question and Matthew launched into a mini-monologue, his left hand raised and rotating as if he were coaxing the words from the dustiest corners of his left hemisphere. I had no idea what they were saying, of course, and could only judge their level of fluency by the speed with which they spoke. They paused sporadically to reorder disorderly sentences, gaining and losing momentum in waves of grammatical ambition and punctiliousness.
After forty minutes of concentrated conversation, there was a knock at the door. Oz , the host of Turkish for Hipsters, appeared like the Cat in the Hat: extravagantly dressed in a gleaming white shirt, a royal red tie and more than the customary single item of headwear. The brothers shifted nervously in their chairs: what had they let themselves in for?
“Welcome”, Oz announced, “to Turkish for hipsters! As you guys know, Turkish is the second most widely spoken language in Berlin, and from what I’ve heard, you’ve picked up a lot in the past seven days, but I’m here to test your knowledge of Turkish pop culture.”
The ensuing hour – part dance party, part quiz show – covered the Turkish film industry, Turkish music, Turkish bread identification and how to tell a quality Döner from a dangerous one. Oz even dipped into a linguistics session, illustrating how bilingual Turkish-German kids play with the grammar and vocabulary of the respective languages to create a creole. And then, almost as suddenly as he’d swooped in, he called it a day.
After a couple of hours of concerted effort, both mental and physical, I beckoned the brothers into the kitchen for a cup of tea and a round-up (in English) of the week past. Were they satisfied with the progress they had made? What was the highlight of their week? What was the lowlight? And, most importantly, had they developed such an appetite for the Turkish language that they would extend their mission into the distant future? You never know, the next challenge could take place in Istanbul… Here’s to hoping!