• Operation ‘Teach baby Turkish’ began a few weeks into Dilvin Yasa's first pregnancy. (Moment RF)Source: Moment RF
How do you teach your babies your parents’ mother tongue when your own linguistic skills leave a lot to be desired? Dilvin Yasa details her struggle.
By
Dilvin Yasa

27 Jul 2017 - 4:24 PM  UPDATED 1 Aug 2017 - 9:21 AM

The day I discovered I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, I went on a gargantuan shopping spree. I didn’t bother with the onesies and nappies initially (that all came later); all I wanted was truckloads of Turkish language picture books, DVDs and CDs so that our baby would grow up speaking Turkish like her mama.

It never occurred to me that she wouldn’t – after all, I was born in Australia too, but my parents made sure I spoke their mother tongue fluently through perseverance and the age-old ‘will not respond unless you speak to me in my mother tongue’ trick. Married to a Brit and speaking Turkish myself with what can only be called a broad Australian accent, I realised early on the odds of our kids speaking Turkish were not exactly stacked in my favour. I had to act quickly.

Married to a Brit and speaking Turkish myself with what can only be called a broad Australian accent, I realised early on the odds of our kids speaking Turkish were not exactly stacked in my favour.

Operation ‘Teach baby Turkish’ began in a few weeks into my pregnancy when I started playing Turkish music through headphones attached to my belly, and continued soon after Cella was born. I read her Turkish Language In the Night Garden Books, popped her in front of Turkish Maisy Mouse DVDs my relatives sent from Turkey (they also sent over a stack of ‘Turkish’ maths workbooks which I found hilarious since sums are the same in every language), and I took her to Turkish story time sessions held in a library a few suburbs away. 

From here, I quickly came to a few important conclusions: 1) In the Night Garden is just as annoying in every other language and Cella clearly had no time for her favourite books and shows that weren’t in English. 2) Trying to fit in a job around weekday story time was next to impossible and had to stop. 3) Even when I spoke Turkish to her, I very quickly switched to English without even noticing.

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Realising I was ill-equipped to teach Cella myself, I eventually decided to outsource and gift Cella the childhood trauma of weekend Turkish school. For months, we spent Saturdays driving half an hour to take Cella to this school, only for her to spend the next few hours struggling to make sense of an environment where other kids were mostly fluent already (most, I noted, had two Turkish parents). When I realised she was miserable and not actually learning anything, I pulled her out and hired a private Turkish teacher instead – a move that would prove to be the best thing I could have done.

Working one-on-one with her teacher, Cella quickly learned to read, write and speak whole sentences and my heart swelled with pride (my mum went one better and wept openly with relief). And then just as we were getting somewhere, her teacher up and moved interstate and we found ourselves back at square one.

In the Night Garden is just as annoying in every other language and Cella clearly had no time for her favourite books and shows that weren’t in English.

I’m ashamed to say I gave up on the spot, saying something like, “Oh well, it’s not like you’re going to need it anyway,” but inside I felt crushed.

According to the 2016 Census, 21 per cent of Australians currently speak a language other than English at home (there are 300 separately identified languages spoken in Australian homes), but linguists say more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear in the next hundred years. Various reasons are outlined in UNESCO’s endangered language list, but it shows a language is considered severely endangered if a language is spoken by grandparents but the parents do not speak the language to their children or among themselves.

Still, all is not lost; I might have given up momentarily, but I’m happy to say my daughter has not. Quickly downloading a host of ‘Teach yourself Turkish’ programs, she now comes home from school and sits down to learn without my encouragement, and the other day asked me to find her a new teacher.

The struggle to teach my children their heritage is real, but the stats on lost language are too frightening not to continue. We will persevere. 

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