The Ecphorizer

Cevat Emptor
Gareth Penn

Issue #12 (August 1982)

To speak like a native you have to think like a native

Mensa Bulletin
has been carrying ads for a firm called Audio-Forum, which markets Foreign Service Institute language-instruction materials. For $115, the ads say, the FSI will teach you to speak your target language "like a native."


...the Foreign Service Institue does anything but teach you to talk like a native.

have something to say about this, based on my experience with FSI language courses.

The Foreign Service Institute is the teaching arm of the U.S. State Department. Their language courses are widely used. Universities use them. The Army language school at Monterey uses them. But they didn't buy them from Audio-Forum at $115 each. And you don't need to, either. You can buy the same materials for about $15 from a GPO bookstore (e.g., the one in the Federal Building at 450 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco).

There's not just the $100 saving involved, there's also the claim that you will learn to speak "like a native." Some years ago, I did the FSI Basic Turkish Course, and I found that the Foreign Service Institute does anything but teach you to talk like a native.

In the interest of consumer awareness, I reproduce herewith a conversation lifted verbatim from Unit 50 of the Basic Turkish Course. This is the last lesson in the book. At this point, if Audio-Forum is to be believed, you should be talking like a native. The participants are Bob, an American, and Cevat, a Turk.

Bob: One wonders when Turkey will be able completely to meet its needs with its own economy?

Cevat: I have faith that Turkey will be able to meet its needs with its own economy in the near future. I'm sure too we shall suceed in this.

Bob: Thank you very much for your explanation, Cevat Bey.

Cevat: I beg of you, sir. It's nothing.

Can you imagine natives talking like that? In the preceding unit, Bob had a fascinating little chat with Ilhami about how the farmers of Turkey are replacing dung with chemical fertilizers. I searched high and low through the FSI instruction book, looking for a conversation that seemed to have anything to do with real life. The nearest I came was unit 46, in which Selman goes to the doctor's office and finds out that he has gallstones. If you insist on seeing a Turkish specialist about your gallstones, or if you anticipate gallstone problems while traveling in the Levant, I can't recommend the FSI Basic Turkish Course too highly.

Otherwise, FSI appears to be concerned mainly about conversational topics such as hazel-nut production figures for the Black Sea provinces. Somehow, I just can't imagine the natives squatting in some tea-shop somewhere cataloguing agricultural statistics. If you want to talk like a native, you must receive training for conversation in topics the natives talk about. Here's my re-write of the conversation in Unit 47, which dealt originally with tractor-financing. It's only a suggestion, but I think it is closer to the mark than what Foggy Bottom has to offer.

Bob: I've got salmonella something awful. Been having the runs all day long. Excuse me.

Cevat: Hope everything comes out OK, Bob. Selman, you see that little boy over there?

Selman: Yeah, he's got an ass like a peach.

Cevat: What do you want to do tonight, Selman?

Selman: Oh, I don't know. What do you want to do, Cevat?

Cevat: I don't know, either. Here comes Bob. Why don't we ask him?

Selman: Hi, Bob. Feeling better? Cevat and I were just trying to figure out what to do tonight. Got any ideas?

Bob: Sure. Why don't we go kill us some Armenians?

Selman: I'd love to, but I really can't. My gallstones have been acting up lately.

You see how acculturated the American Bob has become? He not only has learned to speak the target language with fluency, he is also able to converse with natives about the things that most concern them in their everyday lives, such as intestinal infections, pederasty, and genocide. He is able to meet people in the new environment on their own terms, not as an Ugly American who can talk about nothing but agricultural statistics.

So before you make out that check to Audio-Forum for $115, you should bear in mind that you can get the same thing for $100 less at the GPO Bookstore. And no matter what you pay for it, it won't make you talk like a native. 

Gareth Penn, a linguist and globetrotter, has had first-hand experience of what the Victorians called "the unspeakable Turks."  His second-hand experiences were pretty good too.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

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