Live from Istanbul Every Summer: Interview with Nicholas Kontovas
by Rebecca Mueller
I met Niko during the summer of 2012, when I enrolled in Beginning Turkish at the IU Summer Language Workshop (then SWSEEL). Niko, a fellow IU Master's student, was my instructor. Niko seemed so at home in Turkish and in the classroom that I was surprised to learn two things: Turkish is not first foreign language he has specialized in—that’s Mandarin!—and he was teaching our course for the very first time. Niko is a natural linguist and polyglot, and his interest in language goes beyond, well, language, to the sociocultural contexts in which languages are spoken. He is also, in my opinion, one of the Workshop’s most valuable instructors.
Since 2012, Niko has the spent the better part of his time in Istanbul, returning to teach at the Workshop each summer. We corresponded via email regarding Niko’s experiences in both places:
Rebecca Mueller: Niko, what have you learned since becoming a Summer Language Workshop instructor?
Nicholas Kontovas: Being a Turkish instructor in the Summer Language Workshop has undoubtedly been the single most informative form of employment— and one of the single most experiences— of my life. The things I have learned in it are immeasurable, but I think the most important is that although the diversity of learning styles between individuals is sometimes staggering, there is always a way to understand a new language … vastly different people with vastly different backgrounds can, within the span of two months, all wind up acquiring the same complex system enough to communicate aspects of their personalities to each other and understand when those personalities are communicated— to me that is miraculous.
RM: Have you taught in other contexts, and how does your Workshop experience compare?
NK: The Workshop was my first experience teaching language, but in addition to returning to teach in it every summer I have continued to teach— Turkish, Ottoman, and most recently Buddhist Old Turkic/Old Uyghur as a lecturer in the Turkish Language and Literature Department at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. My dirty little secret is that I prefer my Workshop classes … For students there is an effectiveness to living, breathing, and sleeping Turkish that just can't be matched.
RM: How does teaching a foreign language differ from learning one?
NK: Learning a new language is the excitement of acquiring new knowledge; teaching one is the excitement of seeing others do it. When a student is frustrated, you share in that frustration. [But] you don't have time to wallow in self pity… You have to jump in and make sure that the student doesn't get to that point.
RM: How is teaching as a non-native speaker?
NK: Teaching a language as a non-native speaker I think can give an advantage. We non-native speakers remember what it's like to think about the structure of a language for the first time, to make sense of it, to get confused about it. Students benefit from our ability to predict and prevent the same difficulties that we ourselves experienced. At the same time, we're living proof that it is possible to learn the language to a near-native level.
RM: How have your experiences in Turkey informed your teaching?
NK: The most obvious benefit of living in Turkey is, well... speaking Turkish fluently! My days are spent speaking, reading, and writing largely in Turkish. My daily life is conducted in Turkish. My writing, thinking, speaking— all in some way heavily influenced by Turkish. It wouldn't really have been possible to achieve this without spending so much time here.
RM: What do you hope your students understand about Turkish society?
NK: I always feel bad about having a strong opinion about Turkish politics -- after all, I can't even vote -- but I am heartened by my Turkish friends who, even if they don't agree with me, say "Niko, you live here -- of COURSE you have a right to care about what sort of place it is!" As a teacher, though, the big danger of having an opinion is not letting your students think your opinion reflects that of the majority. This is an instance in which teaching Turkish has taught ME so much. I have learned not only to give multiple view points on a topic I'm very passionate about, but to explain the rationale of those who hold viewpoints very different from my own in hopes that students will get a balanced view of how Turkish public opinion functions.
Turkey is magical insomuch as— despite its long and complicated history vis-à-vis ethnicity and religion— being Turkish is mostly a matter of accepting Turkishness. More than anything else I want my students to realize this. Some of them have already found their second homes here, and that makes me feel just... wow. In the immortal words of Mevlana (who was Afghan, but another adopted Turk) "Come back, come back! Whatever you are, back!"
RM: Language learning lessons to share?
NK: (a) Don't learn a language you're not instinctively drawn to or passionate about. Chinese might help you get a job, but if it doesn't give you butterflies in your tummy you'll never learn it well enough for it to be of any use to you.
(b) Don't let your language drawbacks discourage you. You will make mistakes -- bad ones. You will forget words -- common ones. You will feel dumb -- often. You will be lazy -- and feel guilty about it. Push through. One day you'll wake up and realize things you never thought you'd learn are like second nature and that is just such a sweet feeling.
RM: What’s next?
NK: My future plans are to keep teaching here at Boğaziçi for a few more years and develop a coherent set of learning materials for a few different languages. In addition to wanting to improve the teaching of Turkish to foreigners, I am also big on the promotion of minority languages within Turkey, as well as the preservation and proliferation of historical languages like Ottoman. I'm not sure exactly what will be released when, but keep an eye out on my website for updates! (niko.qalamiqan.com)
Rebecca Mueller (Turkish, 2012) is completing an IU dual Master's degree in Public Health and East European Studies with a focus on the Balkans. Her journey with Turkish language, began at SWSEEL, led to an Academic Year FLAS with IU’s Center for the Study of the Middle East (2013-2014), a Critical Language Scholarship for study in Bursa, Turkey (summer 2014), and most recently, volunteering with the IU Global Center’s Bridges Program with Bloomington area kindergarten and first graders. Rebecca will also be supporting outreach efforts at IU’s Turkish Language Flagship Center this semester.
Basem Al-Raba’a (Arabic) is currently a third year doctoral student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and the Department of Linguistics at Indiana University (IU) Bloomington. He has participated in and led multiple workshops for language pedagogy in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the US, most recently The Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) Assessment Workshop sponsored by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). During the past few years he has published a number of articles in peer-reviewed journals, including “Language Attitudes towards the Rural and Urban Varieties in North Jordan” in Al-'Arabiyya, 2016 (forthcoming), “The Manner of Articulation of the emphatic /dˁ/in both Saudi and Palestinian dialects” in International Journal of Language and Linguistics, 2015, 3(1): 1-7, “The Generic and Registerial Features of Facebook Apology Messages Written by Americans and Jordanians” in International Journal of English Linguistics, 2013, 3(2): 54-65, and “The Grammatical Influence of English on Arabic in the Passive Voice in Translation” in International Journal of Linguistics, 2013, 5(1): 204-218. In April 2015 he presented the article “A Linguistic Analysis of Antonymy: An Empirical Study” at the Indiana University Linguistics Club (IULC) Spring Conference and “The Grammatical Influence of English on Arabic in the Passive Voice in Translation” paper at the MENA Conference, 13th Annual Southwest Graduate Conference in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Last but not least, Basem Al-Raba’a was granted the Outstanding Associate Instructor Award, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University Bloomington for the academic year 2013-2014.
Mohamed Ansary (Arabic) is currently a lecturer of Arabic as a Foreign Language at the University of Arizona. Last year he earned his certificate as an official OPI tester of Arabic in the USA. In 2015, he has also led and participated in a number of workshops on language instruction, including the Workshop on Using Technology for Increasing Students’ Multiple Literacies and Intercultural Competence at the University of Arizona, Curriculum and Assessment Workshop at Concordia Villages, and Flagship Teacher Training Workshop at the University of Arizona. He has also published a chapter in a book titled Experiences of Teaching Arabic in North America.
Bethany Braley (Russian) completed her Ph.D. in Slavic (Russian and Polish) Literatures at Indiana University in September 2015. Her dissertation is called Extroverting the Cultural Interior: Symbolic Renovations in Recent Polish and Russian Verse. She is currently preparing to publish her research and is also in the process of completing and publishing a third scholarly translation.
Tzu-I Chiang (Chinese) has been teaching Chinese at college level since 2006, and she is passionate about Chinese teaching as well as developing learning facilities and technology for Chinese learners. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Second Language Studies in Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research interests include second language acquisition and pedagogy; second language syntax, and lexical semantics with a concentration on English and Mandarin Chinese.
Elena Clark (Russian) is currently Postdoctoral Teacher-Scholar of Russian at Wake Forest University. She has recently released a novel titled The Midnight Land: Part One: The Flight. This coming-of-age novel which combines elements of fantasy and Russian literature details the adventures of Krasnoslava Tsarinovna, the clairvoyant younger sister to the Empress of all of Zem’, who is seeking to escape the intrigue and hostility of her sister’s kremlin.
Elena Doludenko (Russian) continues teaching Russian and working on her Ph.D. in Slavic Linguistics at Indiana University. She has become a certified OPI tester for Russian in March 2014. In 2015, Elena published her article “One Class, Twelve Students, Five Stations” Quick Hits -Teaching Tips for Adjunct Faculty and Lecturers, Indiana University Press.
Zeynep Elbasan-Bozdogan (Turkish) attended the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Conference and the American Association of Teachers of Turkic Languages (AATT) Graduate Student Pre-Conference in Denver, CO in November of 2015. At the AATT she presented a paper titled “Feminine Voices within Masculine Boundaries: A Comparison of the Female Poets of Amasya and the Women Troubadours of Occitania.” Additionally, on November 13 she delivered the presentation titled "Ask me about me" at the Indiana University Foreign and Second Language Share Fair. In October 2015, she participated in 2nd Intl Conference on Turkish Culture: "Teaching Turkish in the World, Teaching Turkish for the World” at Indiana University. The title of her presentation was “Implementing 'The Deep Approach to Turkish Teaching and Learning' at Indiana University."
Haidar Khezri (Kurdish) is Visiting Assistant Professor and Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Middle East (CSME), and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS) at Indiana University Bloomington. He specializes in the languages and literatures of the Persian, Kurdish and Islamic/ate world. His research in particular focuses on comparative literature (Persian, Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish), poetry, critical theory, post-colonial literature, translation, world literature, gender studies, and East-West cultural encounters. Dr. Khezri has recently published his work entitled Comparative Literature in Iran and the Arab World 1903 – 2012. (Samt: 2013). His work It is Only Sound that Remains, which details the life and poetry of Forūgh-i Farrukhzād, including Kurdish translations of two collections of Forough's poetry (Another Birth and Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season) is due to be published in 2016. Additionally, Dr. Khezri has published on topics ranging from Kurdish identity to Jerusalem in Persian literature. His current project, a translation of Kafka's Message by Sadegh Hedayat is set to be completed in 2016, as well. His most recent article “Arabic Comparative Literature; Intersection with West Asian Literature” (Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetic: the American University in Cairo: 2015), has been translated to Persian and Kurdish.
Heather Rice (Russian) successfully defended her dissertation on second language acquisition of Russian secondary palatalization in December 2015 and has graduated IU with a Ph.D. in Linguistics and Slavic Languages and Literatures. She is currently working as an instructional designer for new online, blended, and hybrid first and second year Russian language courses at the University of Texas at Austin.
Ala Simonchyk (Russian) passed her Ph.D. qualifying exams and was admitted to candidacy at the Indiana University Slavic Department in 2015. Later that year she successfully defended her dissertation proposal and collected data in Russian Phonetics classes that she taught at the Summer Language Workshop (SWSEEL). Currently, she is actively analyzing the data and writing her dissertation “The interactions between perception, production, lexical encoding and orthography in the acquisition of palatalization in Russian”. She also gave two talks on her dissertation topic: the first one was presented in July 2015 for SWSEEL students and faculty, and the second was delivered in October 2015 at the Second Language Studies Colloquium. In collaboration with Dr. Isabelle Darcy, she published an article "Acquisition of word-final devoicing by American learners of Russian" in the proceedings of the 6th Annual Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference. The data for that article was collected from students enrolled in SWSEEL during the summer of 2014.
Mark Trotter (Russian) presented “The c-test in assessment of proficiency for less commonly taught languages” at the International and Foreign Languages (IFLE) Title VI Project Directors’ Meeting, held in Washington, DC in March, 2015.
Ognen Vangelov (Macedonian) is currently a Ph.D. graduate candidate in the Political Studies department at Queen’s University, Canada. In April 2015 he presented a paper at the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) Conference at Columbia University in New York. Also, as of 2015 he is the recipient of the highest federal doctoral award in Canada, the Vanier Scholarship. He has completed his Ph.D. coursework, comprehensive examinations and dissertation proposal requirements, and now is in the process of initiating field research, focusing on the processes of “un-democratization” of countries in Central and Eastern Europe.