Worth of Words: My Life Between Languages
About the Series: Worth of Words
It’s been often said that words have power; they are the vessels of how we perceive and construct reality and our everyday lives. Yet, this power becomes nuanced when looking at just how those words come across—how they’re spoken, why they’re written, when and where they’re read. Moreover, they vary across different cultures, geographies, and times, meaning there’s a lot more to unpack than what our own lived experiences can say. Worth of Words was created to do just that—to tell the stories of our words, our accents, our voices, and our various languages, ranging from the variations of Blackness in speech and code-switching to how language impacts queer identities. Our camp counselors shared their stories, both visually and audibly, so you can read and listen to their experiences on the power, and possible harm, of words.
“Some nights you speak in your native language, so it seems you have another soul understanding you” - Ijeoma Umebinyuo
English wasn’t my first language. The very first words I used to communicate were in a mixture of Turkish and Karachay-Balkar. Karachay-Balkar is a Turkic language that has its roots deep in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. Turkish is the most widely spoken Turkic language, with the majority of its speakers living in Turkey — makes sense, right? Despite all that, you would never be able to tell through my voice that my first language isn’t English.
It wasn’t always like this, though.
When I started kindergarten, I couldn’t put together a sentence in English. I had an accent when I spoke. I couldn’t tell the difference between Turkish and Karachay, often addressing my relatives in the wrong language and being unable to fathom why they couldn’t understand me. In quite the paradox, I had so many languages at my disposal, yet I couldn’t seem to communicate with anyone outside my immediate family.
I had flaws in my English up until high school. I couldn’t pronounce certain words correctly for example. I was my mother’s first child, and she was an immigrant from what used to be the Soviet Union. We were learning English together, and she was learning about her new country through the eyes of her young daughter.
Language has served many purposes in my life. It has made me feel included at times and isolated at others. Language has made me feel like I am home, but also made me realize that I am far from it.
In order for my relationship with language to make sense, it’s crucial to understand my background. I have inherited the languages I know as a direct result of my cultural background and I cannot be understood separately from it. Language and culture are deeply interconnected for me.
So a quick TLDR before moving forward: both my mother and father are of Karachay-Balkar origin—my mother’s family remained in Russia while my father’s family ended up in Turkey, and my parents met and married in the United States. From that, we came to be a multilingual family, and that’s just how it’s always been.
My father immigrated from Turkey and met my mother when she was visiting the United States from Russia at a wedding in New Jersey. Long story short, when I came into the picture, my father and mother spoke to me in Turkish and Karachay, both languages familiar to them as both their families originated in the North Caucasus. However, my father didn’t let my mom teach me Russian. He didn’t know how to speak the language, so his excuse was that he didn’t want his kids speaking a language he didn’t understand.
I returned to both Russia and Turkey this summer. As I navigated both countries, language’s role of simultaneously connecting and alienating me from my cultural background became glaringly obvious. Turkey was familiar and known, but when returning to Russia for the first time in 15 years, it was foreign and unfamiliar. It was my own mother’s country, yet I was a stranger in it.
I became even more pronounced as the odd one out—the English speaking American when I was in the presence of my mom’s family. I couldn’t speak to my family members due to my lack of Russian and their lack of English. The communication we had was done in broken Karachay, a language that had begun to fade from my mind. Yet I could understand it perfectly. Whenever I would hear Karachay being spoken in the sea of constant Russian, it felt like a brief spark of connection—it would remind me that this was still home, yet that spark would go out as soon as it had been ignited.
However, I noticed the younger generation in my mom’s hometown couldn’t speak the language any better than I could. The Russian colonization of the Caucasus had forced them towards favoring Russian in their daily life over their own ethnic language. I understood why: Russian is a much more widely used language and would give my cousins access to more resources than Karachay-Balkar. Even still, I couldn’t help but feel bitter towards Russia for that. It brought back thoughts of how my homeland in the Caucasus had been brutally colonized since the days of the Russian Empire, how over the generations my family had been forced to adapt Russian in place of their native tongue, and how as a result, this language was slowly dying. This made me cling even harder to Karachay. The Russian government had taken so much from my family and my people over the generations; if I let them take my language, then what would be left?
Language, or in this case the lack of it, had made me feel detached. I had an amazing time seeing my mom’s family this summer, yet the language barrier was a noticeable obstacle at every turn. I felt isolated in the presence of some of my closest blood relatives. It was a disorienting and at times heartbreaking experience. I felt resentment towards Russia for diluting my Karachay culture with their continued invasive colonial ambitions. I started to feel resentment towards my father for not letting my mother teach me Russian. I felt that by denying me the chance to learn Russian, I had been denied the ability to connect with my mother’s heritage in the same meaningful way as I had with my father’s.
On the flip side, when visiting Turkey, I instantly felt that connection to my surroundings that I lacked in Russia. It felt like a weight being lifted from my conscience. I understood the everyday communication, and I could finally express myself in words that were understood.
Of course, I faced bumps in the road. Sometimes I’d just blabber incoherently. Other times, my accent when I spoke Turkish would be greeted with a raised eyebrow and an “are you a foreigner?” to which I would respond, “I’m from the United States but I’m Turkish” in order to assert that yes, I was technically a foreigner, but at the same time I wasn’t.
The tables had turned since I was younger—I went from having an accent when speaking English to having an accent when speaking Turkish. Every time someone pointed out my accent, that anxiety of isolation instantly came back—I felt like I was being pushed back to the fringes as I had been in Russia and that my voice made me out to be something that didn’t belong. I even found myself being irrationally yet deeply annoyed with the United States for what it felt like taking my mother tongue away from me and replacing it with English—a language lacking the same cultural significance that Turkish held for me. But ultimately, I would also feel grateful for speaking English as well as I do because it is a skill my fellow Turks bust their asses to achieve.
Despite my struggles to adjust to speaking Turkish constantly, there were moments where my Turkish felt seamless, where it flowed without the need to stop and grasp for the correct words. My relatives in Turkey would smile and light up when I engaged them in conversation, commenting on how much my Turkish had progressed since they’d last seen me. Those were the moments that made me feel at home with my cultural background.
Since returning to the United States, the words of poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo have echoed in my mind: “they never warned us about the days America will feel so lonely, we will gather our mother tongue, hastily swallowing words that remind us of home to keep us warm.” I have missed speaking Turkish in my daily life. I have missed being heard and understood in my native tongue.
When speaking Karachay or Turkish, I am tied via my words to my cultural roots. Speaking Karachay has become an act of resistance for me, an act of me stubbornly clinging to my identity despite constant attempts by powerful colonial entities to diminish it. Speaking Turkish is my link to good times with my family, my link to warm memories in my father’s country, to childhood laughter and smiles. Without Turkish, I would be missing an entire part of myself, of my upbringing, my life, and even my future aspirations.
As I said previously, language and culture are deeply interconnected for me. The value language carries in my life cannot be lessened or diminished. It is through language that I maintain my link to my heritage. The worth of my words in Turkish and in Karachay are immense to me because those languages make up so much of who I am, who I was, and who I am aiming to be.
About the Author
Fidan Baycora (she/her) is a senior studying international affairs and history at the George Washington University. Although born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, she was born to immigrant parents, growing up between countries and cultures. This background has always defined her throughout her life, from her chosen path of study to her writing. Fidan enjoys traveling, photography, journaling, memes, and shamelessly binge listening to true crime podcasts.