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Getting by a few weeks into learning a language: my Turkish haircut (& ear burning) experience

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

About six weeks into learning Dutch I was ready to go on 25 speed dates entirely in the language. It's not quite the same thing for me now five weeks into my Turkish mission!

Due to some annoying health problems and some frustrating travel related issues I'll mention soon enough (that have nothing to do with the language's difficulty), this project was slowed down dramatically from my usual rate, so I'm not at where I would want to be at this time!

This means that I won't reach conversational level as aimed for initially (which I did reach in Hungarian in the two month time frame), but I'll still have something useful to show for my time here, and will be working on a really cool video about it this weekend.

Despite that I've got a decent understanding of Turkish, a great understanding of sentence structure and construction, and can indeed get by OK in it. So I thought I'd share the dialogue from yesterday's haircut that I had, as I remember it, for those of you wondering how to stretch the basics in a situation that would usually be beyond your level!

Main goal: not to come out bald

The thing is, the only haircut I've gotten in the entire last year and a half that was in a language I'm fully confident in was when I did it in Colombia, in Spanish. I usually leave it until once ever four or so months and always have the worry that perhaps this time I'll accidentally come out of the experience bald… or with a mohawk.

Such worries are unfounded though, as they were this time in Turkish!

Walking down a random street here in Taksim, I saw a kuaför (an easily recognisable word from French – a nice trick I'll be including in my overview post of the Turkish language), and thought now is as good a time as any!

I didn't revise haircut vocabulary, so I had no idea how to say “razor”, or short-back-and-sides, or “you've sliced off a chunk of my ear with those scissors, call an ambulance quick!” and other standard essentials. I just went straight in.

Walking in, I saw five people sitting down. One of them came up to me and said [in Turkish] How can I help you?

Me: I want hair short please – is this the kuaför?

Barber: Yes it is! Have a seat here! [Preps me with towel etc.] So, how do you want it?

Me: Um… Do you speak English?

Barber: [Pointing to an English dictionary on the table] I've been studying it for many years, but can't speak it – not even a little, sorry!

Me: OK… So… you take two months hair away, please? Lots lots back away. Little top away. Is it possible?

Barber: Of course! So what I'll do is… [starts indicating parts of hair and amount. Shows how much he'll cut from the top]

Me: A little more

Barber: [Shows a little more, I agree and then he gets started].

The haircut takes a really long time – he's quite meticulous! But I can see things are going well, so I breath a sigh of relief.

Barber: [Blah blah blah blah blah çay blah blah blah musunuz?]

Me: Yes, I'd love some tea!

The surprises that make it all the more fun

Haircut looks pretty much done.

Barber: Blah blah blah blah shave blah blah blah? [I recognised the one word and he was pointing at my beard]

Me: No, thank you!

Now he points to something that looks like gel on the shelf and says something about it – I presume it's hairgel. I start losing track of what he's saying, and presume it's the style he'll put it in, so I say yeah OK – no matter how bad it is I can wash it out. This is where things get a little complicated 😛

I had agreed to more than I bargained for, but it's one of those oops mistakes that actually turned out to be a great and funny learning experience!

It turns out it wasn't hair gel, but another stage of the Turkish barber shop experience. He squirts out some of the gel and starts spreading it over my… forehead. OK… this is unexpected! He covers my entire upper face with this stuff and tells me to stay still. I didn't see any images outside suggesting that they make novelty casts of your face, so I'm left wondering what the hell is going on.

And that's when he took out the live flame.

Normally I'd raise my eyebrows in surprise, but I suppressed the urge from the instructions. I had heard something about this before I came, but just seeing it for myself was a bit of a shock. He was going to remove/neutralise my ear hairs with a flame, as shown in this video of someone else having their ear hairs neutralised.

Weird, but now I can say I've had fire in my ear – something to add to my list of “achievements”. It really puts a new spin to the phrase “My ears are burning”…

After this I have to wait for the strange face gel to dry. During this time, the barber offers me a cigarette, and then goes out on the balcony to smoke it when I turn it down. I thought that was nice of him because it's the only time indoors in Istanbul in a place not mostly frequented by tourists that someone has not smoked around me.

The others sitting down start talking to me – when they ask me questions this is where I shine as I have had this kind of conversation before.

I tell them that I've been in Istanbul for five weeks.

Lady: Ah…. blah blah blah blah work blah blah blah?

Me: Yes, I work on the Internet. I write.

Lady: Interesting! And do you like Istanbul?

Me: Yes, it's very nice! Everyone is very friendly!

And we go on like this – not exactly the most taxing conversation in the world, but she seems dumbfounded that I can have it after just five weeks. I insist that it's not that great, really! I explain more about the project and how I'm trying to show other people how to learn languages quickly. We chat for about five minutes. About half the time I get the gist, extrapolate it based on a word or two I catch, and the rest of the time I say “I'm sorry, I don't understand!” and she backtracks.

It was great to have this pleasant chat with a stranger out of the blue. She was quite interested in what I was talking about, to help her learn English, so I gave her one of my cards and said that the blog is translated automatically by Google into Turkish, and that next week I'll have a video up entirely in Turkish.

Then my barber comes back and taps my skin like a door. That doesn't seem to satisfy him so he grabs a newspaper and starts fanning my face. I start guessing now that this gel is for cleaning my pours or something and when he removes it it will take any dirt with it.

The time comes and he starts peeling it off – so my face cast theory goes out the window. After a minute it starts to look like I've had a really bad sunburn with all the skin peeling going on. He manages to get it all off, and then declares that I'm all done! He sits me down in another chair with a view of a mirror behind a mirror so I can see the back of my head.

Me: Thank you, that was great!

I ask for the price, pay and thank him. As I leave, everyone in the place wishes me well, and I tell them to have a nice day.

Always worth trying

Maybe I wasn't linguistically “ready” to get a haircut, and as you can see I misunderstood something important, but that only lead to an interesting experience and more opportunities to learn. It would have been a pity if I had turned down the ear flame experience!

Many of my learning experiences over the last eight years have involved muddling my way through, and sometimes misunderstanding, but it's never the end of the world. It's always worth trying, no matter what your level is.

When you're dealing with human beings, you have an extra factor you just don't see in your inhuman text books. They want to help communication too, so they'll be trying to see what you mean and rephrase their words so you understand them better. They have no interest in making fun of you, and when it's clear that you are learning, even silly mistakes are something that can be laughed off or ignored as unimportant.

Someone more prepared would have researched haircut vocabulary and planned on every possible permutation of conversations that could go on, but I just saw the place and went in, not really thinking much about it. And I'm really glad I did! You can't be prepared for every possible outcome, nor should you try to be.

Reading body language, extrapolating from the context, and simply asking the other person to repeat or making it clear that you don't understand, will almost always lead to eventually you getting the gist of what they mean. With time, you will get past this stage and be much more confident in the language, but you can't skip it, you have to embrace it and enjoy it. The more experiences like this you'll have the more you'll learn and the quicker you'll reach the next stage.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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