Crossing the Bridge: Shifting Perspectives on and in First-Year Turkish Through Film

This semester, together with the invaluable input of my colleagues in the Berkeley Language Center, fellow first-year Turkish GSI, Kristin Dickinson, and Mellon Lecturer in Turkish, Ayla Algar, I developed a semester’s worth of activities for Turkish 1A (Elementary Modern Turkish) built around film clips taken from Turkish cinema, with one film clip or sequence of film clips serving as the fulcrum for each unit in our textbook (approximately one clip every two to three weeks). A collaborative endeavor from the start, the project was designed to dovetail with Kristin Dickinson’s own BLC project, a literacy-based approach to first-year Turkish to be undertaken in the spring of 2009. As the two of us will continue to co-teach Turkish 1B in the spring, the second semester will see the continued development of film clip-driven exercises, just as the seeds for Kristin’s project have been sown throughout the course of Turkish 1A.

I first began thinking about structuring a Turkish curriculum around film clips while teaching Elementary Arabic in the fall of 2007 under the guidance of Arabic Program Coordinator and former BLC Academic Coordinator, Dr. Sonia S’hiri. As is the case in many university-level Arabic programs today both in the United States and beyond, the primary textbook for the first two years of instruction at UC Berkeley is Al-Kitaab, a series that makes great use of video clips narrating the intersecting lives of a young Arab-American girl living in New York and her Egyptian cousin, with at least one video segment serving as a structuring device for the grammar and vocabulary of each chapter.

One of the most compelling aspects of the most recent edition of the text is the inclusion of supplementary DVDs featuring alternate Egyptian Colloquial versions of the Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) dialogues for each video clip. While MSA constitutes the primary shared language of communication throughout the Arab World—as well as in the Arabic classroom at Berkeley—the explicit incorporation of dialects into the curriculum and the subsequent ‘official’ status they acquire as sanctioned means of communication alongside MSA not only gives students the opportunity to learn a number of basic expressions in a spoken variety of Arabic, it also offers them a small glimpse of the endless linguistic and cultural variation present in the language and the region, ultimately helping students to challenge a simplistic, monolithic understanding of the Arab World and the greater Middle East.

While Turkish does not exhibit nearly the same degree of linguistic diglossia encountered in Arabic, I was nevertheless intrigued by the idea of utilizing a wide selection of film clips as a structuring device for the teaching of first-year Turkish, clips that would introduce students to the remarkable degree of cultural diglossia present in the Turkish context. Given that the major deficiency of the two most widely used textbooks for university-level Turkish instruction in North America is a lack of exercises, cultural notes, and activities representative of the multicultural nature of Turkey and the multiplicity of identities contained in the term ‘Turkishness’, it became all the more imperative that Kristin and I complement and complicate the text with a component that could open classroom discussion to accommodate perspectives beyond a uniform understanding of the languages and cultures implicated.

To be sure, the project of expanding the acceptable definition of ‘Turkish’ and ‘Turkishness’ to encompass a multitude of shifting linguistic and cultural positions, including migrant Turkish communities outside of Turkey and minority populations within the Turkish national space, did not mean objectively observing the various speech communities in question from afar, discussing the so-called ‘target culture’ from within the comfortable confines of the classroom, safely outside the area of study. Rather, equally as important was the task of bringing discussion to bear on the participants in first-year Turkish themselves and their own varied backgrounds and histories. For in the end, bringing Turkish film into the classroom was just as much about focusing the camera on the instability of Turkish culture nationally defined as it was about turning a lens on students’ own shifting identities, particularly as players in a larger, global Turkish community.

Consequently, the goal of my project became threefold: 1) to bring the multicultural nature of Turkey, Turkish culture, and Turkish language to the fore in the first-year Turkish classroom and curriculum 2) to use this multi-centered and fragmented representation of Turkishness as a vehicle for student expression of their own place inside (and outside of) Turkish culture as first-year students and 3) to make use of film and other multimedia in tandem with the Berkeley Language Center’s Library of Foreign Language Film Clips to achieve the first two goals.

Early on in the semester, a fortuitously scheduled screening of German-Turkish director Fatih Akın’s 2005 film, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul at the Pacific Film Archive on campus presented a perfect opportunity to address the first goal. Thanks to a Course Improvement Grant from the GSI Teaching and Resource Center, our entire class was able to attend the film, a documentary bringing together the music of Istanbul’s past and present, ranging from Romany music to Turkish rap and hip-hop culture, from Arabesque melodies to Kurdish dirges.

Following the screening, by way of a variety of activities built around specific excerpts from the movie stored on the Library of Foreign Language Film Clips, we were able to highlight and problematize the prevailing representation of the relationship between Istanbul and the rest of Turkey as synecdochic, where Istanbul as the metropolis not only stands in for, but often conceals the peripheries it contains. By focusing our sights on such erasures and resituating them on a cultural map, students were able to then begin reframing their understandings of the endless (and often contradictory) possibilities of what constitutes Istanbul, or an Istanbulite for that matter. The discussion generated from these clips, together with that from other key initial clips confronting the complex nature of what Turkishness embraces, functioned both as a lens directing our gaze and a touchstone to which we constantly returned throughout the semester to reconsider and reevaluate our subject of study in the light of new clips, each possessing its own set of identity issues in new contexts.

In this way, we were able to move beyond the vague appeals to pluralism and tolerance so common to American foreign language textbooks (from which Turkish studies are, by and large, sadly not exempt) and instead direct our attention to tracing the contours of culture across contexts, showing students the faultline and thereby giving them the tools to perform the work of reconciling irreducible difference—both trans-cultural and intra-cultural—themselves (Kramsch 1993). Indeed, this is the task at hand as Kramsch sees it: “What we should seek in cross-cultural education are less bridges than a deep understanding of the boundaries. We can teach the boundary, we cannot teach the bridge.” The objective is not “to find ways of bridging the gap, but to identify and explore the boundary and to explore oneself in the process” (1993: 228, 231). From the instructor’s perspective then, ‘crossing the bridge’ as classroom practice is about getting over the need to build bridges so that we may instead begin defining the landscapes and the spaces between them as potential sites for cross-cultural and intra-cultural contact, regardless of whether or not they may be successfully bridged.

For the student’s part, ‘crossing the bridge’ is a constant and (at least) bidirectional movement, where stepping outside of oneself and setting foot on the uneven terrain of one’s own identities becomes just as important as exploring the shifting landscapes on the other side. As Pavlenko and James write, “crossing a cultural border is about ‘renarrativizing’ a life. […] Entailed in the crossing [is] the active and intentional (re)construction of a history. Without a new narrative the crossing would not have been possible” (2000: 174).

Director Fatih Akın, as both insider (a participant in the production of Turkish culture) and outsider (a German resident who also consistently approaches Turkey from the outside in his cinematic narratives), makes for an ideal figure through which to begin tracing and, in the process, (re)constructing students’ own personal narratives, the vocabulary of which forms the backbone of so many first-year language programs. Other such figures, whether agents like Akın engaged in the creation of the films investigated, or figures within the diegetic space (Canadian ethnomusicologist and singer Brenna MacCrimmon, Turkish-born Kurdish musician Şivan Perwer) or the very subjects of filmic inquiry themselves (poet in exile Nazım Hikmet), served as additional models, all marked by fluid and overtly hybrid identities in relation to Turkishness, each one with its own set of problematics to contribute. Ultimately, it was by means of activities facilitated by these often-marginalized existing models, now rendered legitimately ‘Turkish’ by virtue of their inclusion in the curriculum, that students truly came to grapple with their own relationships with both Turkish and their native languages, in addition to the identities they represent.

In one such example, the protagonist of another Akın film (Gegen die Wand, 2004), Cahit, a German-Turk with few remaining connections to Turkish culture—and even less affection for it—becomes the perfect model for the Turkish student of only four weeks based on the character’s extremely limited command of the Turkish language. In the act of scripting a new scene between the protagonist and his assimilated Turkish lover to accompany the original clip, students are given the chance to play with their own hybrid identities as English-Turkish speakers through the mirror of a German-Turk who at once performs and denies his Turkishness. All the while, in assuming his identity, students demarcate their own changing limitations with/in the language, whether self-imposed or simply out of lack, as they express themselves in a mix of two languages reflecting Cahit’s own linguistic practices with Turkish and German.

Ideally, activities of this nature requiring a conscious navigation of the mutable place of the student in Turkish culture, in tandem with an introduction to a variety of contexts illustrating challenging and contradictory manifestations of Turkishness, can help students begin to perceive the contours of the cross-cultural terrain concerned. By attuning students to these kinds of questions from day one, we can better prepare them to deal with more abstract instances of the cultural issues broached in future semesters, issues that will certainly play a central role in the texts that form the core of Kristin’s literacy project for Turkish 1B. Likewise, in reconstructing the curricular focus as such, we too as instructors can subject our own methodologies to similar critical reflection, helping us to effect a new narrative of lower-division language classes in greater dialogue with cultural questions traditionally reserved for upper-division literature courses as we continue to explore the landscapes of language and culture, however unbridgeable in their own infinitely ephemeral convergences and divergences.


Kramsch, C. 1993. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kramsch, C. and R. W. Anderson. 1999. Teaching Text and Context Through Multimedia. Language Learning & Technology. 2(2), 31-42.

Pavlenko, A. and J. Lantolf. 2000. Second language learning as participation and the (re)construction of selves. In Lantolf, James P. (Ed.) Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 155-178.

Secules, T., C. Herron, and W. Tomasello. 1992. The Effect of Video Context on Foreign Language Learning. Modern Language Journal, 76(4), 480-490.

van Leeuwen, T. 2005. Introducing Social Semiotics. London: Routledge.