Six months ago, Alina Kehl didn’t speak a word of the Turkish language, but now she is a reigning Canadian champion and won a bronze medal at the Turkish Olympiad held in June. The 11-year-old Floradale resident only started taking lessons back in March after her parents, Chris and Leon, hired a PhD student from the University of Waterloo to teach her the language.
Every year the local Turkish community in Kitchener holds a friendship dinner in November and they invite the community to join them, and Alina’s parents were among those who went last year.
“Afterwards, we were told about this Turkish Olympiad and were asked if our girls would be interested in it at all and learning some Turkish,” said her father, Leon.
Alina, along with her older sister Danielle, started taking lessons once a week and after learning the basic phrases such as hello (“merhaba”) and goodbye, Alina decided to study music and her sister focused on poetry.
Eventually, the pair was asked if they wanted to compete in the Canadian Turkish Olympiad, a linguistics competition held in Toronto in May; although Danielle felt she was not prepared enough for it, Alina agreed to enter.
The competition was broken down into three categories, the foreign language song category and foreign language poetry categories for contestants did not speak Turkish as their native language and the mother-language poem category in which contestants were native Turkish speakers.
Alina performed a traditional Turkish lullaby in the foreign language song category in front of the judges and about 500 audience members, and despite some early nerves was chosen as the winner.
Alina had performed in the school and church choir, but never a solo alone on stage. She said another contestant, Zehra Nur Sasal from Ottawa, helped calm her nerves and actually went on to win her category as well for best mother-language poem.
“She said that she would pray for me that I would do well and would get through it,” said Alina.
The scores were based equally on familiarity with the song; pronunciation and intonation; understanding of the song; gestures; and melodic performance. Alina also took home $250 for her first-place finish.
The win was a big surprise for her family as well, who almost didn’t enter her in the competition.
“We were thinking they would study for a year and then compete, and we thought it was too soon, but we talked it over and Alina said she would enter,” said Leon, adding it was humbling to see their 11-year-old daughter beat other contestants who were between the ages of 12 and 16 and who had been attending Turkish-language schools much longer than Alina.
“We found out afterwards that she was supposed to be 12 years old to compete, but Turkish rules are more like suggestions,” laughed Leon.
With her win in Toronto, Alina represented Canada along with the other two winners at the ninth annual Turkish Olympiad from June 15 to 30, quite a big step for a girl who had never even been on a plane before.
Her mother and one of her sisters accompanied her on the way over, and the rest of her family joined them a few days later.
“It was nerve-wracking, but exciting too,” smiled Alina of the whole experience.
The Olympiad included about 1,000 kids chosen from 15,000 competitors in 130 countries around the world. The theme of the Olympiad, organized by the International Turkish Education Association, was “One language, five billion people,” to signify the world uniting under one common language, according to the event’s website.
With approximately 200 million Turkish speakers, it is the fifth largest language spoken around the world.
“It really is like the Olympics over there. They get excited to see foreigners learn their language and it’s a real source of national pride,” added Leon.
Alina performed the same lullaby for the judges in Turkey in the same category and was recorded and broadcast on television across the country. Despite the fact she only started learning the language three months earlier, she came home with the bronze medal and $600. She credits her success to her love of music.
“You get to talk about your feelings and can really connect with the person who is singing and the people you’re singing to,” she said.
“I just love music and singing.”
She said she spent hours listening to the words and then ran them through her head and repeated them over and over, and she also made use of YouTube and other Internet sites to learn the proper pronunciations of the language.
After the competition the family spent the remaining two weeks in Turkey touring the countryside, playing games with the kids from other countries, and getting their photos taken with fans.
“It felt like we were movie stars,” laughed Alina.
Now that she’s returned home and left the rock-star status behind her, Alina isn’t sure if she will continue with her Turkish classes. She is ineligible to compete in future Olympiads given her bronze medal performance her first time around, and she may decide to focus her energy on new hobbies – or even her Grade 6 French homework.
“This was kind of a special, one-of-a-kind thing,” she said.