How to Learn Turkish: An Introductory Guide for Beginners
The Grand Bazaar, the Ottoman empire, Byzantium, the site of the biblical Garden of Eden, skiing, sandy beaches… Endless history. Whatever culture or taste appeals to you, Turkey promises to keep you fascinated.
I have been involved with the Turkish language and visiting Turkey for over 10 years. I now live in Istanbul, the cultural capital of Turkey, and I feel like I am just scratching the surface of what the country has to offer. But what about the language?
The Turkish language, with its Roman script, is the perfect key to opening up the Middle East and even further flung eastern lands and languages. Yet, you do not meet many people, even independent travellers, who have committed to learning Turkish. Why?
Why Learn Turkish? Here Are 4 Good Reasons
Take it from an experienced speaker, Turkish is one of the most underrated languages to learn, here’s why I think so:
1. Because So Many People Speak Turkish
Turkish is spoken with surprising regularity by the 80,000,000 inhabitants of the country despite a diverse makeup of Turks, Armenians, and Kurds, just to name a few ethnic groups in the country. You can safely travel Turkey’s 8,000 kilometres of Black Sea coast and notice no differences other than a change in accent.
There are also plenty of speakers of Turkish outside of the country. In Bulgaria, it is said that almost 10% of the entire population is ethnically Turkish. Macedonia, Germany, Britain and many other countries have very significant Turkish speaking populations. If you live in a capital city anywhere in the world there is a good chance that the friendly person in your local kebab restaurant is Turkish.
2. Because It’s a Gateway to Many Other Languages
Turkish is, well obviously, a Turkic language. There are many other completely distinct languages that are heavily related and, in many cases, intelligible to Turkish speakers.
Here in Istanbul, meeting and speaking with people from Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Azeri speaking parts of Iran, Afghanistan and the Uighur speaking areas of China is a daily occurrence. Of course, there are various degrees of intelligibility, but you get the point. If you are planning an epic round-the-world trip anywhere from Macedonia to China – Turkish is your best friend.
3. Because Turkey Has Everything You Could Possibly Want
This is a huge understatement. Without wanting to sound like I am affiliated with the Turkish tourist board, you can keep yourself entertained here for decades. Consider:
- Turkish History: There are elements here from every stage of history. From the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden (cited as being located near the modern city of Van), to the expansion of the Ottoman empire, to the influence of Islam in the Middle East. The smallest amount of research can lead to a very rewarding trip.
- Nature: Do you like hot beaches, sunshine and resort facilities? Tick. Do you prefer mountain trekking and lush, humid greenery that drops down into the Black Sea? Tick. Do you like skiing? Tick. Do you like… Yes, Turkey is one of those countries that strangely has all these things in one place.
- Cost of living: Okay, if you are earning Lira you may wish to cover your ears or eyes right now, however, the currency fluctuations during the summer of 2018 have meant that for those earning stronger currencies, a brief visit to Turkey for language immersion has suddenly become extremely cheap.
4. Because Turkish People Are Amazingly Friendly
Hospitality is as much part of the culture as cricket is to the British. People seem honour bound to go out of their way to help you even if you are in the very early stages of learning a language. Perhaps because Turkish is not historically a regularly learned language by tourists, Turks seem to take every word you learn as a personal compliment and beam with happiness even at the end of a beginner’s stuttered sentence. They will then make you dinner and introduce you to about a dozen relatives.
How to Learn Turkish: The Key Features of the Language
For Roman script-based language speakers, you will be pleasantly surprised to see that Turkish, whilst spoken in a land so close to countries with Arabic scripts, uses the Roman script. Albeit with a couple of extra letters. For many, there is no need to learn another script.
However, as you peel back the history of the language, you will see that this is only one of the appealing aspects of the language. As part of many of the reforms that took place here, the language was completely wrung out and tidied up in about 1928, removing foreign words and generally regulating the language. Since, particularly grammatically speaking, very few exceptions have crept back into the language. There are reportedly only 13 irregular verbs in the entire language.
You may already have seen Benny Lewis, founder of Fluent in 3 Months, showing off his impressive Turkish skills. Benny makes a good point regarding reading Turkish: it is very simple. Although there are some false friends with letters that are pronounced differently to English, Turkish is a perfectly phonetic language to read. In fact, one trap that a number of my friends have fallen into is that they impress themselves by reading accurately and enthusiastically, without actually studying the meaning of what they are reading. Beware of easy rides in languages!
Turkish is known as an agglutinative language. That means suffixes are added to the verb stem to provide grammatical meaning. This can lead to some very impressive long words, my personal favourite being Teşkilatlandırıldıklarından which means “Because of their having been organized”. Say what? Let’s break this down:
- Teşkilat – “Organization”
- Teşkilatlan – Verb equivalent of the noun
- Teşkilatlandır – “to cause organization”
- Teşkilatlandırıl – “to cause to be organized”
- Teşkilatlandırıldıkları – “their being caused to be organized”
- Teşkilatlandırıldıklarından – “Because of their being caused to be organized”
Simple! Well this is an extreme example, and in truth, words of this length are not regularly used in conversation. However, the principle is that once you have learned the finite number of suffixes, you can then conjugate any verb accurately.
Another example: the suffix for the first person singular – “um”
- Yapmak – “to do” / Yapıyorum – “I do”
- Yemek – “to eat” / Yiyorum – “I eat”
- Koşmak – “to run” / Koşuyorum – “I run”
Whilst it is true that the rules of vowel harmony may create minor changes regarding spelling and pronunciation, the form and conjugation of Turkish is extremely consistent. You will not encounter verb forms that have departed significantly from the simple infinitive like in French and Spanish.
What You’ll Need to Get Your Head Around to Learn Turkish
Turkish was the first foreign language I learned. Once I got my head around the following three concepts, the rest fell into place:
- Sentence structure: Subject – Object – Verb, i.e. “I the dog walked”
- Agglutination: adding suffixes to the end of words
- Vowel harmony: the vowels in suffixes are adjusted to the previous letters to provide a better flow to the language
Speakers of French will be delighted to know that for historic reasons, there are many French words in Turkish. These are used on an everyday basis, particularly in the west of Turkey. For religious reasons there are also many Arabic words in daily use such as dünya (“world”) and kitap (“book”).
My Favourite Resources for Learning Turkish
Here are some of the common language learning resources that can also be used for Turkish:
- Unsurprisingly, Benny has already devoted a page to Turkish language resources. Benny points to Colloquial Turkish as a good basic grammar guide. I like it, though I personally preferred the older Hugo Learn Turkish in 3 Months (something familiar about that title!).
- Pimsleur Turkish – if you have cash to splash this will teach the language to a good level without you reading a word. It will also introduce you to accents and a basic level of colloquial speech. My wife used this to start and now speaks better than me.
- Duolingo and Memrise – both of these have the usual, cleverly graded games to teach you vocabulary and grammar effortlessly. Both have the option to adjust the speed of teaching in case you need to recover the basics or are bored and want to move on to the more advanced stuff.
- Foreign Service Institute files – these are older but accurate and surprisingly colloquial materials, for free. You will need patience as it is an older style of teaching. The depth of information available, however, is quite impressive.
- Omniglot.com – for a history of the language and the basics. It doesn’t teach you the language. It is a language encyclopedia.
- italki has a number of native speaking Turkish tutors who can provide regular sessions for a reasonable fee. Try a few different tutors to choose the tutor that works best for you.
- BBC Turkish has a free archive of lessons that will help you get into the basics of Turkish conversation.
- Turkeytravelplanner.com is a veritable encyclopaedia of information about travelling Turkey as an independent or non-independent traveller. It also has significant language links and resources.