Why Turkish isn't as hard as you think!

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Why Turkish isn’t as hard as you think!


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

This post is about my summer spent in Istanbul some summary points of the Turkish language for you!

It won't be as detailed as my usual language summaries, since I ran into a few (non linguistic) problems during my time in Istanbul, but I learned enough to definitely get by in Turkish and have a great understanding of sentence structure and how the language works from my part-time studies.

Turkish in a nutshell

As always, my stance is to stand by the certainty that there is no such thing as a hard language, once you have the right learning approach and attitude.

And along the same lines as other language summaries, I'm titling this as “Why X is easy / not hard” (as I did in Hungarian, GermanCzech, French, and Spanish among other languages). Most of the time I have to do this when natives or learners are so religiously devoted to deluding themselves that it's the “hardest language in the world”. After hearing that for over a dozen languages, it starts to get quite tedious, as well as dreadfully illogical.

Luckily that's not so necessary with Turkish because locals are extremely encouraging when you try to speak some Turkish. They are a proud people, and usually only refer to the “gossip” case to prove that the language is hard (but it's as hard/easy as the subjunctive mood in Spanish for example), and will be thrilled to see you trying to speak it.

As well as this, many features of the language are very logical and consistent, even if they are of course different enough to make you feel the language is weird at first glance. In this post, for example, I explained how rephrasing of Turkish sentences is quite logical indeed.

Having said this, Turkish is not linguistically related to anything I had learned previously. This means there will indeed be a bit more work involved as you learn more vocabulary than other languages would have in common with yours, as well as get used to new grammatical structures. But a language is different for a reason – if everything was the same it wouldn't be a foreign language, would it? 😉

Because the Ottoman empire had such an extensive reach over the centuries, there was definitely some influences from Hungarian in the language (or vice versa) that I could recognise easily, as well as some features that may have been similar by coincidence (simply because it's the opposite way in many European languages), for example the use of postpositions (instead of prepositions) and the agglutinative nature of the language for word formation.

Even some Hungarian vocabulary is the same in Turkish – one that stood out for me was elma (alma in Hungarian / apple) – although, as shown below this is eclipsed by other borrowings. But generally Turkish is a very unique language, and is very interesting to learn because of this!

After browsing some other materials for a few days, the winner, hands down, in presenting Turkish in the clearest and best presented way was Colloquial Turkish: The complete course for beginners (Amazon US) (UK link).

It presents useful vocabulary in the best order, soon has you reading entire passages in Turkish, mixes vocabulary and grammar in a nice balanced way, and still manages to be interesting. As well as this, it focuses on Turkish spoken in the street as well as a beginners' book can do, rather than formal Turkish.

Answers and translations are not always given once it has been explained already, and this encourages the learner to use what (s)he has already learned to start thinking independently. I've recommended Colloquial before as a general learning tool, but it was my favourite learning material out of everything I used for Turkish.

Easy to read

The first thing to point out is that Turkish is a phonetically written language and uses the Latin script. Up until Atatürk made some revolutionary changes to the language in the last century it was written using Arabic script.

Each letter has one sound, and there are no confusing double consonants (like sh, ch, ght and so on), so each letter is pronounced separately. The pronunciation is as you would expect, except for the following:

  • c is pronounced like an English j (in jam). So sadece (only/just) is pronounced sah-deh-jeh
  • ç is pronounced like an English ch (in charge) – not s as in Latin based languages.
  • ğ is silent (elongates previous vowel sound)
  • ş is “sh”
  • ı – looks like an i without the dot. Confusingly when capitalised it is I (English i capitalised), but Turkish i capitalised is İ – so the city I was living in was actually İstanbul, not Istanbul). ı is pronounced as a schwa.
  • Umlauted ö/ü vowels work as in German.

After learning these differences, you can read Turkish directly, although natives may pronounce things slightly differently. I found that ‘e' sounds in words were pronounced as ‘a' by many people for example.

Vocabulary

I was very happy to see that there were indeed lots of familiar words that I recognised instantly. As with all languages, you tend to start off with a base of thousands of words before you even begin. Turkish uses many brand names, and technology terms from English, as most other languages would.

But from this I found it curious to see that Turkish had a huge amount of loan words from other languages, the most surprising (and helpful for me) being French. One source I found cited 5,000 words to have come from French. As a comparison, 6,500 come from Arabic, 1,400 come from Persian, about 600 are cited to come from Italian, 400 from Greek and 150 from Latin. In many cases there is a Turkish equivalent, that has become favoured for standard use, but in other cases the loan word is the one in standard use, and sometimes they use both (like şehir & kent for city, where şehir is the “non-Turkish” word).

A Turk I met who had visited Paris said that she had surprising ease in understanding many words she saw or heard without ever having studied the language, so French has definitely left its mark!

To give you an idea, here's a list of some French loanwords (click “show table” in the pop-up window), although it includes some that were replaced in standard use by Turkish equivalents (indicated where relevant).

Other ones I personally came across myself (not in that list) include kuaför, şans, büfe, lise (lycée), bulvar, asansör, aksesuar, kartuş, ekselans, sal… and I'm sure there are many more. Of course these are written phonetically in Turkish, but once you pronounce them they resemble the French versions very closely (apart from French nasal sounds). Even if you don't speak French, you will definitely recognise many of these words, as in many cases they were loaned to English too.

Interestingly enough, I even recognised a Spanish word, banyo in the language!

For the vast majority of vocabulary that does indeed look unique – you can learn it surprisingly quickly if you simply apply some image association techniques or download Turkish decks of essential vocabulary to a spaced repetition system. Word roots tend to be short, and this really helps to make them easier to learn.

Suffixes

For native Turkish words, I found that I could de-construct any large words very easily once I understood more of the structure of how the language worked. In this way vocabulary and grammar are quite intricately tied together, as you simply cannot look up most words in a dictionary directly, but if you recognise basic grammatical structures you'll instantly see what the root is.

One of the quickest ways to expand your vocabulary quicker is to learn some standard suffixes. Many of them consistently perform the same action such as turning nouns into adjectives (or vice versa), or verbs (-mek/-mak ending being infinitive, and conjugations being very regular), or to express a person with a profession like -ci/-cı (öğrenci = student from öğrenmek to learn).

Another one is the possessive (or simply ‘of') that is used for word combinations. You see it everywhere, and it makes more sense once you recognise it. For example, Istiklal is the name of a major street/avenue “cadde” I lived near, so the street is called Istiklal caddesi. The ‘si' suffix here just means ‘of', and Istiklal means independence. (i.e. they prefer to say Avenue of independence than Independence avenue). In the same way all the universities (üniversite) in the city have üniversitesi in their title.

They are otherwise natural parts of sentences that would be separate words in other languages, such as the possessive (-m for mine, -n for yours etc.) or the negation, etc.

One thing with all suffixes and words in general that does take some getting used to is vowel harmony. I came across this in Hungarian too, and it works very similarly in Turkish but is still something we don't have in other languages that you have to train yourself to apply correctly. Like many aspects of the language, it's actually very straightforward, but just requires time to get used to using the right choice (which is always obvious). When speaking you may make mistakes with this initially, but people will still understand you in most cases.

Creating words and sentences

One point that requires some sentence rephrasing in your head (as explained here) is that there is no verb “to be” or “to have” in Turkish. This may sound intimidating, but the rephrasings (simply saying it as you would in English without is/am/are etc. or “my car exists” instead of “I have a car”) are surprisingly easy to get used to.

Another “weird” aspect of this language is the word order – for example, verbs tend to go to the end of sentences. So you say Türkçe öğreniyorum for “I am learning Turkish”. I like to think that this is actually smarter than English's order as the most important word in the sentence is what you are learning followed by the fact that you are learning it. It's important to remind yourself of this rather than give in to becoming a crybaby that the language is different in the first place.

These kinds of differences are explained very well in any course, and will very soon become second nature to you. When you think about certain phrasings for a moment it makes perfect sense, and soon you won't have to think much about it. For example:

Nerelisin(iz) means Where are you from? Breaking it up you have Ne-re-li-sin(iz): -sin = you, -siniz = you (polite/plural), -li = from, -re = place suffix, ne= what (or simply nere= where). Since no “to be” is required, each individual component of the word contributes to the meaning.

In the same way, nereye means “Where to?” (nere + e [to] and ‘y' to connect vowels).

Grammar

After this, I found that Turkish grammar was incredibly logical. There are so few exceptions, and conjugation and word formation is very consistent and there are no complicated temporal additions to get used to; a nice past tense, two present tenses (one analogous to English's continuous, and another to the standard present, although grammar explanations will expand on that better), future etc.

One use of the present case, using the present -er ending for example, with the verb dönmek (to turn) is the very familiar third-person singular conjugation döner (it turns) that the Turks are famous for.

Yes it is different, but based on my experience with other languages there are way fewer annoying exceptions and pointless structures to deal with.

As well as this, there is no grammatical gender, no complex cases like in Slavic or Germanic languages (generally these are rendered as simply one suffix, not affecting other words), no definite or indefinite articles (a & the) to worry about, as well as no irregular plurals (in many cases you don't even have to add the plural suffix -ler/-lar if it's clear from the context, such as when used with a number).

The only case that could cause you some problems initially is the accusative. I could never quite figure this out when I was learning German in school, especially since German applies it (to nouns, not articles) so inconsistently, depending on the noun's irregularities. In Turkish you can be more confident of when to use it, since it's only a noun issue and very consistent/logical.

If the idea of accusative is confusing to you, I highly recommend you learn Esperanto for a few weeks – use of it in that language helped me understand the accusative better than any technical explanation, as it's almost the only different/”complicated” grammatical feature of the entire language.

Use of Esperanto's ĉu also helped me intuitively understand Turkish's question suffix/particle mi/mı/mü instantly. This term is added in for yes/no questions where we would simply indicate it with intonation in English. This is actually very easy to understand, but tricky to get used to, so learning it in an easier language first for just a few weeks can really help give you a boost.

For example, you have çalışıyorshe works, and çalışıyor mu? – does she work?

Mentality is everything


As always, you can reply to this with a list of reasons why Turkish could be hard, but when reframing things it's very easy to decide if you will be an optimist or a pessimist. The latter approach has no use whatsover to language learners. Demotivation never does. When you go into it with a “my language is half full” mentality, you'll always learn quicker thanks to this positivity!

You can accept that the language is different without having to give in to believing that it's difficult. Hopefully some of these tips from my short number of weeks in Turkey can help a little too 🙂

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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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