Is Turkish Hard to Learn? Why Turkish Is Easier Than You Think
Is Turkish hard to learn?
I’ll answer the question with this post about my summer spent in Istanbul. How? I’ll simply list some summary points of the Turkish language for you!
Table of contents
- Learning Turkish in a Nutshell
- Turkish Is Easy to Read
- You Already Know Some Turkish Vocabulary
- Turkish Suffixes Are Easy to Learn
- Creating Words and Sentences Is Straightfoward
- Mentality Is Everything
- Learn Turkish: My Favourite Resources
It won’t be as detailed as my usual language summaries, since I ran into a few (nonlinguistic) problems during my time in Istanbul.
Related Learning: How to Learn Turkish: An Introductory Guide for Beginners
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.
Very often, I hear learners complain that their target language is 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.
In fact, I had to disprove this myth for:
among other languages.
Here’s a good thing about Turkish: locals are extremely encouraging when you try to speak their language, even just a little. They are a proud people, and usually only refer to the “gossip” case to prove that the language is hard, 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 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. You will also have to 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 influence from Hungarian in the language (and vice versa) that I could recognise easily.
Some features may have been similar by coincidence (simply because it’s the opposite way in many European languages). For example, Turkish uses postpositions (instead of prepositions) and the agglutinative nature for word-formation.
Even some Hungarian vocabulary is the same in Turkish. One word 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!
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, it 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 schwa.
- Umlauted ö/ü vowels work as in German.
After learning these differences, you can read Turkish immediately, although natives may pronounce things slightly differently. I found that e sounds in words were pronounced as a by many people for example.
I was very happy to see that there were lots of familiar words 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 Turkish words 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.
Often, there is a Turkish equivalent that has become favoured for standard use. In other cases, the loan word is the one in standard use. Sometimes they use both (like şehir & kent for “city”, where şehir is the “non-Turkish” word).
Some French loan words I personally came across 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. 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!
Word roots tend to be short, and this really helps to make them easier to learn.
I found that I could de-construct any large Turkish words very easily once I understood more of the language’s structure. In this way, vocabulary and grammar are quite intricately tied together.
You cannot look up most words in a dictionary directly. However, 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.
Here’s some things suffixes do:
- Turning nouns into adjectives (or vice versa)
- Turning nouns into verbs (-mek/-mak ending being infinitive, and conjugations being very regular)
- Expressing a person with a profession like -ci/-cı (öğrenci = student from öğrenmek)
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.
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 similarly in Turkish. It’s something we don’t have in other languages, so you have to train yourself to apply correctly.
Like many aspects of the language, it’s actually straightforward. It 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.
One point that requires some sentence rephrasing in your head (as explained here) is that there is no verb for “to be” or “to have” in Turkish.
This may sound intimidating, but the rephrasings are surprisingly easy to get used to. You would say it as you would in English without is/am/are etc. or “my car exists” instead of “I have a car”.
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. This is then 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).
After this, I found that Turkish grammar was incredibly logical. There are few exceptions, conjugation and word formation are very consistent, and there are no complicated temporal additions to get used to.
There is a nice past tense, two present tenses, future, etc.
One use of the present case, using the present -er ending for example, with the verb dönmek (“to turn”) is the 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.
There is no grammatical gender, no complex cases like in Slavic or Germanic languages, and no definite or indefinite articles (“a” & “the”) to worry about.
There are also 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.
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 because it was not very consistent.
In Turkish, you can be more confident of when to use it, since it’s only a noun issue and very logical.
If the idea of accusative is confusing to you, I highly recommend you learn Esperanto for a few weeks. It 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. 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 çalışıyor (“she works”) and çalışıyor mu? (“does she work?”)
You could reply to this post with a list of reasons why Turkish could be hard. However, when reframing things it’s very easy to decide if you will be an optimist or a pessimist.
The latter approach has no use whatsoever to language learners. Demotivation never does.
When you go into learning 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 🙂
You can learn enough Turkish to have a conversation with a native in just 3 months.
That’s what the Fluent in 3 Months Challengers do with their target language!
Obviously, you need a good mindset, a strategy adapted to your learning needs, and appropriate learning resources.
I browsed some materials for a few days in Istanbul. The winner hands down was Colloquial Turkish: The Complete Course for Beginners. It explains Turkish in the clearest and best-presented way
Here are some of the things it does best:
- Presents useful vocabulary in the best order
- Has you reading entire passages in Turkish
- Mixes vocabulary and grammar in a nice balanced way
- Manages to still 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 already been explained, 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.
If you want to check out more options, here is the list of my favourite resources out there to learn Turkish.