Learning Turkish places you with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia.
Written using a Roman script, yet with the majority of loan words from Arabic and Persian, Turkish is a fascinating mesh which can take a while for any learner to get one’s head around. Language lovers will certainly find themselves immersed in the many idiosyncrasies of Turkish.
With that introduction in mind, a sizeable number of you will be wondering, how hard is Turkish to learn?
The simple answer is that it is pretty hard but well worth the time you would invest.
- Vocabulary – Turkish use suffixes to build vocabulary from a limited core vocabulary. To the logically minded amongst us, this can help you to learn new words fast. There are a number of loans words from Arabic, Persian, French and English, so if you have any familiarity with these languages then you certainly have a head start.
- Grammar – The major grammatical problem areas with Turkish are the cases with associated suffixes, the vowel harmony rules and laborious verb formation. In truth, it isn’t that they are complex topics, rather its that they are going to take a significant amount of grunt memorisation to learn all of the rules and apply them correctly.
- Speaking/Listening – The language is not tonal and the use of stress is straight forward. Many of the sounds are not too difficult for native English speakers and they should be familiar for most.
- Writing/Reading – The writing system uses a Roman script which is read left to right. There are 29 letters in the alphabet and the spelling is phonetic. Therefore you should be able to sound out most words with minimal study of the unfamiliar letters of which there are 5.
If that has somehow piqued your interest then please continue to read the detailed sections below.
So, how hard is Turkish to learn really?
Turkish vocabulary is formed through either agglutination, which means to string together different language units, or compounding in which existing nouns, verbs and adjectives are linked together. Using the example of the base noun for eye which is göz we can see agglutination at work. In Turkish the additional language units are suffixed to the end of the word.
- Glasses – gözlük – göz + -lük – eye + container
- Optician – gözlükçü – göz + -lük + -çü – eye + container + trade
- To observe – gözlemek – göz + -le + -mek
In the case of compounding, you take words that on their own are already words and we put them together to form new words.
- Skyscraper – gökdelen – gök + del- + suffix – sky + to pierce + suffix
- Monday – pazartesi – pazar + ertesi – sunday + after
- Thumb – başparmak – baş + parmak – prime + finger
This basically means that in Turkish there is a small set of basic vocabulary with which we can build an extensive set of new words.
In terms of loan words, Turkish has been influenced by a few key languages, some of which you may already be familiar with. These include Arabic, French, Persian, Italian, English, and Greek. In fact, around 14% of the 104,000 words in Turkish are of foreign origin. Of the foreign loans words, Arabic and Persian make up the sizeable majority and English comes in with around 538. Quick caveat, the words below may not be originally from English and so are technically not English loan words but they are similar to the English and therefore useful for anyone who is a native English speaker.
Basic English Loan Words
- Whiskey – viski
- Sandwich – sandwich
- Ferryboat – feribot
- Alphabet – alfabetik
- Capitalist – kapitalist
- Internet – internet
- Thermostat – termostat
In order to understand the grammar of a language it is necessary to deconstruct the basic sentences to observe how the language functions.
- The apple is red — elma kırmızı — simple translation with the adjective after the noun, but it can also come after
- It is John’s apple — O John’un elması — suffix particles for possesives
- I give John the apple — (Ben) John’a elmayı veririm — a suffix is for dative case, yi suffix is for accusative (direct object), ir suffix is for present simple and im suffix is for I subject
- We give him the apple — (Biz) Ona elmayı veririz — iz suffix particle is for we subject
- He gives it to John — (O) onu John’a verir — direct object and indirect object order is not fixed
- He doesn’t give it to John — (O) onu John’a vermez — the me suffix particle after the verb root denotes negative
- She gives it to him — (O) onu ona verir
- I gave John the apple — (Ben) John’a elmayı verdim — di suffix particle denotes past simple
- I must give it to him — (Ben) onu ona vermeliyim – meli suffix particle to denotes must
- I want to give it to her — (Ben) onu ona vermek isterim — sometimes auxiliaries form separate words, other times they come together in one word.
The language deconstruction method is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good base for understanding Turkish. It operates under the 80:20 Pareto principle, in that 80% of your languages needs are covered by 20% of the functional language.
- Word Order – Turkish grammar has a subject-object-verb word order however this isn’t as fixed as in some other languages. If the speaker wishes to emphasise different parts of the sentence, the order can change.
- Suffixes – The use of suffixes is one of the more difficult parts of Turkish. The suffixes are subject to various rules and can be used to denote a host of grammatical relationships. They are placed at the end of word root and add additional meaning.
- Vowel Harmony – In Turkish there are two types of vowels, hard and soft. When forming a word, if the last vowel of the base word is hard then any suffixes that follow have to be a hard vowels. This rule is the same if the last vowel is soft. This means that you have to be very careful when adding suffixes and you need to learn many different combinations for whichever grammatical relationship you are attempting to include.
- Cases – In Turkish there are 6 cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, locative and ablative). Cases in essence tell you whether a noun in a sentence is the subject, object, possession, indirect object, position or origin. The specific case is denoted by a suffix, but bare in mind that the suffix is subject to the rules of vowel harmony. It all get very complicated fast and there is a lot of memorisation of different suffixes for different circumstances.
- Articles – In Turkish a or an are the same as the word for one. The is no word for the the article, context is key.
- Pronouns – There are many pronouns because there are many cases. So take your usual (I, you, he/she/it, we, you pl., they) and then times it by the 6 cases. That being said, pronouns are not always necessary as the verb suffix ending can make it clear who is being referred to. You in Turkish is, as is often the case, dependent on who you are addressing.
- Nouns – There are no genders in Turkish and plurals are formed with either -ler or -lar conditional on vowel harmony rules.
- Adjectives – the adjective usually but not always comes before the noun and is not dependent on case.
- Verbs – Verbs change depending on subject, tense, mood and aspect. This means there are many suffix endings to denote each aspect. As mentioned above, the vowel harmony rules mean that the potential suffix is complicated further. This is probably one of the more complicated elements of Turkish and involves a lot of memorisation and, of course, time.
- Auxiliary verbs – They can sometimes be linked with the main verb to form one word and other times they are separate.
- Be – Be is formed by adding a suffix to either the necessary adjective or noun. The suffix varies by vowel harmony rules.
- Have – To use have in a sentence you have to attach a possessive suffix to the noun and use the verb var at the end of the sentence.
- Negatives – Negatives are expressed with a suffix of me or ma after the verb.
- Questions – To form a question you need to replace the subject suffix of the verb with a specific particle derived from the vowel harmony rules.
- Direct and Indirect Objects – The order isn’t important and the suffix particle is used to show which is which.
Turkish has 40 phonemes made up of 24 consonant sounds and 16 vowel sounds. Turkish words are usually stressed on the last syllable and the language isn’t tonal.
- Consonants – m, j, n, l, s, b, ɡ, h, d, f, ʔ, ʃ, z, d̠ʒ, v, ɾ, kʰ, pʰ, ʒ, tʰ, ɟ, t̠ʃʰ, ʎ, cʰ
- Vowels – i, u, a, ɛ, iː, aː, uː, ɛː, o̞, ɯ, y, œ, yː, o̞ː, ɯː, œː
Turkish was originally written in a Uyghur script. In the 15th century this was replaced by an Arabic script and then in 1928 it was again changed to a Roman alphabet.
My hovercraft is full of eels – hoverkraftım yılan balığı dolu
- The script is written from left to right.
- There are 29 letters, 21 consonants b, c, ç, d, f, g, ğ, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, ş, t, v, y, z, and 8 vowels a, e, ı, i, o, ö, u, ü.
Why Learn Turkish?
In brief, there are a three key reasons to learn Turkish.
- An understanding of Turkish gives you more access to the citizens of Turkey and more clout in the business community. It will also make travel to less trodden parts of the country easier.
- In learning Turkish, you are setting up a solid foundation for later study of other related languages like Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Uzbek, and Uighur. Languages with a clear and significant importance in countries like China and the former Soviet Union.
- The country itself is an open air museum housing historical sights from Greek, Roman, Persian and Ottoman history and learning Turkish means you can discover more than you otherwise would without the language.
But, lets dive into this question further.
Turkish is an Turkic language. It is the official language of Turkey and Cyprus. It is also spoken in Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Greece. It is spoken by 76 million people as a 1st language and 12 million as a 2nd language. It is regulated by the Turkish Language Association in Turkey.
Travel, Culture, History and Economy
Turkey is a large country in the Mediterranean, situated in the region of West Eurasia. It shares a border with Bulgaria and Greece to the west, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to the northeast, Syria, Iraq, and Iran to the southeast and the Black Sea to the north, the Aegean Sea to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the southwest. The eastern region of Turkey is mountainous and home to three very important rivers, the Euphrates, Tigris and Aras. The central region is a high plateau and the western region is home to some of the more popular beaches and of course the famous city of Istanbul.
Turkey is undoubtedly a complex mix of east and west. It is famed for its awe-inspiring architecture in the form of the Blue Mosque or Hague Sofia. Along with the scrumptious local food with notable dishes including kebabs and baklava. There is also some amazing local art along with a sound literary history. In terms of culture, you could spend years exploring Turkey.
Turkey has hosted some of the world’s oldest major civilisations including the Hittite, Assyrian, Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and Ottoman empires. In the modern era, since the founding of the Republic in 1928, Turkey has had an interesting time of it. Under the leadership initially of Mustafa Kemal the country was a one party state which put into motion a great deal of important reforms. A little later in the 1950s Turkey because a multi party democracy. The country since then has overcome military coups and separatist movements but remains somewhat democratically intact and hopefully will do for the foreseeable future.
The economy of Turkey is a interesting mix of modern industry and commerce along with a traditional agriculture sector which is interestingly the world’s largest producer of hazelnuts, cherries, figs, apricots, and pomegranates. It has a strong and growing private sector, nevertheless the government still has a significant role to play in industry, transport, banking, and communications.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has put together a relative comparison of world languages including Turkish.
They rate Turkish as a category 4 language along with languages like Bulgarian, Kymer and Ukrainian. They believe it would take 44 weeks (1100 hours) to achieve a L3 proficiency in speaking and reading.
In attempting to learn anything it is best to first deconstruct the problem and then break down the learning task into manageable chunks. It is with this in mind that I recommend the following resources to help you in learning Turkish.
- Fluent Forever or Anki – The Fluent Forever method details exactly how to use spaced repetition to quickly build functional vocabulary and learn common grammar rules.
- italki.com – Italki gives you access to very cheap video chat lesson with teachers from around the world, dive straight in.
- lang-8.com – Lang 8 allows you to input writing and have it corrected for free in a matter of hours. This community is very helpful and is a great way to practice online.