Let’s assume that you know zero Turkish. Firstly, that’s probably not true – if you’ve ever eaten yogurt, if you’ve tried baklava or worn a balaclava, if you’ve visited a kiosk or eaten pastrami, if you’ve read about shamans or stayed in a yurt, then you already known some Turkish words.
But this is just the beginning. The Turkish spoken in Turkey is part of a family of Turkic languages that are spoken in China, Central Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. The Turkic languages have around 150 million speakers worldwide, and Turkish makes up about 75 million of those. Despite its historic and contemporary importance, Turkish is not a popular second language in many parts of the world – which means that learning Turkish puts you in a special position. The US government identifies Turkish as one of its 13 critical need languages in higher education, supporting Turkish language studies with its Critical Language Scholarship Program.
One of the first barriers to learning Turkish is its independence from other language families – Turkish is not an Indo-European language (like English) or a Semitic language (like Arabic). In fact, the Turkic languages are more closely related to Japanese. But due to the Turks’ interaction with other cultures, Turkish also has a rich vocabulary of Arabic, Persian, and French words.
One of Turkish’s major differences from most European languages is agglutination. This means that rather than indicating tenses or persons with separate words, these grammatical units are attached to the end of the verb. Let’s look at an example below.
İçmek = to drink
İçer = he drinks
İçecek = he will drink
İçecekti = he was going to drink
İçebilmişçesine = as if being able to drink
İçilebilmişçesineyken = while as if being able to be drunk
While this might look complicated, all you have to do is learn the endings and add them to the verb. Turkish has very few irregular verbs, and the grammar tends to be efficient and logical.
A second major difference is vowel harmony. This means that the vowels in some endings change depending on the previous vowels. There is no difference in meaning – vowel harmony developed to make pronunciation easier.
Take the word “güzel” – which means “pretty”.
Güzelsin = you are pretty.
Take the word “yakışıklı” – which means “handsome”.
Yakışıklısın = you are handsome.
The endings of güzelsin and yakışıklısın have the same meaning, but the last vowel changes to harmonize with the previous vowels. If these glimpses of Turkish have whet your appetite, there are many paths to learn in Istanbul, overseas, or online.
One of the best beginners’ books is Teach Yourself Turkish by Asuman Çelen Pollard and David Pollard. Starting from the very basics, the book teaches grammar and vocabulary together by teaching you to speak in real-life situations. The book Take Away Turkish by Şule Hizal Mixon and Arzu Sekirden Döven uses a similar approach, aided by plenty of pictures. A more academic text is Geoffrey Lewis’s Turkish Grammar, which is suitable for advanced learners.
Schools and tutors
One of the oldest Turkish language schools is TÖMER, which is coordinated by Ankara University. The school’s Istanbul branches are in Taksim and Kadıköy. TÖMER has classes starting from absolute beginner to advanced, as well as offering recognized diplomas that are accepted by Turkish universities. İstiklal Caddesi No. 26, Taksim; T: (0212) 249 16 48; www.tomer.ankara.edu.tr
Another reputable institution is DİLMER, whose center is close to Taksim. İnönü Caddesi, Prof. Tarik Zafer Tunaya Sokak No. 16, Gümüşsuyu; T: (9212) 292 96 96; www.dilmer.com
The school Concept Languages in Etiler offers smaller classes with a more tailored approach. Its list of clients includes the British Consulate-General and various international companies. Seher Yıldız Sokak No. 23/B, Etiler; T: (0212) 351 18 40; www.conceptlanguages.com
If you want the total flexibility of private tuition, many Istanbul-based teachers advertise on Craigslist.
The blog Tuned-in Turkish offers a fun and engaging way to learn – through popular Turkish songs. You can search by grammar point or by level, and you’ll learn something about Turkish culture at the same time. www.tuned-in-turkish.com
The Turkish Suffix Dictionary is exactly what it claims to be. If you’re having trouble recognizing a suffix, this site offers a simple explanation for each one. www.dnathan.com/language/turkish/tsd/
Turkish Basics covers the major grammar topics you’ll need to get started and some basic vocabulary. There is no opportunity to test yourself here, so the site is better as a quick reference. www.turkishbasics.com
Once you have some basic speaking skills, the best way to practice Turkish is by talking with Turks. If you live in Istanbul, that is not a difficult task – but it does require some persistence. It can be disheartening when Turks hear your foreign accent and reply in English. The only solution is to ignore it and keep talking in Turkish, or to ask your friends to speak Turkish with you.
Because the articles are short and use quite simple vocabulary, Turkish newspapers are a good way to start reading. When your language skills have advanced further, it is not a huge leap to read Turkish novels or short stories – modern Turkish fiction tends to use everyday language.
For listening practice, there is an endless amount of Turkish soap operas, which are very popular in the country. Also try watching foreign series with Turkish subtitles or listening to Turkish songs while reading the lyrics.