We have been learning Turkish in Istanbul for a while now, and people have asked us how hard the Turkish language is to learn.
What comes to mind immediately is our different learning styles as a couple. We learn differently. At times, some parts of Turkish come easier to one of us than the other.
Apart from individual learning styles, there are some general aspects of Turkish that English speakers find easy and others that tend to be more difficult.
The Turkish alphabet
Before we arrived in Turkey, we checked out the Turkish alphabet and were pleasantly surprised. It is based on a version of the Latin alphabet, which is the same for English. So if you are an English speaker, you will notice that many letters look and sound exactly the same.
Many people falsely think that Turkish people use the Arabic script, but not so! The Turkish alphabet was created in 1928 and replaced an Arabic Script which was previously used in Turkiye.
Why did the Turkish alphabet replace the Arabic alphabet?
Founder of the Republic of Turkiye, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, issued a decree that outlawed the use of the Arabic script. He gave the people of Turkiye only 3 months to get used to their new alphabet before it became mandatory. Imagine that!
Are the Turkish and English alphabets the same?
This is the Turkish alphabet:
A B C Ç D E F G Ğ H I İ J K L M N O Ö P R S Ş T U Ü V Y Z
As you can see, there are a few differences between the Turkish and English alphabets. Here’s a quick breakdown.
The Turkish alphabet consists of 29 letters – 21 consonants and 8 vowels – that are phonetic so they sound exactly like how they’re written. Notable absences include Q (replaced with K), W (pronounced as V) and X which is substituted by KS.
There have also been some additions, with the extra letters Ç, Ğ I, İ Ö Ş Ü. There are also a few letters that are pronounced differently. For example the letter “c” in the Turkish alphabet is pronounced with a “j” sound.
Another difference is the letter “i” in Turkish is pronounced with the long “e” sound.
Turkish is phonetic
Each letter in the Turkish alphabet only makes one sound, so it is entirely phonetic. We find that makes reading straightforward. As soon as we learnt the basic differences between the Turkish and English alphabets, we were able to read and pronounce words correctly, even if we didn’t understand what we were reading yet.
This is different from English, where you have to learn multiple sounds for each letter and thousands of exceptions to the rule in spelling.
Reading Turkish is easy
Being able to read Turkish easily means that you can start listening to Turkish movies and TV shows right away. If you put Turkish subtitles on, then you’ll be able to both listen and read along at the same time. Listening to a word at the same time as seeing it written is really helpful.
Of course, you may not know exactly what is happening until you have some basic vocabulary under your belt. We find that watching children’s cartoons is a good way to start because they use basic vocabulary. We started watching Peppa Pig with our toddler in Turkish, and it didn’t take us long to start recognising words and following along.
Turkish word order
One difference you will notice rapidly if you are learning Turkish is that the word order is different to English.
In Turkish, you have SOV (Subject, Object, Verb) word order, and in English, you have SVO (Subject, Verb, Object). What does this look like?
Well, in English you’d say, “The boy throws the ball” but in Turkish, you’d say, “The boy the ball throws”. This sounds simple enough, but as an English speaker, it can be time consuming to switch the words around in your brain before you speak.
When communicating in Turkish, you have to wait till the end of the sentence to hear the verb, so in long sentences you may be waiting awhile to hear what action is being performed.
That said, Turkish people often assure us that even when we mess up the word order, our sentences still make sense. So don’t let the fear of correct word order stop you from speaking. Many people we have met in Turkiye recommend talking as much as possible without trying to perfect what we are saying.
Turkish is systematic
As with all languages, Turkish has its own spelling and grammatical rules. Thankfully the rules are systematic and consistent, with very few exceptions to the rule. This means that once you have learned the rules, you’re set.
Turkish words can be long
Turkish is an agglutinative language, meaning you add prefixes and suffixes to words to create meaning, rather than simply adding more words to a sentence.
Take the sentence: “I am running.”
In Turkish, you can say this in just one word: “Koşuyorum”.
In Turkish “koş” means run, “uyor” is the suffix for the present tense, and “um” is the suffix that indicates who is running.
And words can get much longer than that. The longest word in the Turkish dictionary has 70 letters. It means, “As though you are from those whom we may not be able to easily make into a maker of unsuccessful ones”. Here it is: “muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine”
The good news is that most words are not that long.
Unique prefixes and suffixes
In Turkish, prefixes and suffixes are added to both nouns and verbs. For nouns, you can add a suffix to indicate who the sentence is about (me, you, him, her, them, etc) and whether something is plural or singular.
For verbs, you can add a suffix to indicate whether something is happening now or in the past or the future, as well as who is doing the action.
Adding suffix upon suffix to words means they can get very long, and most people assume that this would be difficult. After all, long words are scary, right?
However, this doesn’t have to be the case. As long as you learn the root words, it’s pretty straightforward to add suffixes and prefixes. Remember, Turkish grammar is systematic and consistent. So when you learn the suffix to make a word plural, for example, that is always the suffix you use for plural.
Look at the word below.
elma = apple
elmalar = apples
The suffix lar makes the word plural, and you can add it to any word to make it plural.
The other suffixes are consistent like this too. Although it may take some getting used to, you’ll find it is achievable.
How many words do you have to learn before you can start speaking in Turkish?
All the suffixes and prefixes in Turkish mean you can make a lot of words if you know just a few root words. It is estimated that the Turkish language has a whopping 150,000 words. However, you only need to know 5% of the most common words to speak fluently, which works out to be around 5,000 words.
Why do people say Turkish is a beautiful language?
Our language tutor often reminds us that Turkish is a language for the ear. In other words, it matters how things sound. It’s so much the case that there is rule in Turkish grammar for this – vowel harmony.
This is an intriguing process where the vowel sounds in a word’s root and ending come together to achieve ‘harmony’—like musical notes blending into each other. It sounds difficult, but you simply match the vowel in the root word with the suffix ending.
As with other spelling rules in Turkish, vowel harmony has consistent rules, so you won’t be confused once you’ve learnt the rule.
For example, if the last vowel of a word is:
“a/ı” → use the “ı” ending.
“e/i” → use the “i” ending.
“o/u” → use the “u” ending.
“ö/ü” → use the “ü” ending.
We recommend you learn the rules for vowel harmony, but at the same time don’t stress over it. Vowel harmony generally comes naturally as you start picking up on what does and doesn’t ‘sound’ right.
As you can see, once you have learnt root words in Turkish, it’s straightforward to make sentences by adding the correct prefixes and suffixes.
Extra bonuses to the Turkish language
Turkish has no gender, meaning that you don’t have to indicate whether someone is male or female when you are speaking. The word for he/she/it is “O”, so there is no chance you will get mixed up when using this pronoun.
Another plus when learning Turkish is that you don’t need to use articles like ‘a’ or ‘an’, which makes sentences much less wordy.
There is also no word in Turkish for “to be”, which means you won’t find the following verbs: is, are, was, were, am, etc.
To give you an idea what a sentence looks like without the word “to be”, check this out. In English, the sentence, “It is a beautiful day” is translated as “Güzel bir gün”, literally “Beautiful one day”. You’ll notice the phrase “It is” is not needed.
We find these omissions in the Turkish language helpful. It lets us focus on the key ideas in a sentence without having to remember all the joining words.
How close is Turkish to English?
Turkish is not that close to English. English is a Germanic language, whereas Turkish is a Turkic language, meaning it is closer to members of the Turkic language family like Azerbaijani and Turkmen.
Some languages share common words, particularly those from the same language family. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Turkish and English. Most words will be new for you, so you will have to spend a lot of time learning new vocabulary.
How does Turkish compare with other languages?
The US Foreign Service Institute ranked languages based on how difficult they are to learn. If you speak English, then Turkish is ranked as a number II category of language, in other words, they estimate it will take 44 weeks or 1100 hours to learn Turkish to a fluent level.
Although Turkish is not ranked as an easy language for English speakers to learn, it is certainly not one of the hardest.
There are many languages that beat Turkish in terms of difficulty to learn. For example, Mandarin is said to be one of the hardest because of its writing system with thousands of characters. Vietnamese and Thai are both tonal languages, and Japanese has not just one, but three scripts you need to learn. Hindi and Arabic also have unique alphabets that take some getting used to.
Turkish people are known for their hospitality and friendliness. But what does this have to do with learning Turkish? It means locals tend to encourage new speakers and are often impressed when people make an effort to learn Turkish.
We find that when we tell café and restaurant owners that we are learning Turkish, they go out of their way to help us practise and are happy to repeat words for us. They have even offered to teach us vocabulary from the menu. You won’t find this level of helpfulness and encouragement for new speakers in just any country.
Of course, you can learn Turkish from anywhere in the world with the language apps and online tutors that are available today, but there is something special about learning Turkish in Turkiye. If you let people know you want to practise, then you’ll likely have people offering to help.
In summary, aim to focus on learning new vocabulary every day, listen to content like Turkish movies and TV shows, and practise with everyone and anyone who will speak to you (this shouldn’t be too hard in Turkey). And before too long you will learn to speak this melodic language that almost 80 million people speak around the world as their mother tongue.
I’m a teacher and writer living abroad. I love languages, drinking lots of çay (tea) with friends, experiencing different cultures and going on adventures with my family.