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How to Tackle a Foreign Language - Using the Example of Turkish

By Finn Orfano

For a native English speaker, the Turkish language first seems like an impassable mountain. It looks strange, it sounds strange and the grammar doesn't seem to follow any known rules. Follow a simple plan and after only a few weeks, you'll be able to order breakfast and ask directions.

Origins of Turkish Language

Turkish, which is spoken by over 60 Million people, can be traced back for nearly 1200 years to Central Asia. The adoption of Islam in 950 greatly influenced the language, because many Persian and Arabic loanwords were included. This developed into "Ottoman Turkish", the official language written and spoken during the Ottoman Empire. The script used was Arabic.

Modern day Turkish is a young language. Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, decreed the abandonment of the Arabic script in favor of a more phonetic version of the Latin alphabet. Since then, many intellectual language movements have begun, to eliminate purely Arabic words in favor of the original Turkish expressions.

Script and Vowels

It's no longer necessary to read Arabic to be able to read Turkish. There are, however, still some signs which are alien to the English language. Turkish has 8 vowels, a,o,u,i and in addition, ä,ö,ü and an "ı" without a dot. The pronunciation of ä,ö.ü is exactly like the German "Umlaute" and ı without a dot is a short, flat "e". There is a cedille under the "ç" which is then pronounced "dj" like in "John" and under the "ş" which is pronounced "sch" like "shoe". Otherwise, the writing is quite phonetic, so that you will be able to read and pronounce Turkish quite easily.

Basic strategy

As with every other language, decide first why and to which extent you wish to learn it. Do you want to be able to read literature or are you happy to just get by in a more or less intelligent manner whilst on holiday? Although Turkish is spoken by millions of people, it's not a wide spread language, so unless you want to become a scholar, Turkish for holiday purposes and simple conversations will be enough.

Turkish has many affixes and suffixes which makes for sometimes very long words. Here is an often quoted example: turklestirmedigimizlerdensinizdir, meaning: perhaps you are one of those whom we were not able to Turkify.

Obviously, this is a rather humorous way to illustrate the long Turkish words and nobody will ever use this exact phrase, but you get the picture!

Given the rather simple structure of grammar, here is the next step:

Learn Nouns and Verbs

It's a good idea to learn the word: "istiyorum" (pronounced as written), which means: I want. Then learn the infinitive of several verbs which express what it is you want. For instance: to buy = almak, to eat= yemek, to go= gitmek to see= görmek, etc. Then learn the nouns for everyday necessities, like: bread=ekmek, milk=süt, egg=yumurta, orange=portakal etc.. String them together in the correct way with "istiyorum" at the end and in a few days you will be able to express your wishes in a basic way everybody will understand and appreciate.

Grasp the basic rules of grammar first. Contrary to English, Turkish follows the order: subject, object, verb. It's not: I want to buy a loaf of bread, but: a loaf of bread to buy (I) want.

In Turkish: bir tane ekmek almak istiyorum.

Learning Material

To help you learn the basic verbs and nouns, it's best to buy a pocket language course which comes with phonetic pronunciation help and plenty of pictures. The booklet is easy to carry around with you and you can show the pictures if you are stuck shopping in the market or need to find a doctor or hospital in a hurry. Experience has shown that big, colorful pictures also make remembering the words much easier. It's the same principle as with children's picture books.

Here are three examples, all available through

1. Teach Yourself Turkish by Asuman C. Pollard $18.43

2. Turkish Phrasebook by Arzu Kurklu (Lonely Planet Phrasebook) $ 8.99

3. Just Enough Turkish by Passport Books $ 5.95

For a more in depth study of the Turkish language, including correct grammar, there is a brilliant online course at from the Distance Turkish Learning Center, sponsored by the University of Ankara. Check the site out for prices and duration.

And don't forget to learn words of greeting and thank you first.

Merhaba = hallo, used all day

kolay gelsin = (take it easy) for hallo and good bye

saol = thanks (informal)