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5 Tips To Learn Turkish (From A Turkish Linguist)

Do you want to learn Turkish, but don’t know where to start? One of our Turkish linguists picks her top tips to learn Turkish, so you can be speaking in no time.
Tips to learn Turkish

Compared to other languages you may have studied in school, Turkish can seem like a real challenge. It’s not an Indo-European language, but a Turkic language, and because of this it’s not at all like English. But if you get familiar with some of the rules, you’ll quickly recognize the logic and regularity of the language. There are almost no exceptions, and you’ll find that these rules are easier to learn than you think. The following tips to learn Turkish will make it easy for you to get started!

Tip 1: One Letter = One Sound 

Turkish has a special characteristic that makes reading and writing particularly easy once you’ve learned the alphabet: Every letter corresponds to exactly one sound — and vice-versa. So, for example, the Turkish S is always voiceless (like in course), and the Turkish Z is always voiced (like in zebra). And one sound can only correspond to one letter. For example, in English [sh] is one sound and two letters, but this corresponds to the single letter [ş] in Turkish. Meanwhile, the English [x] is actually made up of two sounds, [k] + [s], so it’s represented by two letters in Turkish, like in the word taksi (taxi).

Another advantage of Turkish is that it uses the Latin alphabet, due to the language reforms carried out by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1928. So you don’t have to learn a completely new alphabet — just a few new letters! Oh, and if you see a similarity between Turkish and German, there’s a reason for it. When Atatürk carried out the reforms to replace the Arabic alphabet with the Latin alphabet, he oriented it toward German. Although there are [ü]-sounds in other languages, he took the u-Umlaut as a letter from the German alphabet specifically. So what could these Turkish words mean? Mayonez, şoför, kokteyl, müzik, mikser. 

Tip 2: No Articles And No Genders 

We can hear your sighs of relief already: “The” (definite articles) doesn’t exist in Turkish, and neither do “a” or “an” (indefinite articles). You also don’t have to spend any time learning arbitrary genders for every word (as is the case in most European languages), because they don’t exist in Turkish. There isn’t even a difference between he, she and it in Turkish! The pronoun o is used for all three — and it can even be left out. In Turkish, the person is indicated by the verb ending, and personal pronouns are only necessary if you want to emphasize them, for example: Top oynuyor (He’s playing ball) versus O top oynuyor (He’s playing ball). Overusing personal pronouns can quickly sound unnatural.

No articles, no genders, no pronouns … oh, and no plural forms when you use a number! In the end, it makes sense that five apples are more than one. Therefore the noun remains in the singular form, otherwise it would be redundant in Turkish. For example: bir elma (one apple) and beş elma (five apples). Of all the tips to learn Turkish, this one is easily the most popular.

Tip 3: Turkish Is Inverted (For Word Order)

Most Indo-European languages, including English, have the sentence word order subject–verb–object (SVO). For example: Ali (subject) is playing (verb) ball (object). Word order in Turkish, however, is subject–object–verb (SOV), so the same sentence would look like “Ali ball is playing” (Ali top oynuyor, in Turkish). This means practically that the verb comes at the end of the sentence. To understand a text a bit quicker, just look for the verb and decipher a sentence starting at the end.

Speaking of “inverted,” all numbers in Turkish are spoken from left to right and are very regular. This is pretty close to English, except with the teens. Where we want to say fifteen, it would be literally translated as “ten-five.” The number 10, for example, is on. You just put the numbers 1 to 9 after it and you already have all the numbers up to 19. As soon as you’ve learned the words for “hundred” (yüz), “thousand” (bin) and so on, you can say any number. For example: 2315 is iki (two) bin (thousand) üç (three) yüz (hundred) on (ten) beş (five).

Tip 4: Turkish Is A ‘Sticky’ Language

Turkish is an “agglutinating” language, which basically means that words stick to each other. Endings are added to words to indicate plural, past tense, person or case, negation and much more — but the main word doesn’t change.

Here’s an example: Evdeyiz. What does this word mean? It’s not just a word, but rather a whole sentence. Ev means “house,” and added to that is the first ending –de. This ending is for the locative case, which sounds more complicated than it is. Because there are no prepositions in Turkish (on, by, inetc.), the same information is communicated in cases. The locative case indicates location, so you always use the ending –de when you want to say where something is. The last ending –yiz is for the first person plural. So the sentence Ev-de-yiz means “We’re at home.” As we mentioned before, the personal pronoun is only used for emphasis, which is why there’s no “we” (biz) here. And the verb “to be” is included in the ending for first person plural.

Even if it seems unusual at first, you’ll notice how quickly you get a feel for it. As soon as you know the rules and the meanings of the different endings, sentences like Arkadaş-lar-ımız-da-yız (Friend-s-our-at-we-are = “We’re at our friends’ place”) won’t seem intimidating at all.

Tip 5: Vowel Harmony Is Important

To make sure that words sound nice even after adding so many endings, Turkish follows rules of vowel harmony, which runs through all of its grammar. It helps keep the pronunciation easy because Turkish words either have front vowels (those spoken toward the front of the mouth: [e], [i], [ö], [ü]) or back vowels (the ones spoken toward the back of the mouth: [a], [ı], [o], [u]). Because vowels in a word are always close to each other, vowel harmony makes the pronunciation sound more natural. These endings depend on the vowels in the main word.

There are two rules: minor vowel harmony and major vowel harmony. Endings that follow the minor vowel harmony have two forms, such as the locative ending. It’s –de, when the last vowel in the main word is a front vowel, like in Berlin’de(in Berlin), or -da, when the last vowel in the main word is a back vowel, like in İstanbul’da (in Istanbul). As a side note, the “i without a dot,” [ı], is an extra vowel in Turkish that’s spoken far in the back of the mouth. To keep it from being confused with a big [i], the “i with a dot” always keeps the dot when it’s capitalized: İ.

With major vowel harmony, endings have four different forms. Depending on what vowel precedes them, you either use [ı], [i], [u] or [ü]. That’s why you often see words with a series of the same vowel. Let’s take üzgün (sad) as an example. Possible endings for this word would be personal endings and the question particle, whose vowels have to match the vowel in the main word. That’s how you get sentences like Üzgünsünüz (You’re sad) or as a question Üzgün müsünüz? (Are you sad?). The good news is that, as a learner, you’ll internalize the rules of vowel harmony very quickly. Trust your feelings and you’ll see how soon you use them intuitively, without even thinking about the rules! 

Are you ready to speak Turkish with confidence?

Fidi, who was born and raised near Hamburg, Germany, loves ships, the sea and the harbor - but hates bad weather! That's why they studied International Communication and Translation in Spain and worked as a translator in Turkey - with the Mediterranean always in sight. After completing her studies in Second Language Acquisition in Hamburg, she joined Babbel in Berlin.

Fidi, who was born and raised near Hamburg, Germany, loves ships, the sea and the harbor - but hates bad weather! That's why they studied International Communication and Translation in Spain and worked as a translator in Turkey - with the Mediterranean always in sight. After completing her studies in Second Language Acquisition in Hamburg, she joined Babbel in Berlin.

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