Most of our language-learning community is learning one of the major world languages: French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Arabic, and with good reason: They’re challenging, fun, interesting, and open a world of places, people, and foods to discover.
But I’ve found it surprisingly rewarding to learn Turkish — basic Turkish, anyway. Over the last few months I’ve built a word and phrase vocabulary of about 500 words — enough just to order food and get by in local life. And it has been transformative for our travel experience, more so than getting much further in other languages.
In this time, I’ve learned a lot about what makes Turkish interesting and unique when contrasted with other languages that are more popular targets for language learners. So I wanted to share this list of why I think Turkish is worth learning — at least the basics — if you plan on spending any time at all in Türkiye.
You might also like these other posts on Turkish vocabulary and grammar.
Why Learn Turkish — An Overview
Learning Turkish is an interesting and rewarding challenge. It’s definitely a language that’s “off the beaten track” for language learners. But that’s just one reason it’s interesting.
Turkish has ancient roots in a world that few language learners are very familiar with. But despite its old roots, it has a modern structure and many other elements that make it easier to approach than you might think.
No, Turkish isn’t “easy”. It has quite a few elements that make learning Turkish hard — the vocabulary is probably unfamiliar for you (unless you speak Kazakh or Uzbek…), the grammar has some unusual bits, and “agglutination” may do your head in at first.
But aside from that, the “ROI” of learning Turkish is quite high.
Outside the touristy areas of central Istanbul and common destinations, you’d be surprised how quickly the English level drops. You just have to cross the river into Kadıköy, for example, and you’ll suddenly be greeted with situations where people won’t know much beyond nouns for things they’re selling.
If you learn Turkish, you get access to a family of Turkic dialects. Suddenly, other languages from Central Asia will seem far less foreign. And because you’ll probably be exposed in part to those cultures in Türkiye, it makes travel to those places seem much more enticing.
In a region where most tourists get by through gesticulation and translator apps, a bit of Turkish goes a long way!
Ancient Yet Modern: Time-Travel with Words
Learning Turkish is a little like time travelling to a different part of the ancient world.
While Turkish is used in today’s bustling bazaars and modern Turkish dramas, many of its words trace back to ancient times. You get this sense when you learn many everyday words in Turkish — they don’t sound like words from any other language.
I first experienced this when I started learning the counting system. After having learned a few Asian, European, and Middle Eastern languages, I’m used to finding a few numbers in common.
But every number (other than “zero”, which I rarely say) in Turkish is unfamiliar. They all have roots in old Turkic!
A few other examples of everyday words with old Turkish origins are ev (“house”), su, (“water”), yıldız (“star”), göz (“eye”), and dağ (“mountain”).
Yes, other languages are connected to old ones — e.g. English is connected to Latin, Greek, and German, as well as to Old English. But European, East Asian, and Middle Eastern languages share almost nothing with Turkic ones. So it’s fun to learn Turkish and be connected to a new part of ancient history.
Unique Harmony Features
One intellectual reason to learn Turkish is to get exposure to some of its interesting elements. A relatively unique feature of Turkish is the combination of vowel harmony and consonant harmony.
In a nutshell, the Turkish “harmony” rules dictate what vowel comes after a preceding one. For example, the particle meaning “with” has various forms: li, lı, lu, and lü. Which one you pick depends on the last vowel of the word before it.
You might be vaguely familiar with this concept if you know of gender agreement in European languages, like Spanish or Italian, e.g. “la Casa Bianca” (“the White House”) or “il cibo è buono” (“the food is good”). But Turkish vowel harmony is different as it can’t be neatly bundled up into grammatical gender (which Turkish doesn’t have).
Applying vowel harmony to the “with” particle, “with chicken” depends on the last vowel of “chicken”, tavuk, and is tavuklu. But “with sugar”, relates to the last vowel of “sugar”, şeker, and is şekerli.
Vowel harmony is an example of how Turkish can appear to have a lot of rules. But they’re easy to get used to and almost entirely consistent — exceptions are very rare.
See more about Turkish vowel harmony here.
Very Organised Grammar
One of the joys of Turkish is the grammar system. It’s complex, but predictable. Turkish in its Latin alphabet form is relatively new, around a century old.
For this reason, Turkish has been designed to have an extremely consistent grammar. Move over, German, with your seemingly endless exceptions!
Predictability dominates Turkish grammar, making it a delight to learn. Each rule builds upon another, offering clarity.
Yes, Turkish grammar might seem hard if you focus on the unusual features, like vowel harmony, consonant harmony, and agglutination.
But don’t forget all the things Turkish grammar lacks, too: There’s no grammatical gender, there are no noun classes (like in Swahili), and plural forms are very easy.
See more about interesting features of Turkish grammar here.
Turkish pronunciation is, compared to most languages, very easy (for English speakers).
The consonants by and large all exist in English, other than a slightly trilled “r” — and it’s far easier for your average English speaker than the “r” in Spanish or French, two popular languages to learn.
A handful of unique vowels in Turkish may seem familiar to French or German speakers. Mastering these vowels can be both intriguing and rewarding.
|Vowel rue in French, über in German|
|Vowel like in peur in French, schön in German|
|Consonant like English “ch” in “chair”|
|Consonant like English “sh”|
|Neutral sound, like the way a New Zealander says “i” in “big” or the way Americans say “good”. Written “Ə” in the IPA, known as a “schwa”.|
Maybe the most unusual vowel you’ll find when learning Turkish is “ı”, which has a neutral sound not common in English. But it’s not hard to master.
Turkic Family Pass
By learning Turkish, you pave the way to understand other Turkic languages, such as Uzbek and Kazakh.
Those languages weren’t really on my radar before. But I was pleased to see just how many basic words Turkish has in common with other Turkic languages (like numbers, which go a long way!)
See the below table of Turkish words that are quite different to English words, but which have very similar corresponding words in Uzbek and Kazakh.
Not all of these are originally from Turkic languages, but they’re shared among the three.
|Bir, iki, üç, on, yüz||One, two, three, ten||Bir, ikki, uch, o’n, yuz||Бір, екі, үш, он, жүз (Bir, eki, üş, on, jüz)|
Note that Uzbek is in a phase of transition from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet. I use the Latin above so we can see the similarities more easily.
You can find a similar degree of similarity with the languages of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other regional countries.
Small Efforts, Big Impact
What better reason to learn a language is there than to connect with locals and do things that other tourists may not be able to do? Turkish is one language that gets you very far with very little.
One of my favourite reasons to learn Turkish is that it’s a high-ROI language.
By that I mean that for a little investment in learning Turkish, you get a huge reward.
Yes, there are only ~100M or so Turkish speakers, and they’re mostly in one country (Türkiye, formerly known as Turkey).
But outside the touristy centres, the level of Turkish drops dramatically. In the lion’s share of local eateries on the Asian side where regular people eat — and where you can get some of the best, most affordable meals — people will not know any Turkish beyond basic pleasantries.
Knowing your greetings, numbers, foods, and a few easy interactions will not only make your life go more smoothly, but they’ll open up a whole world of people to meet and tasty treats to try.
Here are five quick and simple Turkish phrases to get you started learning Turkish.
See here for a longer list of essential Turkish phrases for travel and everyday survival.
Turkish Culinary Adventures
Learn Turkish and eat delicious treats. This could be the only reason for many people
Turkish cuisine is diverse and rich. It combines a lot of middle eastern, central Asian, and Mediterranean cuisine, while adding its own spin on many individual items.
Before travelling to Türkiye, I thought of Turkish food as being “kebabs”. Well, they are a major feature, but there is a lot more to it!
For one thing, I learned very quickly that the word for a wrap is, in fact, dürüm. The döner is the meat. If it wasn’t obvious to me, I’m sure it won’t be for a lot of people…
Just a few foods that I see everywhere and that I enjoy regularly (let’s say, at least once weekly) include:
|Şekerli Türk kahvesi||Turkish coffee with sugar. (Nearly every day)|
|Adana dürüm||A wrap of a mildly spicy adana mince meat kebab|
|Menemen||A tomato and egg scramble|
|Tavuklu pilav||Chicken rice. A common staple of a pilavcı, a rice seller (a cheap way to eat)|
|Simit||Sesame-crusted bread ring, like a snack food bagel (but never with toppings)|
|Lahmacun||Flat bread with toppings, like a very lightweight pizza (you eat 2-3)|
|Baklava||Sweet pastry with syrup. Many countries do it, but each one is slightly different|
|Lokum||Turkish delight. There are many varieties, my favourite is çifte kavrulmuş fıstıklı lokum. (double roasted pistachio)|
When ordering at most of those places on the Asian side of Istanbul, I have to speak Turkish. Even just a few phrases like “May I have?” or “Another one, please” are super useful.
So, learn Turkish, and eat well — afiyet olsun!
Enjoy Turkish Pleasantries
Turkish has a lot of charming and interesting pleasantries. Some of them feel European, and some of them feel distinctly Central Asian.
When you learn Turkish you start with greetings and pleasantries. After all, you hear these all the time, so you should understand them and know how to use them.
On top of that, Turkish people are quick to praise. You’ll hear the equivalent of “bon appetit”, afiyet olsun, very often.
|Welcome! (Respond with Hoş bulduk!)|
|Good day! (both hello and goodbye)|
|Well done! (Lit. Bless your hands!)|
|Thanks for your hart work / keep it up! (Good greeting / goodbye for someone working)|
|Bon appetit / Enjoy your meal!|
See here for more essential everyday Turkish phrases.
Bargain at Turkish Markets
Learn Turkish and save a few bucks!
I’m not great at bargaining — but I do enjoy a bargain. And at markets in Türkiye — a must-do for anyone — you have to bargain.
There’s so much to buy in Turkish markets that make excellent gifts for friends and family — or for yourself. Backgammon sets, cute boxes, coffee paraphernalia, tea sets, jewellery warding off the “evil eye”… there’s loads. It’s all high-quality, looks great, and is affordable, providing you learn Turkish phrases to get the price down.
If you’re going to bargain, do so in Turkish for maximum effect. So it’s worth learning a few basic bargaining Turkish phrases (which we’ll cover in a separate article).
Of course, bargaining is more about your skill in it than in language. You can bargain in any language by just being stubborn and refusing to pay much. But it’s still fun to do so in the local tongue.
Many people have their own individual reasons for learning Turkish. Maybe you have mixed Turkish heritage. Or maybe you’re really into Turkish music — it has a rich pop and folk music scene.
Whatever your reasons, hopefully one of the above will have spurred you on further!