TÖMER, Dilmer, private lessons, conversation groups, read the newspaper, a Turkish boyfriend; these are all suggestions I received when people heard I was learning Turkish. Some were solicited and one most certainly was not. What is it about Turkish that proves to be such a challenge to many expats? Foreigners who settle here obviously have some connection to, and interest in, Turkey.

Yet, achieving fluency seems to be an almost insurmountable task to many expats. Why? There are foreigners who speak second, and even third languages, but still struggle with Turkish; what’s the big difference?

There is no lack of enthusiasm for the language. Often foreigners will talk about their plans to learn Turkish. They buy a Turkish book to study in their free time and promise themselves they will practice speaking with their Turkish friends. Unfortunately as time goes on, interest wanes and dust settles on an unopened grammar book.

Everyone has their reasons. Maybe they live in the foreigner-friendly neighborhood of Cihangir, where it is easier to speak with shopkeepers in English than to struggle with Turkish. Possibly they were serious about learning Turkish but found it difficult to come to grips with the language. Is it merely laziness keeping us from prattling on at çayhanes with the neighborhood amcas?


Lack of fluent Turkish speakers has prompted even the US government to encourage its citizens to learn the language. In 2006 the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs identified Turkish as one of six critical foreign languages and funds its study as part of the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program. The program has expanded to include 13 languages and sponsors beginner, advanced beginner, intermediate, and advanced study in Turkish. Scholarship winners are sent to either Bursa or Ankara to study Turkish through the Ankara University-affiliated TÖMER language school. The head of the Turkish department at TÖMER’s İstanbul branch Mustafa Namdar described the school’s methods for teaching Turkish to foreigners. The school focuses on the four basic components of language-learning: reading, listening, writing and speaking.

That word has how many suffixes?

In an informal poll of a group of language learners and the answers reflected the big grammatical differences between Turkish and their native languages. Group members identified Turkish sentence structure and suffix use as their biggest challenges in learning the language. From personal experience I can say my four years of high school Latin certainly did not prepare me for the strange grammatical structure and flow of the language. Recai Ünal, the manager at İstanbul’s Dilmer Language Center, echoes these sentiments. He says, “Turkish sentence structure, the order of the words in the sentence, and their relationship to each other is very different from English. This is an important source of English speakers’ difficulty.” The private language school uses a teaching model based on teaching Turkish as a foreign language.

Namdar’s suggestions for foreigners trying to learn Turkish include reading Turkish texts related to students’ interests, watching television shows and movies in Turkish, listening to Turkish music. These activities add to a subconscious understanding of the language’s structure. Namdar is confident that students “with an understanding of how Turkish sounds can learn its grammar rules easily.” Ünal has similar advice. He believes students “must not only use Turkish in class and leave Turkish in the lesson, but use it everywhere.”

Using Turkish can be harder than expected, though. Stammering imperfect Turkish with impatient shopkeepers and confused waiters is not always confidence building or educational. In our conversation Dilmer’s Turkish department head Zeki Sözer touches upon this fact and reveals why English speakers might not get as much practice as they need to master the language. He notes that “because everyone wants to practice English with them, they have great difficulty even at basic levels.”

So what does this all mean? Can foreigners really learn Turkish? The unpleasant, but true, answer is yes, if they are willing to put the work in. They can, but it will take effort, humility and a heavy dose of patience.






Clare Busch


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