Just Enough Turkish to Get By

You don’t want to be the obnoxious American abroad. We all know the stereotype: it’s that person speaking loud, slow English in bewildered disbelief at locals’ confusion or stumbling speech.   But nor may you want to pour hours – even months and years – to studying a language that you may use for only a short time.  Some people come to Turkey, fall in love with the culture, and immerse themselves in the language.  Others come for the sun, or just for a summer holiday, and don’t want to learn an entire new language just to get by.  So for those of you who want to communicate basic needs without throwing yourself into study,  we’ve compiled a list of resources that will give you just enough language to get by in a relatively short amount of time – say, 15 minutes a day for 2 months leading up to your stay.  We promise you – your experience will be much more enjoyable.

If you are interested in immersing yourself in Turkish, see our full list of resources here: Great Resources for Learning Turkish

If you just want to learn the basics, here are a few tips and resources:


First: Relax! Turks are very patient and welcoming people.  If you try to speak Turkish, they will appreciate it, and will take the time and effort to try to understand you.

Second: Many people in popular vacation spots do speak decent English.  It’s only when you wander off the main path that you may find yourself surrounded by non-English speakers.  However, even in remote Anatolian towns English is a compulsory subject. Oftentimes students can understand more than they can say, and may be able to write more than they can speak.  If you are truly lost, try to find a high school or university student and communicate by writing in English.

Third: Use your phrasebook! Before you go, highlight phrases you think will be useful and mark the pages.  If you are having trouble communicating, just open the phrase book and point to the word or sentence you want.  Whoever you are trying to talk to will probably even teach you how to say it properly!

Fourth: Take advantage of close cognates! Many Turkish words have been borrowed from English and French, especially for sciences, technology, business, and new concepts. Otel is ‘hotel’, taksi is “taxi”, seyyar is “cellphone” (cellular).

Online Resources

Memrise: We’ve mentioned this one before.  Memrise used spaced repetition to help you remember vocabulary.  Several user-generated courses (vocabulary sets) are aimed specifically at the beginning or casual learner.  Even better, Memrise offers a free app, and will take about 5 minutes (or less) to learn five new words every day. That’s 300 words in 2 months – enough to get by.

Try out these courses: Turkish-Turkce, Basic Turkish, All the Basics of Turkish

Or these micro-courses: TurkceBeginner Turkish, Basic Turkish,

Hands on Turkish: Though officially a “business Turkish” course, this free interactive course (and mobile app) created by the European Union’s Lifelong Learning Program, offers a great introduction to the written and spoken Turkish language for travel.  The course leads you through several common situations (arriving at the airport, taking a cab, eating in a restaurant) through dialogue, vocabulary games, and fill-in-the-blank.  Perhaps the most useful feature of this program is that it allows you to listen to the recording, record yourself saying the phrase, and then compare your recording with the original – a great way to tell if people will actually be able to understand what you’re trying to say!

First Steps in Turkish: Hosted on the Hands on Turkish Website, this is a beginner-beginner’s guide to the Turkish language. Navigate your way through basic situations and pick up enough skills to make it from point A to point B and order that delicious-looking honeyed baklava with crumbled pistachio for dessert. The site also has a great blog with topics covering Turkish language and culture.

Easy Languages: Easy Turkish These youtube videos cover a bunch of useful topics.  If you are in a rush, just see this video covering the 20 most useful phrases.

turkish-tea-time-front-logoTurkish Tea Time Podcasts: Over 100 free episodes covering everything from newbie lessons in going to the bank to ordering in a restaurant to more advanced topics like zombies and verb complimentation. Each podcast has a dialogue recorded by native speakers, grammar explanation, and line-by-line practice and analysis. Look for the podcasts labeled ‘newbie’ or ‘beginner’.


Learn Turkish | TurkishClass101.comTurkish Class 101: Podcast, youtube videos and website (with both free and paid content).  The focus is on spoken Turkish and common vocabulary, which should be of great use to travelers and tourists.  Some of their podcasts also introduce aspects of Turkish culture, which is great for anyone wanting to learn a little bit more about the country before they set off.

BBC Languages: Turkish A very brief guide to the Turkish language, including audio recordings of the alphabet and 20 essential phrases.

Why Duolingo isn’t on this list: Duolingo is a fantastic online tool for teaching beginners a language’s grammar structures and basic vocabulary.  However, the focus is on being able to create and comprehend 100% grammatically correct sentences, not on expressing yourself in everyday situations.  Few of the sentences in the program are of actual use to travelers

Dictionaries and PhraseBooks

Fast & Easy Turkish Phrase Book and Dictionary:  turkish phrase bookThis is a pocket-sized phrase book, dictionary, and grammar guide in one with far more extensive situational coverage than most books its size..  It’s great to throw in your bag for the day, and offers far more than just basics like,”Where is the hotel?”. The writer (B. Orhan Dogan) is also a linguist and author of several language textbooks, so he takes a much more learner-directed approach than more commercial phrase books.

Sesli Sozluk: This is the tried and true go-to English-Turkish, Turkish-English dictionary with a fast and functional app featuring auto-complete, vocal recordings, and the ability to save new words.

InFlightTurkish (Living Language) This free compact PDF covers all the basics from greetings to numbers to getting around in twenty pages.  If you can’t memorize everything on the plane, the packet is thin enough (just 20 pages) to print off and stick in your day bag for  easy reference.

kitap_conceptTake Away Turkish Grammar, short dialogues, clear audio recordings, and practical vocabulary for both traveling and everyday life in an easy-to-understand, bright and fun format. Some of the material is slightly more difficult, but it still has a reference section in that back that operates as a phrase book.

If you are looking for a clear introduction to the Turkish language, the EU’s LifeLong Learning Program – Speak and Learn Project here has a great overview, as does the affiliated lingvopedia.

Have any other resources that you love?  Let us know in the comments below!


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