Learning Turkish: How To Improve Beyond The Beginner Level

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Learning Turkish: How To Improve Beyond The Beginner Level

Today’s post comes from David Laws who runs an outstanding collection of Turkish language courses called Turkish Language House.

David’s also an internationally certified TEFL instructor, an avid language blogger and experienced travel photographer.

Over 11,000 people a month search for How to learn Turkish.

Quora has more than 50,000 users dedicated to learning the Turkish language.

There are at least 10 different Facebook groups with 15,000+ members whose sole purpose is Turkish language learning.

There are lots of really good reasons so many people are trying to learn Turkish.

To name a few, the U.S department of state has listed Turkish as a critical language for 2019, there are almost 100 million Turkish speakers worldwide, and Trip advisor has recently listed Turkey as one of the top 10 travel destinations in the world.

On top of all this, Turkish is one of the most unique and beautiful languages on the planet.

The problem is that Turkish is notoriously difficult and there are very few good resources available.

The fact is, thousands of people want to learn how to speak Turkish, but very few people know how to do it.

Ever since we launched Turkish Language House, there’s been one overwhelming challenge that we’ve heard from student after student before they enrolled in our program.

It usually sounds something like this:

Hey David, I’ve been living in Istanbul for ___ years and I STILL don’t feel comfortable in spoken conversations!

I know a lot of basic grammar and can get by in most conversations, but I just feel stuck. I’ve tried lots of resources but I don’t know what to do to finally become fluent in Turkish.

In other words, they easily passed the beginner stage and are now struggling with how to break through the intermediate level. Well fear not!

We’ve laid out the 4 best ways to overcome the intermediate slump and become a Turkish speaking extrovert.

1. Identify your weaknesses in Turkish

There are two major factors that you need to understand to identify your weaknesses in language learning.

The first one is psychological and the second one is linguistic.

I passionately believe that the number one reason language learners aren’t as fluent as they want to be is due to something called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

No, this isn’t some kind of disease or mental disorder – it’s a psychological phenomenon in which people feel more confident the less they know about a subject.

In other words, people who know less about a given topic actually feel more confident in their abilities than the experts.

In a 1999 study, David Dunning and Justin Kruger asked participants to perform a series of tests and then guess how well they had done on each activity.

They were shocked by what they found.

Every single time, no matter which skill was being evaluated, the people who performed the worst consistently ranked themselves higher than other participants. Additionally, those who performed the best were the most likely to underestimate themselves.

Why is this relevant to learning Turkish?

Because when we are trying to identify our weaknesses, we have to realize that we have a strong psychological tendency to overestimate our language ability. In fact, according to the data, the less Turkish you know, the more confident you’ll probably feel about yourself (which in this case is actually not a good thing).

It’s easy to think we know a grammatical topic because we can generally understand it in conversation, but are you actually able to produce that same form yourself and do you really understand what it means?

The first step in identifying weaknesses is to stay humble and recognize that they exist.

Now onto the linguistic side.

To understand your weaknesses in a language, you first have to understand how languages work.

Most of the people reading this have probably heard about the 4 basic language skills. According to linguistic research, there are four core communication abilities that are the foundation of all language learning.

They are reading, writing, speaking and listening.

These skills tend to function in pairs.

Two of them are primarily about receiving language (reading and listening) and are referred to as passive skills. The other two are primarily used to produce language (speaking and writing) and are referred to as active skills.

If you look deeper, there are a number of knowledge-based subcategories like vocabulary and grammatical competence.

These categories are important to pay attention to because the majority of students who are hitting walls in learning Turkish are doing so because they’re focusing on only one or two of these skills (and they’re usually choosing the wrong ones, but we’ll talk about that more in a second).

This tunnel-visioned approach leaves massive gaps in the other categories that needs to be addressed.

In other words, you need to diagnose exactly what area you need to improve in.

Most intermediate students have already spent time studying grammar and learning vocabulary, so they’re not going to improve much by taking a language course at a local university or spending hours and hours learning more words.

So our second step in identifying weaknesses is to understand how languages work and focus on the areas you really need.

2. Use your time wisely to learn Turkish more effectively

There are a million bad ways to try and learn a language.

Unfortunately, most of the resources that are out there cause students to spend their time the wrong way. Specifically, students tend to focus on learning about a language rather than learning the language itself (a concept Donovan has talked about extensively here at Mezzoguild).

My favorite analogy for this is baseball.

You can spend hours, months, or decades reading every book on the planet about how to hit a baseball. You can watch video after video after video of other people hitting a baseball.

You learn everything there is to know about the history of baseball.

But that doesn’t mean you can walk out on a baseball field, hold a big wooden bat, and hit a 90mph fastball.

The reality is if you want to truly learn Turkish, you need to think about your language learning efforts like an investment.

If you invest your time and money and effort into studying grammar rules (especially if you’re doing it in English), what’s the return on your investment going to be? (hint: it’s not real speaking ability).

To finally break through the intermediate threshold you need to use your time wisely by focusing on real spoken language and by using the right resources.

How do you do this?

First of all, it’s going to mean approaching the language in a way that feels uncomfortable and different. As westerners, we love to intellectualize things, but think of it like this – who are the most fluent speakers of any language on the planet?

Answer – people who learned as children*.*

10 times out of 10 I would stack up a 9 year old who grew up in Turkey over any foreigner who has studied the language.

This is because we are naturally hardwired to learn languages, we just go about it the wrong way most of the time as adults. If you want to get better at speaking and listening, then guess what you need to do?


Language, at its core, is about communication, so look for ways to laser focus on real, authentic Turkish.

The unfortunate truth is that this feels really uncomfortable.

It is really intimidating to try and immerse yourself in a language and speak with locals when you don’t feel confident in yourself. It feels unproductive to watch kids shows in Turkish because it’s been ingrained in us that this isn’t what learning looks like.

Do whatever you need to do to remind yourself that the goal is spoken fluency – not knowledge about the language.

By the way, there are a lot of people who will tell you that this route is impossible.

For some reason people in the language learning world love to argue that adults can’t learn languages like children and we have to take an academic approach.

For the naysayers out there, I’m a living example that this works.

My wife and I literally learned Turkish by walking up to a guy in a Turkish cafe with a bag full of stick figure drawings and having him point to pictures and telling us what they meant.

He didn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t speak a word of Turkish.

Over time, we started to slowly understand more and more and eventually, we realized that we were starting to speak pretty naturally.

In fact, the only time I felt like my language learning was ineffective was when I tried to take a language class at a local school (which I bailed out of as soon as possible).

You can read the full story here.

The second step to using your time wisely is to use the right resources.

Unfortunately we can’t lay out every Turkish resource that exists, so instead we’ll give you some criteria for choosing the best ones (Anyone wanting a cheat sheet of our favorite resources can read more here).

When you’re trying to find resources that will help you break through your intermediate slump, ask yourself these three questions.

  1. Does this resource help me improve the specific areas I’m wanting to grow in?
  2. Does this resource focus on real, spoken Turkish?
  3. Does this resource approach the language in a way I haven’t tried yet?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, then go for it. We always recommend diversifying your approach as much as possible.

So how do you use your time wisely with language learning?

By focusing on real, spoken Turkish and using resources that help you do so.

3. Learning Turkish requires mistakes. Lots of mistakes.

We all hate making mistakes. No one likes to look dumb in front of other people.

There is a part of our human nature that pushes us to hide our mistakes and cover up our weaknesses.

The thing is, this is absolutely devastating to the language learning process.

I once heard about a polyglot who was an incredibly gifted language learner and had functional fluency in over 10 languages. When asked about his “secret” to learning a language, he said this:

“I try to make 200 mistakes every single day”.

Yes, you read that quote correctly.

He tries to make hundreds of mistakes every single day.

Why on earth would someone intentionally try to mess up?

It’s because making mistakes is quite simply the single best thing you can do to learn a language, and I would argue it’s impossible to become fluent without making thousands of mistakes.

Mistakes show us the areas we need to grow in and provide feedback about our progress.

On top of this, it almost always provides an opportunity for the person you’re speaking with to correct you – which means now you know something you didn’t know 30 seconds earlier.

For example, let’s say I was trying to communicate “I like to play with my kids”.

You tend to get tripped up when trying to put two verbs in a sentence, but you give it a try and blurt out your best guess with:

Çocuklarımla oynamak seviyorum“.

After a quick look of confusion, your friend begins to realize what you were saying and naturally gives you the correct phrasing with something like:

Ahhh, ‘çocuklarımla oynamaYI seviyorum ‘ demek istedin“.

You’ve just gotten a free Turkish lesson from your friend and usually a fun memory as well.

While this involves swallowing our pride, if you were to take this approach over the course of a week, or month, or year, there would be literally thousands of these teachable moments that will refine and catalyze your language learning journey. This is the secret sauce for breaking through your intermediate slump.

There’s a popular quote by Thomas Edison about his process of trying to create the lightbulb, where he says:

“I have never failed. I have simply found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

If you want to truly learn Turkish, be bold about trying to make mistakes. Don’t settle for the easiest way of saying something, but instead, try to really say the sentence you want to say.

If you make a mistake, take it as an opportunity to get feedback on where you need to grow and use that moment for a free Turkish lesson!

4. Learning the Turkish language is a lifetime pursuit

Here’s the dirty truth about language learning – there are no shortcuts.

Despite the fact that there are thousands of websites promising fluency in 7 days or an amazing new language hack that will have you speaking in no time, the reality is that language learning is hard work.

It’s similar to losing weight.

There are all kinds of pills and formulas promising magical weight loss, but the best way to lose weight is to eat healthy and exercise.

If you want to break through the intermediate wall, you have to dedicate yourself to the process, learn the material, interact with the language, and gain real experience.

We promise that with enough time you will get there!

Learning Turkish?

Visit Turkish Language House and check out their material (beginner and higher-level content available).

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Who is this?The Mezzofanti Guild
Cardinal MezzofantiCardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti was a 19th century polyglot who is believed to have spoken at least 39 languages!Learn more
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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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