Back to School for Vocal Harmony

It is a fact universally acknowledged that Turkish is a harder language to learn than English.

Well, at least among those I polled in my Turkish class, all of whom speak English to some degree. They range from the Philippines, Germany, Serbia via Italy, Syria, and Palestine. All of them told me English, even with its irregular spellings, is easier to learn than Turkish.

It’s not just that there are over two dozen verb tenses of which I have yet to master one (the present), it’s that in addition to all the tenses and their purposes, there are all kinds of endings that have to be thrown onto the ends of nouns depending on what’s doing what to whom and where.

When they (and by “they” I mean people in books and on web sites that provide guides to Turkey) tell you that Turkish is an “agglutinative” language, they are not kidding. According to Merriam-Webster “agglutinate” means “to combine into a compound: attach to a base as an affix.”

Suffixes are added for all kinds of reasons. Then there has to be what’s called “vocal harmony.” Certain vowel sounds have to be pared with other vowel sounds. And then if the word ends with certain letters (f s t k ç ş h p; pronounced fuh-stuck-chuh-shuhup in order to remember) then the suffix has to start with the letter “t.”

Here’s a reference sheet our teacher gave us. It shows the suffixes along with the verbs to which they apply. The suffixes are not used on the verbs; only the nouns.


Then our teacher said, wait, wait, hold on. This is too complicated and gave us a simplified version.


As difficult as it is at times, it’s a lot of fun. I’m in class four hours day, five days a week, for a four-week intensive course. The teacher is excellent. My classmates are friendly. Most importantly, I’m learning a lot very quickly. I can’t yet hold a conversation, but already I’m able to understand a lot more of what I read and hear.

After a lot of back and forth with my wife Stephanie about it, I had decided to enroll at Dilmer, a language school near Taksim square that was recommended by one of the other Fulbrighters. Stephanie doesn’t have the time for this kind of intensive course anymore. She has too much work to do.

I, on the other hand, have plenty of time which I have been filling with working on a new novel. But I’ve gotten frustrated by my inability to communicate with people in stores or on the street or in restaurants. So, hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s back to school I go.

Rich, you ask, what happened to your work prospects? You said you were going to get a job teaching English?

Yes. Yes, I was. And that still might happen. If the Turkish bureaucracy wills it….The tale of the myriad twists and turns of my employment attempts here in Istanbul will have to wait until I am safely back in the Good Ole U. S. of A. 🙂 Just like I’m not going to tell you how we watch TV a la Turka.

Besides, I don’t even have a Residence Permit yet. The paperwork is in process for that, too. At this rate, I’ll be fluent in Turkish before I’m a legal working resident. If that came to be, that would be a very Turkish Experience and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


10 thoughts on “Back to School for Vocal Harmony

  1. Great article!

    I’ve often tried to wrap my head around Turkish…my God do you have a job in front of you! In any case, I wish you luck. Learning a language, especially such a difficult one, at +40 is not an easy task. Good luck!

  2. Wish I could find an intensive course in Mersin. I need all the help I can get

    • Jane, I’m quite grateful to be taking the class. Could you hire a tutor?

      • Daughter has a tutor but I work better in a learning environment. I enjoy the social aspect as well. I am looking into a course at the university – just waiting to hear back.

        Stay warm – hopefully it will stop snowing for the Galatasaray match tonight.

      • Good luck with the course at the university.

        Thanks. The snow just keeps coming today, and it’s wreaking havoc with everything.

  3. Languages have always been much more than words – and you have a wonderful way of embracing diversity with gusto!! What fun!!!

    Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.” Rumi

  4. And I thought Chinese was difficult! Enjoy your class.

    • I am enjoying the class quite a bit. From my limited experience with Chinese, the grammar structure seemed to be fairly straightforward. It’s the tones and the mass memorization of the characters (and that’s not even getting into the difference between traditional and simplified) that makes it such a difficult language for Westerners.

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