I will start studying my Master at Ankara, Turkey soon. I don't know the language and I receive strange behaviors when asking help in English:

For example,

  1. I start with "Merhaba" ("Hello" in Turkish) to warm up the conversation then I ask in English, but then they titter;

  2. I start by asking "Do you speak English?" and the response is normally "no", sometimes with a little anger.

  3. And when I directly ask my question in English, some of them try to help e.g. showing directions with hands and speaking Turkish with slow rate, but I can't get most of the conversation as I don't know the language, and a majority of people answer the question in Turkish in a wired manner that they suppose as if I am a native-Turkish-speaker. (why??!)

None of the mentioned problems happen when I am inside the university.

I am supposed to live in here for at least two years. So, getting a taste of the culture and understanding the people is very important to me and I would be very much happy if I can avoid any unintentional disrespect. How can I handle this situation, especially the language problem?

P.S. With all honestly, I am confused: On one hand, a few times I met very friendly people in Turkey I can't imagine they possibly have unkind intentions. On the other hand, the problem shouldn't be from my side because I didn't see similar behaviors traveling in neighboring countries (supposedly be similar cultures) e.g. Iran or Georgia and none of the mentioned problems happen within the Turkish university that I want to study in.

Edit. In the last two days I learnt some Turkish and I used it. But sadly I received much worse reactions. Reasons can be more than I know, but the two reasons I believe are that the people don't like to hear different accents (for being a very homogeneous society) and the other is they think I am an asylum seeker that I have to learn their language. Please correct me if I am wrong but I heard from a few other foreign students felt very unwelcome unless they speak English. The comments and answers are general may not be useful for some countries like Turkey but I do appreciate any guidance written. Last word: I love Turkey even I am not feeling unwelcome. And, my BEST regards and wishes for those (even few) Turks who helped me a lot recently. Thank you. :-)

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    None of these behaviors seem particularly weird to me if the people you're speaking to don't speak much English, which is not uncommon, especially when speaking to people outside the tourism industry. How do these interactions differ from trying to talk to non-English speakers in English in other countries? Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 8:55
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    If your university offers such an opportunity, take a basic Turkish course for foreigners. Most universities that take foreigners seriously should have one. If your university is government-funded, there's a higher chance they'll be slightly more Turkish-language-oriented, which would be more of an advantage for you. Try to find a Turkish, or a Turkish-speaking friend, and hang out with them in the city, paying attention when they're speaking. Finally, if all of the above doesn't work, there's a(t least one) club in Ankara which is geared towards expats and otherwise multi-language people. Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 10:00
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    To be perfectly honest the idea of going to study to a foreign country for 2+ years and not bothering to learn "survival" levels of the local language just seems weird at best and very disrespectful at worst. I mean it's one thing not to bother learning if you're there for a two week holiday but if you're gonna be studying for 2 years take at least a basic course.
    – DRF
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 10:35
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 10:37
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    Ankara is a closed off city with little foreign exposure. There is not many places to attract tourists in Ankara. When listening to answers, keep that in mind. For instance, your chances of finding someone with decent English around Antalya is much higher. Also exposure to foreigners makes these people more willing to help. My suggestion is to seek out younger people that look different from the local norm. Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 7:25

9 Answers 9


I'm a Turkish citizen that also happens to live & study in Ankara; I can tell you that the reason why you get such impolite responses is that almost everyone in the country is angry (not to you :) ) as a - sort of - their nature because of the political & economic situation in the country. Even I, when I go outside of the campus, become uncomfortable about the situation.

About how you can get around the language problem; try security guards in shops, or some working personal in big cafes, I think they will be the most helpful to you; even if they don't know English, they might find someone who knows the language.

Other than that, at some point (as the other answers already pointed out) the basic, survival, level Turkish is a must unless you plan to spend your 2 years only on the campus (which is actually OK for me, so that is not a rhetorical condition).


One way you can help these situations is:

  • Start by asking whether they speak English, in Turkish. I don't know any Turkish, but Google Translate says it's "İngilizce biliyor musunuz?" Make sure you get the pronunciation correct enough, so you don't end up asking whether their hovercraft has any eels.
  • If the answer to the first question is no, then learn enough basic Turkish to conduct whatever business you need (purchasing goods, asking directions, etc).
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    Google Translate is actually right (it means "do you know English?"). It's basically pronounced like "ingliz-jay bili-yor moo-soonooz"
    – Crazydre
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 2:37
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    Another good sentence might be, "I'm sorry but I don't speak Turkish."
    – mkennedy
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 2:55
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    I am flagging this record because it is scratched. Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 4:36
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    The way this answer is currently worded, if the other person doesn't know English, it's suggesting they should suspend their business and wait patiently for several hours/days/weeks while OP goes away and learns some Turkish… :-)
    – gidds
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 16:53
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    The three most important phrases to know in any language: "I'm sorry, I don't speak [language]," "Does anyone here speak English?" and "where's the bathroom?" Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 15:03

I am Turkish. Firstly I will say that my English isn’t perfect - if you don't understand me please comment and I’ll try to clarify.

  • It’s a good choice to start with hello (merhaba) or excuse me (affedersiniz)
  • my first suggestion is ask to people whether they can speak english or not:
    • Do you know english? (ingilizce biliyor musunuz?)
    • Do you speak English? (İngilizce konuşabiliyor musunuz?)
  • Ask people at your university to help you. They’re likely to be willing:
    • Could you help me please? (Bana yardımcı olur musunuz lütfen?)
    • I don’t know Turkish (Türkçe bilmiyorum)
  • Learn basic turkish (numbers, directions, etc). That way people are much more likely to be able to help you. For example : How can I go to ...? (... nasıl gidebilirim?) and you can add where you want to go. How can I get to the museum? (Müzeye nasıl gidebilirim?) , How can I get to Anıt Kabir? (Anıt kabir'e nasıl gidebilirim?). The directions are "düz git" (go straight), Sola dön (turn left) and Sağa dön (turn right). Cadde or Sokak (Street)
  • How much is it? (Fiyatı ne kadar?) etc
  • search google for ingilizce-türkçe diyaloglar (English-Turkish dialogues)
  • watch Turkish TEDx talks (there are usually English subtitles)

These links may help as well:

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    After gaining some information in internet and from some people around I think I won't need practicing in Turkish. However, thank you for your help. :)
    – user41592
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 22:33
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    You're welcome. I m sorry for your feelings and sorry for my country's people, some of them really disrespectful.
    – asiftunga
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 12:22
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    @ASchizotypalAngel I think I won't need practicing in Turkish, but in your question you write I am supposed to live in here for at least two years. Get real and start doing a Turkish course ASAP. It is very uncivilized to live in a country for that period and not learn the language, you are a guest in the other country, so behave as a good one.
    – user40521
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 9:31
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    @JanDoggen, looks like a dog barking in vain rather than a constructive comment. Also, guests won't pay for their host.
    – user61753
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 12:14

To respond to the why in your questions: I am not a Turkish but have lived in Turkey since 2016. The reason for to answer fluently in Turkish is they have no empathy for your situation: they think speaking in English is rude if you live in Turkey. Look, for example, at the Equalizer 2 movie beginning scene on the Turkish train. I have heard this sentence from them: Sende Inglizge var bende de turkce var, meaning If you know English, I know Turkish, i.e. copying what rarely happens in France or Austria.

Either learn Turkish which you will thought to be a refugee or choose to be silent and isolated.

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    Mmmm, that's the sort of response I'd expect in many places; good to see it confirmed. — Perhaps OP should consider how they'd feel if, in their English-speaking country, someone came up to them and started speaking to them in Turkish (or some other obscure language)? Especially if the person spoke no English, and seemed annoyed that OP couldn't use their language? That'd probably seem arrogant and rude. So the more effort OP can put into learning Turkish, the better. And if “getting a taste of the culture and understanding the people is very important”, it's essential!
    – gidds
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 17:08
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    @gidds, if you think in the real world and not in Turkey-TV, there is a symmetry between Turkish and English then I suggest remove English words from your passports, close English-courses universities in Turkey, etc. Speaking English in a non-English country by a non-English person is normal not rude. It is considered rude only in Turkey when I've heard some people think NASA workers practicing Turkish to save time in their communications.
    – user41592
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 17:29
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    @MilojicaJacimovic, I'm not suggesting a symmetry at all — I was merely trying to illustrate the problem in a way that OP might find easier to relate to. And while I think making no effort to speak the local language could seem rude in many places, I'm happy to defer to your personal knowledge of this particular case, and I can see that people in Turkey might have particular reason to react badly to English.
    – gidds
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 17:41
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    The fact that some English-speaking people can't see the symmetry of the situation may help some people in other countries not to be very sympathetic to people trying to live there for years without having learned even a bit of the language. However, that's not exclusive of native English speakers, but there are a lot of people in the world with thoughts like "Why those people don't talk to me in my awesome useful dominant language instead of sticking to their local lousy one when I go to their country".
    – Pere
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 17:53
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    +1 for learn Turkish. In fact, the greeting expressions that some answers provide are taught in the first hour in a Duolingo online free course.
    – Pere
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 17:55

I'm not Turkish, nor a Turkish speaker. I've visited Turkey though, as well as various other European countries...

In general, the more you can show you're trying, the more help you'll get. Get yourself a beginners' tutorial (many country guidebooks include this) and work through some basic phrases before you go out. If you can hit Youtube and find tutorials for people actually saying those phrases, even better. My experience from holidays is that I typically average adding a phrase or two a day, and I always try to go out knowing "hello", "please" and "thank you" already. After a two-week holiday, it's unusual if I can't count in the language, for example (perhaps asking shop assistants to say prices slowly, but basically getting there).

It can also be helpful to have your phrasebook out. That shows you're trying, and people can point at a phrase or word if you're clearly missing what they're saying.

In many countries, people are proud of how well they speak English, because it's seen as a sign of being an educated person able to take on the world. In northern Europe, it's entirely possible that they'll speak it better than a native English speaker!

In some other countries though, foreign languages are more tolerated than welcomed. This often ties in with the strength of nationalism in the country. It's worth noting that this is very much the case in Britain - Brits will often travel abroad and expect people to understand us, but foreigners speaking their own language in Britain are often looked down on, and increasingly fewer British children are learning foreign languages to any level of proficiency.

  • Totally OT, but your last paragraph explains so much! I'm American and we tend to be moderately multi-lingual, but about 99% of my experience (TV and 1 trip there) indicates very strongly that Brits are very mono-lingual. Good to have (voluntary) confirmation from a Brit! BTW- I agree with the rest of your points, too.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 18:08
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    I second this. OP needs to try harder. Go on a crash course, full immersion, with books, courses, DuoLingo on your phone. You can learn the language in 4 months if you put your mind this. Reference: I am from western europe and I learned Turkish language myself Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 20:10
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    @FreeMan Yeah, it bugs the hell out of me. I find it disrespectful to go to another country and not at least make an effort. Brexit is another symptom of that culture of disrespect to a wider Europe outside the UK borders too. It's so disappointing because I thought my country was better than this, but then there's so much crazy in the world right now that we're just one amongst many. I'll just keep going as we are, teach my son the same, and we'll keep getting the kudos and little bonuses from hotel staff which the other Brits miss out on by being how they are. :)
    – Graham
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 23:01
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    "In some countries, people are proud of how well they speak English", and in some countries some people with no so good level of English is interested in a bit of practice, and therefore giving directions to an English speaking tourist is a win-win.
    – Pere
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 18:00

While there are many turks who know a good amount of english, german or french, I'm afraid in general the english language level is low in turkish population. When it comes to getting directions, people prefer to tell you anything to help, with good intentions but not always helpful. Even if it's with body language.

Some helpful tips for this sitution can be:

  • Learning basic vocabulary about directions, check out this link
  • Try asking young people, such as university or even high-school students, and shopkeepers in touristic places. Mostly, they have a higher chance of knowing english enough to make a conversation.
  • Make native turkish friends in your university, and explore with them. It'll be very helpful with a guide by your side.
  • As greg suggested, try to learn some basic "survival" turkish.

I am from an English speaking country, and I successfully learned Turkish.

First of all, you have to decide if you really want to learn the language. If you are in a foreign country for 2 years, its often a good idea to do so.

By learning the language you will

  • Make day to day and school life easier for yourself
  • open up many new opportunities that you otherwise wouldn't have
  • show respect to the host nation and it's culture

Note the last point. I really dont think you can go 2 years and expect to get by with just "hello" and "do you speak English".

Don't get me wrong, Turkish isnt an easy language at first glace, but once you have the basics it is suprisingly easier.

And in my experience, Turks will be extremely positive when you make an effort.

Perhaps you're not making the best effort? Perhaps the local people sense you aren't really trying hard enough?

Make a plan for personal improvement for learning a language:

  • Be bold and try. If you're naturally shy, be very nice in asking for help
  • Speak at every opportunity. When you buy bread, or hop on the bus - speak Turkish
  • Make Turkish friends and socialise with them (drink tea! play backgammon)

As far as study goes, I highly recommend DuoLingo turkish course (do 30 minutes each day on your phone) and the book by Hugo, "Turkish in 3 Months".

Good luck - iyi shanslar!


I have spent several months total in Turkey (but not in Ankara), kinda as a tourist, but mostly just staying in residential neighborhoods with AirBNB and couchsurfing. Most of my interactions with locals (except my hosts) would be while buying something, or eating out, or just asking directions. I don't remember anyone being unfriendly to me, except in very touristy places. Probably being whiter than average Turk helps here, so maybe it's different if you look like you're from Syria.

Overall my experience is that most people in Turkey can't speak English, unless their job involves dealing with foreigners, or they studied it in college and haven't forgotten it yet. So realistically, Turkish is just a must have for interactions here, unless maybe you're staying in some hipster neighborhood with Erasmus students.

I can recommend Memrise Turkish 1-7 courses, which I found pretty high quality.I imported these courses to Anki, and can explain how to do this in comments.

In Memrise courses the language is quite formal. For more casual language, you can check Turkish Tea Time Facebook page, where they post cartoons with translations. Their podcast is also good, they mostly explain Turkish grammar there.

You can also learn by watching videos with Turkish audio and dual TR,EN subtitles. I can explain how to have 2 subs at the same displayed with mpv player. But it's hard to find such videos with good quality subs. So Turkish channel has some videos at beginner and intermediate levels which can be even interesting to watch.

This channel about some interesting places in Istanbul has pretty good subs in both TR and EN (when available). It's just a normal channel, not aimed to language learners, so it requires more work to understand.


I am surprised if people are really rude to you in Turkey because usually, people are polite and helpful. I can get by in Turkish after two years of evening classes and some help on colloquialisms from Turkish Tea Time, which I would agree is well worth checking out. My advice would be to learn how to be polite in Turkish and the rest will follow. I know Ankara can be more difficult because there are fewer tourists and foreigners there tend to be working for embassies or multinational corporations and probably have a reasonable command of Turkish for their work. It is a language well worth taking the time to learn. Best wishes.


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