Turkey is one of the more major tourist destinations in the world, receiving around 40 million tourists in 2018 alone, many of them English speakers. But just how widely spoken is English in Turkey and can tourists expect to get by on holiday there without needing any Turkish?
Prevalence of English is actually quite low overall in Turkey, with around 17% of the population reported as speaking English. In Istanbul the rate of English proficiency is somewhat higher, but average English fluency is low compared to other countries.
You may have more luck finding English speakers in the tourist spots, but elsewhere in the country English speakers will be harder to come by and it helps enormously to learn some Turkish to get by.
Recent stats indicate that around 17% of the Turkist population can speak English to some extent, though even many of this small proportion will only be able to speak very basic English. Fluent English speakers are quite rare in Turkey.
The main tourist centers will have a high number of English speakers for obvious reasons. These includes places like Istanbul, Sultanahmet, Cappadocia, or any resort towns on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. You should be fine conversing in English here, since staff will usually be proficient in several langauges.
However if you are venturing out into more normal or rural Turkish neighborhoods, English will not be widely spoken and you will need to be able to converse in Turkish (or point and gesture) to be understood.
Can I Get By With English in Istanbul?
Istanbul deserves special mention here, since it is such an important tourist hotspot globally, receiving millions of visitors every year. The situation with English is usually somewhat better in Istanbul that other parts of Turkey.
One good rule of thumb we found is that walking around central Istanbul, you can usually find one in every three people who can speak some kind of English, or quickly get someone who does. This makes it a bit easier to get by than other parts of the country.
Similarly, in hotels, shops and restaurants in the center you will usually find at least one staff member who can speak English, since English speakers are passing through there in large enough numbers every year for them to be ready to converse in it if need be.
Other people were even more positive, saying they visited Istanbul with no Turkish and still had no problems at all getting by. It is enough of a cosmopolitan and international city for English to be widely spoken there, and as an added bonus, French and German are also spoken there so you can try these as well if you are fluent in them and English isn’t working.
Elsewhere in the country, you are more likely to struggle like we said, except for the coastal tourist resorts. This is where learning some Turkish can come in handy – see below for more on this.
The Prevalence of English in Major Turkish Cities and Resorts
Turkey does have several different regions which are commonly visited by tourists, so let’s be more specific and narrow it down by city. Here is a summary of the general tourist experience of the levels of spoken English in some of the more commonly visited cities in Turkey.
Istanbul – English quite widely spoken in central areas of Istanbul; has the highest rates of English prevalence in Turkey. You won’t have any problems conversing in most hotels, restaurants and shops, and more generally, about one in three people you stop on the street will also speak English. Attractions like the Sultanahmet, Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar will also have staff and guides who can speak English.
Very cosmopolitan city so other languages like German and French also quite widely spoken. Tourists never report any issues getting around in Istanbul. Locals will always appreciate you using a few basic Turkish phrases though. See further below for this – the basics are not too difficult.
Ankara – Capital of Turkey and has a large student population, so levels of English slightly higher around the university and with students. If you stop young people here you have a decent chance of being able to converse in English. Elsewhere English prevalence is patchy; overall Ankara is considered a city somewhat closed off to tourism. Have some basic Turkish phrases if you visit here. Open conversations in Turkish and sometimes they will switch to English.
Marmaris – Loads of resorts here where English and other languages will be spoken. Anyone working in tourism will be able to communicate in English. Same for bigger hotels and restaurants.
Antayla – Beautiful coastal city with great year round climate. Plenty of resorts here, who will have staff who can speak English. The same thing for staff at most hotels and restaurants, with some having English menus as well. Outside of tourism, English will be very rare.
Turkish Riviera – Covers the south west corner of Turkey. Includes Marmaris & Antalya, but also Alanya, Kemer, Fethiye, Bodrum, Fethiye, Didim, Kuşadası and Çeşme. If you are staying in any resort here, they will have staff who can speak English. German also widely spoken. Far less English in the general population though.
The Language Shortfall in Turkey
This low prevalence of English speakers in Turkey overall is in some ways surprising, since English is taught at schools in there, with some student spending up to 1000 hours learning English, yet very few Turks are actually able to fluently speak it when put to the test.
This may be partly because they don’t have many English speakers to practise with, and also that Turkish culture does not tend to integrate much English in the form of undubbed films and TV in the way that countries such as Portugal do, so natives have less chance to pick it up this way.
Some people also criticize the way that English is taught in Turkey, with the format often being stale and not practical or target orientated enough. They mention that they learnt more just interacting with English people as tour guides for example than by spending hundreds of hours learning in a dry classroom environment.
The government has started to realize that the lack of widespead English skills in the country does have implications in terms of international relations – Turkey is of course thinking of joining the European Union – and of course international business since the American market in particular is so huge.
Have only one fifth of the population able to speak English, and many of them not fluent, makes it much harder for Turkey to integrate and also compete internationally. Changes are being made to the education system there but will take many years to really bring a result.
Learning Some Basic Turkish
Turkish is considered one of the harder languages to learn, with many people saying it does not come naturally to native English speakers and does require quite a bit of practice to truly master it. However here are some basic holiday phrases that aren’t too difficult to learn by themselves that will help you get by for shorter stays there.
The language is quite to different to the main European ones, and words tend to be pronounced “as is”, with very few letters dropped in the way that some of the more nasal romance languages like French and Portuguese do. Pronunciation tends to be harsher than these European languages.
|Goodbye (person leaving)||Hoşçakal||Hosh-chakal|
|Goodbye (person staying)||Güle güle||Guu-leh Guu-leh|
|Thankyou||Teşekkür ederim||Teshey-kur edd-er-um|
|Sorry||Özür dilerim||Ouz-ur dill-earim|
|You're welcome||Birşey değil||Beer-shey dey-eel|
|Pleased to meet you||Memnum oldum||Memnum oll-dum|
|Do you speak English?||İngilizce biliyor musunuz?||Inn-glitchay Bill-iyor muss-un-uss?
|I don't understand||Anlamıyorum||Annla-mi-yorum|
|I dont speak English||Türkçe bilmiyorum||Turk-cheh Billmi-yorum|
|Could you please repeat?||Şunu tekrar edebilir misiniz?||Shunu Tekra eddeb-illear miss-initz?
|Where is the bathroom/restroom?||Afedersiniz, tuvalet nerede?||Affedar-sinitz, toovoy-lett nerey-de?|
|How much does it cost?||Ne kadar?||Ney kadar?|
|The bill/check please||Hesap Lütfen||Hey-sap lootfen|
General rules for Turkish accent letters pronunciation:
- ş = sh
- ç = ch
- ö = double o as in “book”
- ü = oo sound as in “flute”
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So as you can see the Turkish languages has it’s positives and it’s drawbacks. On the plus side it pronounces largely as it reads and you don’t have to go through the hassle of remembering to drop or soften loads of vowels like you do in some of the European languages.
On the negative side it’s just learning how the different accents are pronounced, which can sometimes alter how words sound. The word order is also different, with sentences not structured in the same way as English.
Travel Essentials For Visiting Turkey
- Essential stats on Turkey:
- Population: 84 million
- Time zone: EST +8 hours; GMT +3 hours.
- Currency: Turkish lira (TRY) ($1 = 18.56 TRY; £1= 21.95 TRY at time of writing)
- International calling code: +90 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the right
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- Banking – Turkey is a tricky country to draw out cash in – most ATMs will try to charge you. If you don’t want to get stung with high ATM fees, check out our article on using ATMs in Turkey, plus the Wise Borderless Card, which allows you to open up balances in many different currencies (including Turkish Lira – complete with local bank details) and spend for free on your card, plus draw out a certain amount of lira for free at ATMs each month.
- SIM Cards – From personal experience, SIM cards are a rip off if you buy them in Turkey, especially for shorter trips. If you’d rather not be messing about with physical SIM cards, E-SIMs (digital SIM cards) are now available. If your phone is unlocked and E-SIM compatible, you can take advantage of Airalo‘s cheap, data only (no calls/texts) E-SIM cards, available for 200 countries, which you can download to your phone. With customized cheap E-SIM packages tailored for your data needs and length of stay. Click here to view Airalo’s E-SIMs now (almost all countries covered). Pay for what you need, for how long you need – no getting ripped off with tourist SIM cards and roaming charges.
- Shopping – see our guide on the best budget supermarkets in Turkey to get your shopping in cheaply.