How to Improve Your Turkish

Stay calm and learn Turkish - hit the books!

“If you want to know how to improve your Turkish, I have one word for you. Bureaucracy. Forget expensive courses and fancy textbooks. Just spend one day (or maybe a lifetime) trying to get anything of a bureaucratic nature completed, and you’ll be as fluent as any native born Turk. By the time you’ve asked the same person the same thing on yedi separate occasions (and received sekiz different cevap) or the same thing seven times to eight different people (and received numerous different answers) you might need psychiatric treatment, but your Turkish will be better. I guarantee it.

I recently started a new job at a government university. Uni jobs in Turkey come with a lot of perks, like discounted transport, cheap holiday accommodation and subsidised lunches. This being the 21st century, the days of giving a man at a desk at the entrance to the personel yekekhane your staff number before tucking into a hearty meal have long passed. Now you need to have a university kimlik card, which not only acts as an identity card, it also works as a sort of credit card you can use to buy food and stuff on campus.

Now, getting the card is a great example of Turkish bureaucracy in action. The first place you get to practice your Turkish is in the office of the nice little man who does all the paperwork for your department. You carefully explain you want to get your university card and he writes down the name of the person you need to talk on a very small piece of paper. As he explains the location of the personel dairesi, you realise that learning prepositions really isn’t that difficult if you use mime at the same time.

After you track down the building and the right floor, you ask every one you meet as you wander up and down the corridors of officialdom, where you can find so and so’s office. By the time you locate it, using one of those pesky prepositions you didn’t know before, you can ask the question perfectly. Once you enter the office you practice saying Kolay gelsin, hoping your good wishes to the clerks in the room will make them want to help you. Maalesef, that is, unfortunately the only person who doesn’t smile back at you is the person whose help you need. After an unbearable 10 minutes of making your request over and over in the hopes she might say something to tell you she understands what you’re saying, the woman grunts at you and tells you to come back in 10 to 15 days. It’s not until you’re back out in the corridor again trying to find the exit that you realise the one word you didn’t really hear was iş. Adding this to what you did understand means you have to wait 10 to15 working days.

In Turkey, it’s better to think of 10 to 15 working days as closer to 20, just in case. When the 20 days have passed (give or take a bayram, that is a holiday day or two) you go back to the first little man who likes you now because you always say kolay gelsin and ask him about his tatil/hafta sonu/gece (holiday/weekend/evening). He rings the woman who doesn’t smile and you desperately (and obviously) eavesdrop on his end of the conversation. He speaks too quickly for you to understand much, but when he says the word çikmiş you initially panic. Luckily you realise he’s only using reported speech because although the card has been issued, he hasn’t seen it for himself. Thankfully he’s not using the miş tense because he isn’t sure that what he’s being told isn’t true.

After more instructions (and prepositions) you find the little bank kiosk next to (not behind as you first thought) the cafeteria. There a friendly man sits you down, asks for your TC Kimlik numerasi and to look at your ikamet. After showing him your government identity number and retrieving your residence permit from your wallet he has you sign something in four places. Even though your Turkish has improved a lot, it’s not that good yet, so you blithely sign away without reading anything. Then he gives you your lovely new university identity card with your photo on it, the one you had taken after going to the hairdresser. Where you practiced your Turkish. The nice man then goes on to explain a lot of things, in some detail, and at some length. After several goes you realise you need to get a şifre to activate the card. With a pin number you can put money on it and then buy things, like lunch for example, on campus. First he says you can get a şifre by texting the bank. This being Turkey he offers to do it for you and you agree. After thinking of and telling him a pin number not related to any of your existing accounts (hey, he seems nice but still!) he sends the message but maalesef, unfortunately, the bank won’t give you a pin number via a text message. You have to go to the bank, to a particular branch, for them to güncellenecek your mobile number. It doesn’t seem logical that they can update your mobile phone number when they don’t actually have it on record, but now is not the time to question his use of the word update. Instead you go back to your office to ring the bank for yourself.

By now you have plenty you can say in Turkish about the weather but the most important thing is that it’s stinking hot, and you don’t want to schlep down to the bank if you don’t have to. Instead you ring their central number and decide to take the easy way out by pressing 9 for English. When the nice young man speaks hesitantly to you in slow but correct English, you respond in kind. After all, you are an English teacher and it can’t hurt to be nice. Once more you go through the whole process with him, why you are calling and what he can do for you. First you send a text message (the same as the one the other guy sent) and once again you learn that a pin number can’t be issued over the phone (which you already knew). Then he tells you yes, you do have to go to the bank, and to that particular branch. When you tell him you have your university card, government identity number and residence permit to show at the bank, he tells you that will be enough. Just to make sure you ask him if you need to take your passport with you and he says no. You’re really happy when you hang up. It’s a win-win situation, he gets to practice his English and you get confirmation that you understood the man at the bank office on campus. It’s like taking Turkish lessons but without the hassles (and expense) of registering for a class!

Buoyed by your success you walk for 15 minutes in the heat of the day, trying to find as much shade as possible. You are pleasantly surprised, but hot, when the bank actually turns out to be at the address you were given. This isn’t something you can always count on in Turkey. Once inside you bask in the lovely cold klima, and slowly read the choices on the ticket machine. Finally you press the best option for an individual, bireysel muşteri and use your TC kimlik numerasi to get a number. Luckily you only have to wait a few minutes before you are at the counter, explaining that you’ve started a new job at the university. You show your new uni identity card and explain that you need a pin number. You tell the woman you tried to register by phone but the bank doesn’t have your mobile number on file. When you finish you smile expectantly at her.

She tells you you’re in the wrong queue. You follow her pointing finger and say hello to the five men already waiting to be looked after by one woman sitting at a row of four desks. You practice numbers by establishing who is last in line. By the time it’s your turn again it’s much easier the second time around to explain in Turkish why you’re here. The clerk has you sit and takes your university card from your outstretched hand. Next, she asks to see your passport. You tell her you don’t have it with you, and that the man at the bank’s central office told you it wasn’t necessary. Maalesef she says. She needs to see the actual passport or she can’t register your phone number and then issue you with a pin number. You tell her you know the number of your passport, you can give it to her. Maalesef she says with a sigh. You tell her foreigners can’t be issued with a residence permit unless someone in a government department somewhere has seen their passport. You ask her why not just accept your ikamet as proof of who you are? After all, other banks and departments do, although admittedly not all of them all the time. The same goes for the government identity number, you can’t get that unless you have a residence permit and you can’t get that unless, well you know … But maalasef (by now you have come to hate that word), unfortunately without your passport they can’t güncellenecek your phone number even though they never had it in the first place, you can’t get a pin number, so you can’t put money on your card and buy something, for example, lunch, which you should have eaten hours ago. However there is some good news in all this. It turns out you don’t have to come to this particular branch after all. When you get your passport, you can go to any branch, even the branch a minute’s walk away from your home, and get your pin number there.”

You can find out what happened next, and more importantly, whether I could ever eat lunch on campus, in the full version of this story available in my book, Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries.

About Goreme1990

I’m Lisa Morrow, the person behind www.insideoutinistanbul.com. I was born in Sydney, Australia and grew up a leafy middle class North Shore suburb. After finishing high school I went to Sydney University but failed to find my niche. After working as a public servant, cleaner, sales assistant, waitress, bar maid and car counter, I went overseas. Once there I hitchhiked through the UK, travelled in Europe and arrived in Turkey just as the Gulf War was starting. My three months stay in the small central Anatolian village of Göreme changed my life. On my return to Australia I earned a BA Honours Degree in Sociology from Macquarie University. An academic career beckoned but the call to travel was louder. After several false starts I moved to Turkey and lived there for ten years. In 2017 I moved to Lisbon, Portugal, but continue to travel regularly to Istanbul. In addition to my blog I've written a travel narrative memoir called "Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul" and two collections of essays, "Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City" and "Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries". I have a regular segment on San Francisco Turkish radio and in early 2017 I released an audio walking tour called "Stepping back through Chalcedon: Kadikoy Walk", through VoiceMap. In addition I write for various international and Australian magazines and websites, as well as for this blog. A full list of my published articles, with links, can be found on the Writing on Turkey and Writing Beyond Turkey pages.
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