Learning Arabic, Farsi and Turkish demystifies the region

German graduate Jakob Thomae, 24, who completed his BA in Turkish at Bogazici University, Istanbul

German graduate Jakob Thomae, 24, who completed his BA in Turkish at Bogazici University, Istanbul

Learning Arabic, Farsi and Turkish demystifies the region

13 March 2014

By Francesca Walford

Arabic, Farsi and Turkish are among the most widely spoken languages in the world. The Languages and Cultures of the Middle East department at the School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS), University of London, is the UK’s largest university department specialising in Middle Eastern languages and cultures.

German graduate Jakob Thomae, 24, completed his BA in Turkish at Bogazici University, Istanbul and at SOAS. He chose to learn Turkish because it is the second most widely-spoken language in Germany, where he was raised.

“I come from a district in Berlin called Little Istanbul; as I was growing up my best friend was Turkish, and on my first football team, Germans were the minority. I wanted to learn a language that was part of the culture I grew up with,” he says.

But in his view there are not enough people in the world learning Turkish.

“At SOAS, the ratio of people studying Turkish to Arabic was probably one to 20. That is despite the fact that the ratio of speakers is roughly one Turkish speaker to four Arabic speakers”, states Thomae.

More than 72 million people speak Turkish as their first language, making it one of the globe’s 15 most widely spoken first languages. Apart from speakers in Turkey, it is also spoken by large communities in Cyprus, Iraq, Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, and Germany.

About 15 million people speak Turkish as a second language.

“People don’t appreciate the geopolitical weight that Turkey has. It borders Europe, the Arabic world, Iran, and Russia. It is ranked in the Top 20 largest economies, a NATO member, and a former colonial power,” adds Thomae.

Thomae believes having Turkish on a CV gives a candidate extra credence, making them stand out from other applicants. “People are interested in why you study Turkish. I applied to a political think tank that was not related to Turkey. I was told that the only reason I was asked to an interview was to find out why I had chosen that degree. I got the job.”

Thomae thinks that studying Latin and French at school made Turkish easier to learn. As well as some shared vocabulary with French, there is an added absence of gender forms for nouns and adjectives which somewhat simplifies things.

“Turkish is incredibly logical, for people who think in a structured way it is fascinating, because it is like a perfectly constructed riddle asking to be solved.”

“I never spent more than 15 to 20 minutes on Turkish a day, but I did this every single day for two years and then I spoke it,” Thomae adds.

“Learning a foreign language like Turkish has been invaluable in understanding the mechanisms of every language better; my ability to write and speak in other languages has even improved,” he says.

After studying in Istanbul for a year, Thomae strongly feels that no country is comparable to Turkey.

“It is a living bridge between Asia and Europe. The clash and marriage of culture that has taken place in Turkey every day for centuries makes it one of the most exciting places to live,” he adds.

He firmly believes people should try and learn the language to truly experience Turkish culture, even though Turkish hospitality can often transcend barriers of language. “If you do speak Turkish to people, it’s like you just bought them a Ferrari, that’s how pleased they are,” Thomae adds.

“Experiencing the hospitality of a Turkish family while speaking Turkish is an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Thomae says.

“I regularly get kebabs for free wherever I go, or at the very least a soda for the road”, adds Thomae laughing. “But the funniest situations happen when people assume you can’t understand and talk about you on the bus”.

Thomae offers one main tip for people looking to learn Turkish: “Don’t bother with ‘power learning sessions’ once or twice a week. Just make sure you do it every day – from a phone app, flashcards on the tube, or before you go to sleep – make the language part of your routine.”

Similarly to Turkish, Farsi is ranked highly on the list of the world’s 20 most widely spoken first languages. It is known as Farsi in Iran, Dari in Afghanistan and Tajik in Tajikistan (but often generalised as Persian), with 62 million native speakers and another 50 million who speak it as their second language.

Laure Venier, 24, from Manchester, completed her BA in Farsi and Religious Studies at SOAS. But unlike Thomae, she did not grow up immersed in Persian culture. She did however, have a passion for languages and travel books which motivated her decision.

“I became obsessed with stories of Iran; Persian language has such a rich and vibrant history,” Venier says.

Persian is spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and often understood in areas of Armenia, Azerbaijan, India, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Turkey – places regularly in the media.

“I think that learning a language such as Persian gives you a small insight into the beauty of a much maligned part of the world. When I hear Persian and the word Iran, I think of friendly people, poetry, history, beautiful landscapes, music and good food, unlike many people who have been fed a much different image by the media,” states Venier.

The Farsi alphabet consists of 32 letters, and is written from right to left. Learning Farsi can help with other languages. In fact, Arabic, Kurdish, Urdu and Hindi share 40 per cent of its vocabulary and 30 per cent of its grammar as they are all part of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family.

What is more Venier insists that it is not difficult to learn.

“It’s a lot easier than learning Arabic! It’s an Indo-European language and even has French loan words such as ‘merci’ and the accent is beautiful,” Venier says.

Venier feels that the key difficulty lies in the lack of opportunity to practise. “There just aren’t that many institutes teaching Persian and there haven’t been many books published past beginner’s level. At least with the Internet and language exchanges there is always a way.”

Venier says her main goal in studying Farsi is to “be able to read the poetry of Omar Khayyám without a dictionary.”

As far as career prospects are concerned, she adds: “If you get good competence in Persian, it is also very valuable and will continue to be so as Iran opens up to the international community.”

Paul Marotta, 24, currently studying for his PhD in History at SOAS, is teaching himself Arabic. Similarly to Venier, Marotta agrees these languages are not difficult to learn. “Many speakers of European languages are put off by the imagined difficulty of learning a non-Western script, although this is the least difficult aspect,” he states.

Arabic even shares the same punctuation marks and rules as English. Once the Arabic alphabet has been mastered, it is said to greatly help with the learning of other languages, such as Farsi, Urdu, Pashto and Kurdish.

Arabic is also the official language of 22 countries and the native language of more than 200 million people spread around the globe.  

Marotta was motivated to learn Arabic to assist in his academic research and fieldwork. He says it excites him greatly being able to access historical texts and learn more about Islam by knowing Arabic since it is the Holy language of Islam and of the Qur’an, used by over 1.5 billion Muslims.  

“Learning this language serves to de-mystify much of what appears alien about Arabic-speaking regions,” Marotta says.

On 21 March more than 300 million people across the world will celebrate the Persian spring festival of Nowruz. This marks the start of the New Year in Iran and across parts of Asia and the Middle East (Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, India, Macedonia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan).

The day marks the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun crosses the equator, as well as the renewal of nature.

The festivities, which originated in Iran, are focused around the theme of renewal between families, friends and neighbours. People clean their houses in preparation to start afresh, and painted eggs and flowers are used for spring decorations Some people celebrate by jumping over bonfires, to signify light overcoming darkness.  The ancient festival promotes values of peace and solidarity within families, communities, and friendships and promotes diversity of cultures.

The third and final Open Your Eyes to Asian languages workshop was held on Saturday, 15 March at Asia House in London. Young people aged 18-24 got the chance to have a taster of Arabic, Farsi and Turkish for free.

Francesca recently completed an internship at Asia House and is currently residing in China.