What Languages Do Turkish People Speak?


As a Turkish local who lived most of his life in Turkey, I will answer all your questions about native languages and secondary languages spoken in Turkey. I also added reliable surveys to my answer so that the information I provide is not limited to my experience.

What Languages Do Turkish People Speak? Turkish is the official language and the main spoken language in Turkey. 99% of Turkish people speak Turkish. %93 of Turkish people speak Turkish as their mother tongue, and 6% speak Turkish as a secondary language. 

Minority languages spoken in Turkey are Kurdish (6%), Arabic (1,2%). Other rarely spoken languages are Greek, Circassian, Armenian, Ladino (Medieval Spanish), and other Balkan languages.

Additionally, 18% of Turkish people speak English, and %4 of Turkish people speak German as their second language. The numbers I mentioned above are compiled from EU stats and BBC.

In this blog, I will tell you about native languages, and secondary languages are spoken in Turkey and how the spoken languages have changed in the last 50 years.

Native Languages in Turkey Percentage
Turkish91%
Both Turkish and Other2%
Kurdish6%
Arabic1,2%
OthersLess than 1%
Languages Spoken by Turkish People as Native Speakers
Source EU’s Eurobarometer 2005 Survey

How many languages do Turkish People speak?

Primary languages spoken in Turkey are Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, English, and German languages. There are also about 30 ethnic languages, mostly spoken by small communities of a few thousand people.

Turkish citizens mainly speak Turkish as their mother tongue. The second most spoken native language is Kurdish. The third language with the most number of native speakers is the Arabic language. Also, English and German languages are commonly spoken as secondary languages. 

Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic share many common words due to cultural ties, yet speakers of these languages cannot understand each other. There is no mutual intelligibility between Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic.

Turkish is a Turkic language, Arabic is a Semitic language and Kurdish is an Indo-Iranian language. For this reason, the origins, structure, and grammar of these languages are different.

Turkish Language 

99% of the Turkish population speak Turkish at various levels.  93% of Turkish people speak Turkish as their native language and 6% as their second language. Source

Turkish is an Altaic language, and Turkish is classified as a Turkic Language. The closest language to Turkish is Azerbaijani. Turkish is mutually intelligible with Azerbaijani,  Turkmen, Uzbek, Uyghur, Tatar, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz languages.

If you are interested in learning Turkish, this is the book that most of my friends use. You can check the book on Amazon.

Turkic Languages Map

Dark blue areas are the countries with an official Turkic language. Light blue areas are autonomous regions with an official Turkic language. Red dots represent countries where a minority population (of at least 50 thousand) speaks a Turkic language. 

Turkish is a language that originated in Middle Asia, and its dialects are spoken in Middle Asia by more than 200 million people.

Please read my article on the origins of the Turkish language if you wish to learn more about the subject.

Kurdish Language 

Kurdish is an Indo-European Language and is classified as an Iranian Language. Linguistically, Kurdish is closer to European Languages than Turkish or Arabic.

It is estimated that Kurdish people are 15% and 20% of the population of Turkey. Yet, Kurdish descendants of Turkish people do not always know the Kurdish language. 

BBC estimates 6% of the Turkish population speaks Kurdish as their mother tongue. The main Kurdish dialects spoken in Turkey are Northern Kurdish and Zaza.  Source 

Kurdish is not mutually intelligible with Turkish and Arabic. Persian and other Iranian language speakers have varying degrees of mutual intelligibility with Kurdish. Source

Read another article of mine to learn more about the relationship between Persian and Turkish languages.

Kurdish Indo-Iranian Language Family

Kurdish is Indo-Iranian Language. The closest language to Kurdish is the Iranian Language.

Arabic Language in Turkey

There are also 2 million Turkish citizens with ancestry in Turkey, and 1-2% percent of the native Turkish population speaks Arabic. Recently the number of Arabic speakers increased drastically in Turkey with the arrival of 3 million Syrian refugees. Source

Arabic is a Semitic language in the Afro-Asiatic language family. Arabic is similar to Hebrew, Maltese, and Ethiopian (Amharic)  languages.

Please read my article on the differences and similarities between Arabic and Turkish if you wish to learn more about the subject.

Arabic is a language mostly spoken in North Africa and the Middle East. It is a minority language in Turkey.

Secondary Languages Spoken in Turkey

According to the Eurobarometer 2006 survey, 33% of Turkish people speak one secondary language, 5%  of Turkish people speak two secondary languages, and 1% of  Turkish people speak three secondary languages in addition to their native language.

Urbanization and globalization that Turkish society experienced in the last decades increased Turkish society’s willingness to learn new languages.

According to the Eurobarometer survey, the biggest obstacle for Turkish people when learning a new language is the costs, and 95% of Turks consider that knowing foreign languages is useful.

In my family, my sister and I speak Turkish, English, and basic Spanish. My wife speaks Turkish and basic Italian. Yet, the older generation has a lower rate of speaking foreign languages.

Suggested Reading: What Languages are Spoken in Istanbul?

How Many Foreign Languages DoTurkish People Speak?

Number of LanguagesPercentage
One Language33%
Two Languages5%
Three Languages1%
None67%
Number of Languages Turkish People can speak enough to have a conversation  (excluding their mother tongue)
Source  EU’s Eurobarometer 2006 Survey.

Secondary Languages Spoken by Turkish People

18% of Turkish people speak English, and %4 of Turkish people speak German as their second language. Turkish is also popular as a secondary language. 7% of Turkish people speak Turkish as a secondary language.

LanguagePercentage
English
18%
Turkish7%
German4%
Secondary Languages Spoken by Turkish People
Source  EU’s Eurobarometer 2005 Survey.

17 million Turkish speak English, and 4 million speak German as a secondary language. I couldn’t confirm the number of speakers, but I can say that Russian, French, Spanish, and Italian are other popular secondary languages in Turkey. Source

According to a study by the British Council, German, French, Spanish, Russian are other most popular secondary languages in Turkey.

Minority communities also speak Spanish and Italian in Turkey as their native languages.

For example, Ladino (Medieval form of Spanish) is still spoken by the Turkish Jewish community as their ancestral language. Turkish Jews are primarily descendants of Spanish Jews that fled the Spanish Inquisition around 1492.

Check my articles on Languages Similar to Turkish and Turkic Languages to learn grammatically similar and mutually intelligible languages with Turkish.

How many Turks speak English? How Widely Spoken is English in Turkey?

I used the Eurobarometer survey until this point, but this survey does not shed light on the level of English spoken by Turkish people. To explain how widely English is spoken in Turkey, I used statistics from  EFI surveys, yearly surveys answered by more than 2 million people every year.

17 million (which is %18 of) Turkish Population speaks English as a secondary language, yet the overall English proficiency of Turkish speakers is lower than you may expect.

The English proficiency level of Turkish speakers is a bit lower than Brazil and Japan and a bit higher than Mexican speakers. 

English Proficiency in the World
Source EFI

Younger generations have a higher rate of English speakers, and most Turkish schools teach English as a secondary language. Yet, the English language is different and hard to learn for Turkish people.

Turkish speakers rank as 69th country among 100 countries in EFI. Turkey has one of the lowest rankings in Europe and one of the high rankings in Asia in terms of English proficiency. 

English is more widely spoken in metropolitan cities and tourist centers. In Istanbul, Izmir, Eskisehir, Ankara, Mersin, Bursa, you will easily communicate and find more English speakers. 

In urban areas, you may have to resort to sign language to communicate because it is rare to find English speakers, but you will experience more extraordinary hospitality. 

In major tourist destinations like Antalya, Bodrum, Kusadasi, you will face no problem and enjoy your life without knowing the local language.

Languages Spoken in Turkey

The most extensive survey about the languages spoken in Turkey was conducted in the 1965 Census.

The importance of this survey comes from the number of people answered. The 1965 Census was answered by every Turkish citizen at the time.

What Languages Do Turkish People Speak?  ( in 1965)

Language (Mother Tongue)Percentage
Turkish84,54%
Kurdish (Northern Dialect & Zaza)12,98%
Arabic1,38%
Other Turkic languages0.28%
Balkan languages0.23%
Laz0.12%
Other0.12%
Circassian languages0.11%
Armenian0.07%
Other Caucasian languages0.07%
Greek0.06%
West European languages0.03%
Coptic0.01%
Jewish languages0.01%
Native speakers percentage in Turkey as of 1965

Now after telling you all the statistics. I can tell you my own experiences and how the languages spoken in Turkey have changed since 1965.

Turkish has become the undisputed language of Turkey in recent years. 

In 1965,  84,54% of Turkish people stated Turkish as their mother tongue.

Today %93 of Turkish citizens people Turkish as their native language, and only 1% of the Turkish population does not speak Turkish at any level.

The new generation of Kurdish people speak Turkish as their mother tongue, and more Kurdish speak Turkish as secondary languages. 

Due to the urbanization of Turkish society, since the 1960s, there has been significant population movement from villages to cities.

This migration also led to integration between Turkish and Kurdish people. Now, new generations of Kurdish people are far more likely to speak Turkish as their mother tongue.

Today, minority languages are even more rarely spoken.

In 1965, more than 30 native languages were spoken in Turkey. The number of dialects and some minority languages are being lost to time. I do not know if this is a bad thing, but I wish my grandfather taught me Cretan Greek. Let me tell you a story of my family history.

At the beginning of the 1900s, there was a mass emigration of Turkish people from the Balkans, Crimea, and Caucasus areas, where the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire lost control.

In those days, religion was a determining factor for ethnicity rather than the language that you spoke. So if you are a Muslim, you were Turkish regardless of any other criteria, and being a Turkish was enough reason to be expelled in any Balkan country.

It is estimated that 5-7 million Muslim migrants arrived in Turkey in this period. Yet, most of them did not know how to speak Turkish or were not proficient in speaking Turkish. Source

SUGGESTED READING: Turkish vs the Greek Language

Two of these refugees are my grandfathers, one of them is from Crete, Greece and my other grandfather is from Bulgaria.

My father’s father was a native speaker of the Cretan Greek language, and he was not fluent in Turkish when he arrived in Turkey. Yet, all of his descendants are speaking Turkish.

When he passed away, nobody else remained to speak the Cretan Greek language in the family.  I wished he taught us the language, but his generation preferred Turkish, and they did not transfer their language to their children. 

At those times, many Turkish willingly abandoned their mother tongues to accept Turkish as their primary language.

Usage of the Arabic language is increasing in Turkey.

There has always been an Arab minority in Turkey, making up %1-2 percent of the Turkish population. But recently, the number of Arabic speakers has increased drastically in Turkey with the arrival of 3 million Syrian refugees. Source

Now in every city in Turkey,  you can see Arabic shops and Arabic neighborhoods. If you are an Arab native speaker, in some places in Turkey, you can feel at home.

Efe Genit

I am a father, a passionate traveler, and a Turkish lawyer. You can enjoy my guides and tips about Turkey that only Turkish locals would know.

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