Learn Uyghur | Ultimate Guide to Available Resources
Do you have an interested to learn Uyghur? While the resources are sparse, they do exist. In this comprehensive guide to learning Uyghur, I’d like to share with you the type of resources available and the best ways to learn the Uyghur language both inside and outside of China.
Before I lay out the types of Uyghur language resources that are available to you as you consider learning the language, I’d like to start by telling you a bit of my story.
Because, as you know, it’s not like Uyghur is a language that most people wake up and say: “Gee, it sure would be useful to know how to speak Uyghur.”
Editor’s Note: Many of the links in this article are direct downloads to PDF resources. Over the past few years, I’ve received many comments from people concerned about the copyright infringement. Because most of these books are out of print and almost impossible to find, here’s our stand: if it’s available for legitimate purchase, we’ll link to purchase. If it’s nowhere to be found, we will link to the free PDF download.
My Journey to Learn the Uyghur Language
Back in 2008, I made a somewhat whimsical decision to spend a year in Xinjiang and to learn the Uyghur language. I was really getting into languages at that point and I guess that something about the relative “obscurity” of Uyghur appealed to me.
By virtue of this same obscurity, the best basic materials that I could find online was an alphabet chart with hints about the pronunciation – something that I printed out and practiced diligently with the staff of a small Muslim noodle shop in Shanghai while preparing for a flight to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
Once in Urumqi, I made a trip to the biggest bookstore there was and was recommended a copy of 大众维语 (dàzhòng wéiyǔ, “Popular Uyghur”) – a two-part book on the language in Mandarin, and the only real book on the language that they had.
It came with some audio tapes. Not CDs – tapes. And so, I promptly went to the bazaar and went back in time by getting myself a walkman.
I was starting to ask myself: “Is it even possible to properly learn Uyghur at all?”
For someone who had only studied French and Mandarin as foreign languages – both of which have an incredible abundance of teaching and learning materials – it should not be surprising that I was starting to ask myself: “Is it even possible to properly learn this language at all?”
All of the materials at my disposition being in Mandarin, it often felt as if I was refining a language I already knew more than I was learning the one I knew nothing about.
Things would, of course, get better. As time passed, I discovered more Uyghur language materials. Many of these were still in Mandarin, but some were in English, and some were quite good. Some were a bit older and simply obscure – difficult to learn about and even more difficult to acquire – but many were more recent, released only in the past decade.
However, although both the situation and the trend now appear to be much better than what they once were, the question of “How do I learn Uyghur as a foreign language?” is still being asked.
The purpose of this article is to outline the options available to you. Given the scarcity of Uyghur language classes, there will be particular emphasis on self-study.
As different people might want to learn Uyghur for different reasons and to different levels of proficiency, the resources will be broken into three more-or-less independent parts. Click on the link to jump to that section of this article.
- The Respectful Tourist – You plan to visit Xinjiang and you want to show your good will by attempting to speak the local language for the week or two that you’re there.
- Moving to Xinjiang – The second will be an extension, intended for those who are planning to move to Xinjiang or spend a considerable amount of time there (for work, study, research, fun, or whatnot).
- Linguists – Finally, the last part will be intended for the more academically oriented linguists who plan to add Uyghur to their arsenal – the “pros”.
Basic Uyghur Language for Tourists
If Xinjiang is the main destination of your trip and you are feeling particularly ambitious and are willing to dedicate some time to cultural preparations, then you could invest in one of these three options:
1. Uyghur For Tourist Audio Podcast ($5.99)
This Uyghur for Tourists podcast consists of a series of five teaching episodes intended to give you very basic phrases you can use while traveling around Xinjiang.
Learn how to greet people, how to ask for the bathroom, how to order food, and how to use numbers for bartering. In a matter of just a couple hours, you can have enough Uyghur language to be dangerous as you move around Xinjiang.
Purchase Uyghur for Tourists ($5.99)
BONUS! In addition to the podcast, the download also includes all the Anki flashcards for the phases used so that you can review them on the go (thanks to Fragrant Mandarin for making this resource available!)
2. Uighur Dictionary & Phrasebooks (~$13)
If you’d like something a little more robust, you can find a couple of newer Uyghur phrasebooks to take along your travels on Amazon. There are two I recommend, which you can see below:
3. Free Uyghur Language Resources
If you really don’t feel like paying for a book, there are a few free language resources which, although they aren’t entirely beginner-friendly, they are certainly wallet-friendly.
- Greetings from the Teklimakan: Published by the University of Kansas, this is one of the best free resources available online for those wanting to learn to speak Uyghur (it’s also been adapted for YouTube). If you are more of the multi-country-touring backpacker/biker/desperado variety, with Xinjiang just one stop of many as you tear your way through Asia, then you’re probably just interested in a few spoken phrases to ensure your survival.
- FarWestChina’s Uyghur/Mandarin Phrase Page: Although the phrases here are limited and they’re very much just the basics, it’s free and it’s worth checking out.
- Tatoeba: This sentence translation website includes a searchable repository of 7,000+ Uyghur sentences. They don’t all have English translations and they aren’t all correct, though.
One final option that you could consider would be to walk into a bookstore once in China (the 新华书店, xīnhuá shūdiàn, for example) and to ask for a book about 维语会话 (wéiyǔ huìhuà, “Uyghur Conversation”).
Most likely, you’ll be taken to a section with lots of phrasebooks, most of them in Mandarin but some, if you’re lucky, in English.
BONUS: Quick Uyghur Tourist Phrases
For the sake of convenience, I’ll also include my top seven personal favorite phrases:
- “men (Americalik)” “I am (American)” – Use this to say where you’re from, as the locals will be curious. If you’re not from America, then say the name of your country and add “lik” at the end. Uyghur speakers reading this will roll their eyes and linguists may feel the urge to vomit, but this is sufficient as an approximation for most practical purposes.
- “menin smim (John), sminiz neme?” “My name is (John). What’s your name?” – Just insert your name and then listen attentively for theirs.
- “(tamak) barmo?” “Is there (food)?” – Very useful if you come to some place that looks like it might have food, but are not sure!
- “(hajethana) neda?” “Where is (the bathroom)?” – Very important, needless to say.
- “yahshimu siz”, “rehmet”, “hosh”, “makul” “How are you?”, “Thank you”, “Bye”, “Okay” – Your basic etiquette for the day.
- “neche pul?” “How much?” – For the bazaar.
- “bolmaidu” “That’s not okay.” – For when “no” really means no.
You can, of course, experiment by putting other nouns in the parentheses once/if you acquire a dictionary. A good online resource, though it requires you to be familiar with the Uyghur script, is Yulghun (although this is currently blocked in China, so consider getting a dictionary once in Xinjiang if you don’t have a means of bypassing the Great Firewall).
Learn Uyghur (for the Resident)
If you’re planning on sticking around for more than just a few weeks and would like to learn Uyghur with the eventual goal of having interesting, meaningful conversations with the good people of Xinjiang, then a phrasebook will not be enough and you will be forced to study the grammar.
As a starting point, the book from Kansas University I mentioned earlier remains my number-one recommendation – it is both free and comprehensive.
Beginning Uyghur for English Speakers and Uyghur: An Elementary Textbook are also good alternatives, though here you would have to pay and both books are less geared towards self-study (they are, however, excellent if you can find a native speaker to work with you).
Each of these are beginner-friendly, make no assumptions on your linguistic background, and do as much to immerse you in the language and culture as possibly.
The latter in particular is full of colorful pictures and is fairly comprehensive, but also comes with a heavier price tag, so weigh the pros and cons and choose accordingly.
Yet another not-so-bad alternative is Hamit Zakir’s Introduction to Modern Uighur (links to a PDF version of the book, whose cover you can see to the right).
Once you’ve gone through and mastered one of these four, you basically have the grammatical foundations you need to go on to the intermediate levels.
Intermediate Level Uyghur Lanaguage Learning
If you’re feeling a bit masochistic, then Hamit Tömür’s Modern Uyghur Grammar (link to PDF download) is THE book to consult, as it delves into nearly all of the grammatical concepts that you could need.
If mastered, it will demystify nearly all of the Uyghur language for you, letting you read and understand the vast majority of modern written Uyghur with the modest help of a dictionary.
A more compact alternative is Frederick De Jong’s A Grammar of Modern Uyghur, although it is not as comprehensive as Tömür’s and comes with a hefty price tag.
If you would like to take a break from reading textbooks, then Nabijan Tursun’s Uyghur Reader (link to PDF since it is no longer in print) is an excellent collection of annotated reading selections intended for intermediate-level learners, provided, again, that you are willing to pay.
Uyghur for the Linguist (Advanced)
If languages are what you do, and terms like “morpheme”, “copula”, and “fricativization of bilabials” are your standard jargon, then you’re fairly lucky, as the academic literature on Uyghur is quite vast in comparison to what is available to learners.
In addition to going through the learner-oriented materials discussed above, you might also be interested in:
- Spoken Uyghur by Reinhard F. Hahn, and all of the many references therein.
- The Turfan Dialect of Uyghur by Abdurishid Yakup (and all of the references therein). This book can be viewed in its entirety on Google Books.
- Modern Uigur by E. N. Nadzhip
Once your written Uyghur reaches an upper intermediate or advanced level, you can also tackle all of the books written by Uyghur linguists for Uyghur linguists.
Uyghur bookstores and private booksellers in Xinjiang are probably the best way to go for obtaining these, but you can also find a few scanned versions here.
Conclusion | Resources to Learn Uyghur
Hopefully, the references provided above keep you busy and help you in your Uyghur-learning quest, however grand and whatever its motivation. To wrap this up, I would like to emphasize the following additional points as I feel like this article would be incomplete without them:
- The materials presented above together with a good amount of diligent self-study can teach you to read and write like a native, but nothing beats immersive learning, so search out conversations with native Uyghur speakers whenever possible and then hit the books. If you are in Xinjiang, this is probably much easier, though you might have to get creative at times (personally, I’ve volunteered as a waiter at a restaurant before to get more speaking practice… and I know that I wasn’t the first to do so). If you’re outside, there are websites like My Language Exchange where you can meet Uyghur speakers and do a sort of tandem language exchange over Skype. It does work. Facebook also has a few Uyghur-related groups that could probably introduce you to native speakers who could then help you. My personal experience is that most native Uyghur speakers are more than happy to teach you their language and are generally very encouraging of your attempts to learn. That being said, do still hit the books. While practicing with native speakers is vital, you will quickly discover that few of them can explain to you the grammar of their language the way that a good textbook can.
- Professional instruction is great provided you can find it. If you are in the United States, then there are several good programs at your disposal. If you are in Xinjiang, then you might consider taking classes at one of the local universities, although these seem to have gotten more restrictive over the past few years.
- A good quantity of materials is also available in other languages, such as Mandarin, Russian, and even German. I have not mentioned them here, but those multilingual readers who are interested may find them listed and (mostly) available for download from my personal collection.
May you have the best of luck in learning this challenging but wonderful language!
About the Author
Gene Bunin is a world traveler and scholar, with particular interests in mathematics, writing, and languages (of which Uyghur is first and foremost, of course). A collection of his work, which includes a more comprehensive review of the different materials and the draft-in-preparation of an Uyghur grammar e-book, may be found on his personal website.
First of all I would like to thank you both for making this available, and especially Gene because the Tomur grammar is invaluable.
I wonder if you would add a forth category of learner: the guy who supports the Uyghur people and wants to at least be able to read news and literature & who may never make it over to Xinjiang.
It was this website, Josh, that made me decide to fit Uyghur into my schedule and fulfill a decade-old goal of mine.
My real question for you, Gene, is, what do you know about a possible second volume of the University of Kansas text? I’m still in shock that this dream of a book is free. The only other free resource I’ve seen that’s comparable to it are the Pashto materials on the ERIC site, which don’t have audio.
I was eagerly awaiting this article and it was not a disappointment. Thanks to you both, again.
Josh Summers on April 8th, 2014 at 4:48 am
I’m so glad you found this article useful, Jeremy, and it’s encouraging to hear that this website inspired you to fulfill that goal. Will you be able to make your way out here to Xinjiang anytime soon?
Gene on April 13th, 2014 at 5:09 pm
I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Regarding the second volume: a certain traveler once gave me the pdf of the draft of the second book (and by “draft”, I really mean draft, with lots of empty content and incomplete sections). If you want, you can contact me and I could share these with you on a person-to-person basis.
Regarding their plans, you’d probably have to e-mail the authors and ask them how they’re advancing. I suspect that a second volume is in the works, but seeing as it has been a volunteer (i.e., non-funded) project, my guess is that it could take some time.
Hope that helps!
It doesn’t look likely that I will make it out there any time soon, but who knows, in five or ten years, by which time I’ll hopefully be able to read well and make small talk thanks to these resources.
Mehmet on February 20th, 2015 at 8:22 pm
Hey Jeremy !
This is Mehmet. I am a student here in States, living in Fairfax,VA.
If you need help about learning Uyghur language, I am happy to help you !
Very interesting and useful! Thanks!
RanE on April 8th, 2014 at 8:28 pm
Also, just to get the hanging of the language, would you mind translating the following three sentences, possibly with deconstruction?
– I love green apples.
– Green apples are good too.
– Is this my apple or your apple?
Josh Summers on April 9th, 2014 at 2:22 am
Hey RanE, thanks so much for your comments and I hope you’re able to use a lot of these resources. I don’t know about Gene, but for me I don’t want to dive into translation services here. It’s a slippery slope :) Thanks for your understanding!
Mehmet on February 20th, 2015 at 8:25 pm
1. Men yishil almini yaxshi korimen.
2. Yishil almimu yaxshi.
3. Bu mining almammu yaki siningmu ?
Josh your info about Uighur books is very useful, thank you very much. We would recommend your website to our friends.
Good luck in your work,
With great respect
Josh Summers on May 3rd, 2014 at 11:44 am
Thank you, Mikhinur! I’m glad you found it useful and I appreciate any recommendations you can give. :)
i like to know more about the uyghur people
Wow, this is a great list. Truly thanks, now I have to find the time to study it again.
That “Introduction to modern Uighur” helped me learn a lot during 6 months in Xinjiang. But also back in those days there was a hand-held uighur dictionary computer. Which makes me wonder if there are any good Uighur language dictionaries for the iPhone yet.
Gene on January 7th, 2016 at 2:32 am
There are two – Bilkan and Okyan.
You should be able to find both in the App Store. Bilkan is free, I believe, while Okyan costs a little if you get the full version. I prefer Bilkan, although it’s not as comprehensive and doesn’t seem to open ever since I upgraded my OS to 9.0.
I’ve just been looking through your website on materials for the Uyghur language. While doing so I came across mention of Hamit Tomur’s Garmmar book, so clicked on it. Expecting just to find some information about it. Instead, the book itself was downloaded, Had you tried to contact the publisher, or myself, (the writer Hamit Tomur himself is now dead), to ask permission to put this book on the web? I did not make any financial gain from translating this book, but I’m sure the publisher, if he knows about this, would be very upset, as he used his own money to publish this book and was hoping to cover his costs by the sale of this book which, if I remember correctly, was selling at 132 Euros apiece.
Josh Summers on April 23rd, 2016 at 1:24 am
Hi Anne, thank you very much for reaching out. I take your concerns very seriously, especially considering I wouldn’t want my content to be stolen either.
The reason that I allowed this link to be included in this article (I don’t actually host the PDF you’re referring to on my site) is because to the best of my research, I cannot find that book for sale by the publisher or elsewhere.
My goal is to make this information as accessible as possible. If you know of a place where this book can be legitimately bought from the publisher (not a reseller doing second-hand), I will gladly change the link.
Thanks for your understanding and your concern, Anne!
Anne Lee on April 23rd, 2016 at 2:03 am
Thanks for your reply, Josh. If you look on the back of the title page, you will see a list of details , including the Order address, telephone and Fax no., email adress, website, and mailing address.
I appreciate what you are doing in providing a resource centre for those interested in Uyghur.
Best wishes, Anne Lee
Gene on June 30th, 2016 at 12:39 am
First, I want to personally thank you for the translation of Hamit Tomur’s book, as I’ve found – and continue to find – it to be an invaluable resource for Uyghur study. I’ve also heard from some Xinjiang acquaintances that you were working on an English-Uyghur (Uyghur-English?) dictionary, and so wish you the very best of luck with that. I am painfully aware of how much time these things can take… :-)
Regarding the posting of the book’s .pdf, I do understand your concerns, and would gladly take the .pdf down were there a *convenient* way to actually obtain the book for the typical learner. It appears possible to do so via some Turkish online stores (this is how I got my original copy), but the typical English speaker might have difficulty navigating those. It is also possible to contact the publisher, as you suggested, but this method is probably not very attractive in the modern world. I do concede that these are both more proper alternatives than simply downloading the .pdf, but they are not convenient and might discourage many learners.
Furthermore, the .pdf of the book is available on the internet from various places by now, and it does not seem likely that one could stop people from obtaining it this way (my site is just one of very many, in this regard). This is another reason for why I feel like it is better to just make the .pdf available, especially given how useful it is.
With my best regards,
thank you so much for the information. i already have UighurDdictionary andPphrasebook. I have some access to a native speaker and would like to learn more.
i am also interested in the instrument you are playing as my father played violin as well as made violins and this is a family tradition that goes back many generations. i am Going back to playing the piano frequently again and my mother played piano and bass violin.. Cn you tell me how you became interested in this place and instrument?
Thank you for all the excellent information you have already provided.
Josh Summers on December 14th, 2016 at 1:44 pm
Hi Joan! If you want to learn more about why I first came to Xinjiang, you can check out some of the interviews I did with CCTV.
As for the instrument…I’m not sure which one you’re talking about.