How To Learn A New Alphabet And Writing System

August 12, 2009 by admin 

Not all languages can be learnt at the same pace. If you’re English for example, and try to learn German, you can jump right into improving vocabulary and practicing pronunciation and orthography, since the two languages use the same alphabet (for the most part), writing system and share almost the same grammar rules. The same goes for anyone speaking a Latin language as their mother tongue, trying to learn another Latin language (French – Italian for example). But when you’re trying to learn a language that has different rules on every single step of the way, you’re going to have to put a lot more effort into it.

From an English speaker’s point of view, these languages include Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Russian and Arabic, to name just a few. For each of these languages, you’ll have to start out from scratch with grammar, alphabet and writing system but fortunately, there are a few good ways to make this extra hurdle easier to jump over.

When learning a new writing system or alphabet, you’ll have to start out by learning a few symbols at a time, transliterating them to your own alphabet to see what letters they sound like. In some languages, particularly Russian, you’ll find that some of the letters look and sound just like their corresponding letters in your own mother tongue but make sure you don’t fall for “false friends”. False friend letters are letters that look the same, but sound completely different. For example, in the Russian alphabet, the letter “B” is not pronounced “Bee” like in English, but rather “Vee”. Additionally, H is N, C is S and P is R.

Your next step is practicing writing the letters you just learnt. This won’t just help you learn the actual writing style of that language, but it will also help you memorize these letters better. Some languages have a harder writing system for English speakers. For example, Chinese and Japanese require a lot more attention to detail when writing, than say, Russian, whose alphabet still resembles that of our own language.

After you’ve got some grip on writing words in your new language, practice it out by transliterating the words you write in your mother tongue, than back into the secondary language and so forth. One more “trick” to use is writing words in your own language, with the help of the new alphabet. This is a fun exercise but it’s not available for all languages.

Reading in your new language also helps writing stuff down and learning how to spell words correctly. Obviously, reading a text in a secondary language requires a bit of experience with it already, so this is more of an intermediate step. But when you get to the point where you can understand a text by reading it, do it as often as possible as it is crucial to be exposed as often as possible to the new language. Reading will also offer you a solid vocabulary increase and if you read out loud, you’ll also improve your pronunciation.

Last but not least, practice as often as possible and whenever you can. Try keeping a journal in the new language, even if it’s a “fake” one just to help you study. Write down a few sentences each day, it doesn’t matter for how much time. Just don’t let what you just learnt “cool off” or it will be harder to get back on top of it. 10 sentences each day can keep the writing level intact in your new language, if not increase it.

If you’re having trouble remembering the characters in your new language’s alphabet try this small trick: associate shapes or objects to each letter. This is harder to do for Japanese, Korean or Chinese, but rather easy and fun with Russian languages.

Once you’ve mastered the new alphabet and writing system, you can start learning that language like any other. Of course, it will still be difficult since it will have different grammar rules and maybe a different vocabulary setup than your own native language, but at least you’ve conquered the hardest battle, that of writing and understanding the new language and its alphabet.

Michael Gabrikow


6 Responses to “How To Learn A New Alphabet And Writing System”

  1. jvstiniann on August 12th, 2009 4:42 am

    Learning Japanese using without learning writing system?
    I understand that speaking and writing Japanese are two different things. Can you learn using the roman alphabet (Hepbern system)? I’ve looked at some books and a lot of them romanize Japanese. Is this a common way to learn to communicate in Japanese? I won’t be writing any letters soon. Just want to understand and speak.

  2. maxnull on August 12th, 2009 4:44 am

    yes, that’s a common way to learn. the beginning level texts are written in roman script, but that’s usually for the very first semester. After that you graduate to the phonetic katakana and hiragana which are pretty easy. In intermediate, you’ll learn the most basic kanji, ideographs. It takes Japanese children through 6th grade to learn the standard 880 or so required for basic literacy. Japanese high-school students struggle through learning a thousand or so more and getting the strokes in the right order and knowing the two, three or more different readings for each symbol based on context.
    References :
    3 semesters of japanese and 2 years in japan

  3. cando_86 on August 12th, 2009 4:46 am

    You can, but I seriously recommend learning the writing system, at least hiragana and katakana. You don’t need to know the kanjis (the really hard stuff) at all, since you can communicate with Japanese speakers through the hiragana and katakana scripts, and most textbooks that feature kanji will offer you furigana (the hiragana and katana transcription) above.

    If you just want to get a basic knowledge, then just using the romanized alphabet is okay, but if you want to go any further (which will be necessary if you want to say a range of things more than just "How are you? I’m fine. The book is blue."), you’ll need to know hiragana and katakana to read the later textbooks.

    I know it’s scary, but actually, learning hiragana and katakana is VERY easy; it’s like the roman alphabet, and you just need to memorize them, practice writing and reading them, and it all comes together very quickly.

    I highly recommend you try getting them under your belt, rather than spend time searching for materials that are romanized.

    Good luck!
    References :

  4. Renee on August 12th, 2009 4:48 am

    Well I am a Korean linguist and I suggest learning the writing system. This would help you to more accurately pronounce the words.
    If you are going to Romanize I think you need a tape or cd or even a native speaker so that you can ensure that you are pronouncing things correctly.

    Sometimes a minor error can really mess up what you are trying to communicate.
    References :

  5. David M on August 12th, 2009 4:50 am

    You can do it that way and in terms of developing oral fluency it can really speed up your language aquisition time. It might be useful to at least learn katakana if you have any plansto come to Japan in the near future, but the spoken language is actually very easy. There are very few exeptions to gramatical rules and a great number of English borrowings have found their way into the language. If you’re really seriuos about becoming fluent in Japanese you will have to study the written language some eventually, but if you just want to hang out and chat with Japanese people Hepburn is not a bad way to go. 90% of the true difficulty with Japanese is in the writing system after all.
    References :

  6. Fiercewind on August 12th, 2009 4:52 am

    As others have said learning hiragana and katakana is a MUST. But i think learning at least a 500 kanji is a must as well. Kanji is not just a cool replacement that you can write for Hiragana you know.It’s been a part of this culture for so long you can’t just part them. There are a lot of people around who learns Japanese without any knowledge of kanji and i mean a LOT!! It’s not that hard to memorize the first 500 i mean. You can’t expect to learn a language without putting some effort into it.
    References :

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