How to learn a writing system different from your own Language Resources

First, I wanted to say that this post was inspired by Justin G who wrote me an email to ask about this very topic. So, hi Justin! Thanks for the inspiration behind this post. I hope you don’t mind that I used some of my response to you to write it!

His question was: “I was wondering if you have any tips when it comes to learning a language that does not use our alphabet.”

This is a really great question, and I’m sure that there are others out the wondering exactly the same thing. In fact, it’s certainly something I would have loved to know when I was at this stage, so I’m going to share a few of the things I’ve learnt along the way.

A Little Bit of My Background

I’ve now studied three languages with different writing systems – Arabic, Chinese, and Russian, in that order. For both Arabic and Russian I’ve learnt to read the writing systems, while Chinese is still a work in progress. I’ll explain why I’ve picked up reading and writing in my newest language faster than Chinese, a bit later, but for now, I wanted to share my experience learning both alphabet and character based writing systems.

I started learning Arabic in school at the age of 15 and I was taught the writing system along with the rest of the language in a classroom setting. It took me a little longer than I would have liked to learn the alphabet, likely due to the way in which I was taught it, but I did eventually learn to understand the writing system. And forget it not long after I finished my course. Today, I could probably identify maybe three or four letters.

But I’ve learned from my failure at learning a language with a different script and I’ve had more success since.

I recently began studying Mandarin a year ago and waited a few months into my study to incorporate the writing system into my learning. While it delayed my ability to connect the written language with the spoken language, I honestly feel it was the best way for me to study. It gave me the chance to fall in love with Chinese (and was thus grow committed) before I took on the intense task that is learning to read in Chinese.

Lastly, and most recently, I started studying Russian. I wasn’t happy with the way I was taught to read and write Arabic in school, so I decided to dedicate my first week of learning Russian to memorizing the alphabet. I initially didn’t find any one way that worked for me, but after printing out my worksheet and using it for reference for a few days, I found that I very quickly was able to sound out words (albeit slowly) without any help.

Learning a New Writing System

Learning a language with a writing system different than your own adds another level of difficulty to the language you’re learning. But spending the time to learn the writing system of the language that you’re studying at the beginning can be a huge advantage to you.

By spending the time to learn to read and write in the language that you’re studying, you can skip having to learn the transliterations of the words you come across (thus skipping a step in your study). You can also use a wider variety of resources by learning to understand the writing system employed by the language that you’re studying.

Keep in mind that not all writing systems are alphabetic.

There are two main types of writing systems – those which represent syllables and those which represent consonants and vowels (alphabets). There are even some writing systems that do both. If you’d like an in-depth break down of the different types of writing systems, I really recommend this post on Omniglot.

For me, going from an alphabet-based language to a syllabic/morphemic based writing system was pretty intense. One of the biggest issues I’ve had learning a syllabic/morphemic based system that employs characters, like Chinese, is that there is really three things that you need to memorize – the sound of the character, how it looks, and the translation of the character so that you know what it means.

In fact, if you really wanted to, you could learn to read in Chinese without ever learning how the characters sound. You would just need to memorize the meanings of the characters in your target language and you would be able to read Chinese texts. I really don’t advise that you do this – I feel it kind of misses the point – but it is possible.

Because of this, when I first started reading in Chinese, I often translated the characters directly into English, skipping their Chinese sounds and meanings altogether. It became a huge problem for me because I wasn’t able to connect the written language with the spoken language in my head.

It was too much for me at the beginning, so I decided to wait until my foundation in the language was stronger and I’m glad I waited.

Should I Learn to Read and Write Right Away?

When it comes to languages with different writing systems, there are arguments both for and against learning to read and write while learning to speak and understand the language. I’ve tried both ways, so I feel that, while this is a decision you need to make on based on your own learning goals, I can provide you with a few things to consider.

For languages like Russian or Arabic which employ alphabets, my advice is to learn them right away. My first week learning Russian was spent memorizing its alphabet and nothing else. It has done wonders for my Russian study.

On the other hand, for writing systems like Chinese’s hanzi, I preferred to wait. The language itself was already drastically different from anything else that I had ever learnt and trying to add the writing system to the equation too early on only overwhelmed me. I ended up waiting a few months to really begin studying it and I think it benefitted both my speaking, reading and writing because I wasn’t trying to do too many complex tasks at once.

Transliteration

Transliteration is a great tool when you’re just getting started with a new writing system. If you’re unfamiliar with it, transliteration is essentially rewriting the words from your target language using the characters and sounds from your own alphabet. By doing so, you can understand how the word in the new language would sound and my early Mandarin notes contained the transliteration (or pinyin) for every character.

As an example, “Спасибо” in Russian could be transliterated into English as “Spasiba” or “Spasibo”.

Things to Watch Out For While Learning a New Script

False Friends / / Some alphabets employ characters that may look deceptively similar to those you may already know. For example, in Russian “B” is actually the equivalent of “V” in the English/Latin alphabet.

Trying to Jump in Too Far Above Your Level // Take it slow. It’s okay if you read slow and sound like a two year old sounding out each part of every word. You’re essentially starting all over again with a new system (and your old system may even try to influence your ability to learn the new system), so it doesn’t

Tools That I Use to Study New Writing Systems

I never use any one source for any aspect of language study and learning new writing systems was no different. I think that using a variety of sources is a really great way to really ensure that you understand what you’re learning because you’re going to see the information in a variety of contexts.

Here are just some of the tools that I use to study the writing systems of the languages that I study:

1. Assimil // For languages like Russian, I really like Assimil because they have recordings of the sounds of the characters or letters that you’re going to need to recognize later on. I like being able to associate the verbal with the visual, so this was really great for me with Russian.
2. Memrise or Anki // I like to use Flashcards like Memrise to study the characters. Both systems are based on spaced-repetition and so you really get good practice in. I use high-frequency word/character decks and basic alphabet decks as well.
3. Single Page Worksheets // When it’s possible, I like to have a one-page printout of the alphabet to use as a reference sheet. Having all the letters/characters visible on one page with their pronunciations really helped me when I started out.
4. Writing Practice // I bought Chinese calligraphy paper online so that I would have the chance to practice writing characters neatly (they aren’t so neat when I’m squeezing them into my college-ruled notebook) and I love by books from Russian Step-by-Step to practice Russian cursive. I find that the more I write characters by hand, the better I retain them. Typing them just doesn’t do it for me.
5. Reading // I didn’t realize it was what I was doing with the previous languages I studied, but once Jared of Mandarin Companion introduced the term “extensive reading” to me, I discovered that it was a technique I had been using all along. To make a long story short, extensive reading is essentially reading texts where you understand 90%+ of what you’re reading and only have to focus on picking up the new 10%-. While it’s easier to do in languages that share an alphabet with your own language, reading is an important way to really improve your writing and reading in a new language. Graded readers are the perfect way to get started in a new script and I have had great success with Mandarin Companion for Chinese. Once you get to the intermediate level, I recommend dual language books. There are several ways these books can be laid out, but for new scripts I recommend something like Interlinear books.

And if you’re looking for a bit of inspiration learning a new script, check out Lindsay Dow’s Language Script Challenge.  I don’t know how she does it!

Tips for Language Learning | Eurolinguiste

So there you have it. Some of the techniques that I use to learn a new writing system. Have you learnt a language that uses a writing system different from your own? How did you go about learning it? I’d love to hear all about your experiences in the comments below!



I’m a language lover, traveler and musician sharing my adventures and language learning tips over at Eurolinguiste.

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  • Agreed! The other thing with Chinese is that, after a while of getting familiar with radicals and their sounds, you can actually come to guess the pronunciations. The first foreign language I learnt was Japanese, and so this has a mix of both types of alphabets, it is incredibly important to get the two alphabets (hiragana/katakana) down comfortably and learn bits of kanji (spelt the same as hanzi with traditional characters ) along the way. I’ve come to pick up Korean very easily because the alphabet is simple and the grammar is similar to an extent to that of Japanese.

    Pardon my rambles. I also think it’s best not to be intimidated by languages with a different writing system, it adds another interesting experience to language learning 🙂

    • I agree, it absolutely adds another interesting and engaging aspect, but it is something that can be a challenge. I love learning Mandarin and the characters, on good and bad days, are a part of that, so I love them too. That’s interesting that you found Korean’s writing system easy! Do you think it was because you took it on after Chinese and Japanese?

      • Hannah

        I believe so. Japanese is appealing as there’s no tones or much un/aspirated sounds, so Korean pronunciation is a level up on that as they have quite subtle sounds which I’m still trying to get the hang of. An example of similar words between the three languages is library: in Chinese, 图书馆, in Japanese, 図書館 (toshokan) and then in Korean it’s 도서관 (tosuhgwan). Very interesting when thinking about languages moving around places.

        • That is really interesting. I always find it fascinating when there’s overlap. If I had time, I’d love to delve into a bunch of “history of _____ language” books.

  • A great thorough guide. The Language Script Challenge this year has shown me just how crazy varied the writing systems of the world are! Sharing this on my email list 🙂

    • Aww! Thanks so much! I think you’re amazing for taking on the writing challenge – Russian and Chinese are more than enough for me (for now).

  • This is such a great guide! I think arabic would be the hardest to get used to.. writing everything right to left!

    • Andrew Rivett

      Why is that difficult?

    • Thanks Esther! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Arabic, surprisingly, wasn’t the toughest. I actually really liked learning the alphabet and writing in the language. When I was in high school, I journaled in English using the Arabic alphabet so it would remain private. For me, personally, Chinese is definitely the hardest. I’m thinking about learning Korean, so I’m kind of excited about learning a new writing system.

  • dandiprat

    A problem I have with Vietnamese is my reading, speaking, and listening are far above my writing. I’ve spent lots of time practicing listening which is usually my main problem (I’ve studied Japanese, Cantonese, Taiwanese Hokkien, and Mandarin), but I was thinking that writing would be easier because it’s a phonetic alphabet and it looks similar to the Roman alphabet. Some sounds I really have trouble distinguishing, which is a problem. I can usually understand them and in some cases speak them, but ask me to write a word I know how to say and it’s a struggle. I don’t seem to have many problems learning to write when I do group classes, but it’s hard to force myself to practice writing when I do it on my own.

    • Andrew Rivett

      Vietnamese is deceptively difficult to read write. Believe it or not I read better in Thai with less study time.

    • Andrew Rivett

      Try texting Vietnamese friends best advice that I can offer you

      • dandiprat

        Yeah sometimes I do it on HelloTalk which helps. Penmanship is a lost art.

    • Hi Dandiprat. I don’t have any experience with Vietnamese, but I’ve found that working with sources specifically geared towards writing really help. Lang-8 is a really great resource to help you get started and More Vietnamese has written quite a few articles on the subject: http://morevietnamese.com/tag/writing/

      I hope this helps! Happy studying.

  • Andrew Rivett

    I started to read write Thai two months ago. Best decision re Thai that I ever made. Far easier than I expected (and I tried(and given up to learn Khmer writing before!)

  • Márcia Santos

    Oi, Shannon, estou cumprindo o desafio do Benny Lewis (fluente em três meses) e estou adorando… Ele mandou um e-mail indicando este post e gostei muito. Aqui realmente tem bastante conteúdo. Parabéns. Eu estou aprendendo Inglês e Espanhol ao mesmo tempo pela prima vez… está sendo uma loucura. Vou acompanhar seu blog para conhecer mais técnicas. Ah, gostaria de saber que tema é esse que você usa no blog hehehe… muito simples e funcional. Parabéns novamente.

    • Thanks so much Márcia! Good luck with your studies. I appreciate you stopping by and leaving a comment!

  • Zamira Bik

    What an amazing article! What a superb website!
    Hi, Shannon. I am just very happy that I came across your website, because I am also language learner-lover-speaker.
    My native languages are Tatar (based on Russian writing system with some additional letters) and Russian. I live in Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia. Since childhood I was keen on studying different languages and my first foreign( and my favourite so far) was English, then added Turkish (Latin writing system with additional letters) for 5 last years at school till I graduated. I entered the university here, in Kazan, a year and a half ago with a speciality in Arabic Philology (Oriental Studies) . However, long before entering the university I fell in love with Chinese – I was awarded with a trip to China for two weeks at high school and that influenced my choice. Despite my dream, I started Arabic last year and I am going to get my bacheloR’s degree on it. As time went by, I turned to love Arabic more but my dream about China never left and two months ago I started attending Chinese language course . And I realize that I am really in love with all that characters, hieroglyphs and tones. To add more, my friend tries to teach me Persian (which is extremely similar with Arabic, Turkish, Tatar and, surprisingly, English) currently, so my head is ‘working in 7 languages’ all day long.
    I study languages because they open the world to me, they enable me to get familiar with culture and history of the specific country from inside, not as a tourist or just a book-reader. And, probably, the most important thing is that I can communicate with people from different countries, I can hug the entire world, I can share my smile with someone on the other side of the planet.
    And it is not difficult to deal with a load of languages inside your gead if you crave for it, you look for a single minute to dedicate it to language, new word or a phrase to remember, to use in your speech.
    I am crazy about every language I learn and I try not to forget about my native languages as well. Every language helps to learn others. There are lots of similarities as well as differences, but they are all very special and awesome. For me, it is just impossible not to love any language.
    Shannon, thank you for an opportunity to share here, after your fantastic article with advice.
    And if someone wants to practise a language I know, you are all very welcome, friends!
    My Whatsapp +79655987978
    Skype: zamirabik
    P.S. I have some questions to you. How do you organize your day, your studies, so that you don’t forget any language you learnt earlier? Any sources as reminders? Or some methods? Or you travel soo much that you just don’t worry about it? Thanks in advance. 🙂

    • Hi Zamira, wow, where to start!? Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s nice to meet someone passionate about language learning like you!

      I organize my schedule based on what my most immediate needs are (if there is a scenario where I will need to use the language, an upcoming test, etc.). I answer that question more in full here: http://eurolinguiste.com/travel-language-learning-qa/

      As far as sources for reminders, I use TeuxDeux to map out my daily tasks that I need to get to for each language. And I always carry a notebook with me!

      I hope that helps! Happy studying 🙂

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