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How to Learn a Foreign Alphabet

Alphabet, Hiragana

I’ve long had an affection for learning alphabets and writing systems. It’s like experiencing the joy of learning to read all over again. After the Latin alphabet, I moved on to Hebrew, Russian, Greek and even Japanese hiragana, even though Russian is the only one of those I speak. I’ve since mostly forgotten Greek and Hiragana, but added Armenian and Georgian. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I’ve also had the chance to help others learn the Latin alphabet.

I’ve noticed though, that a lot of people are put off of learning certain languages because of the “strange alphabet.” This is unfortunate because, from what I’ve seen, many people can learn a foreign alphabet or writing system reasonably well in just a few weeks. Here are some of the learning methods that have worked well for my students and I. The order they’re listed in here is what I’ve found to be a good process to work through, but there’s really no concrete order.

Get Familiar
The first step is to get yourself a copy of the alphabet you want to learn, with the letters listed in order and the equivalent in your native alphabet written beside it. At first, just look over this list to familiarize yourself with the letters. Do your best to remember the sound each letter makes, then try to envision the letter in your mind’s eye. Being able to visualize the letter is a vital step towards being able to write it.

Compare and Contrast
Some alphabets use letters that are very similar to one another. To better learn the differences between similar-looking letters, write the similar pairs out side by side, first one then the other, repeating the sound each letter represents (preferably out loud) and noting the differences in the letters’ shapes.

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Shape Association
This is a favorite technique for teaching kids, but it can help adults, too. Remember those classroom pictures where the letter “A” is drawn as an apple tree, the letter “B” as the wings of a bee, and so on? You don’t need to create anything that elaborate, but doing little sketches like these can help the letters’ shapes stick in your memory better, especially if you’re a visual learner.

Transliterating is simply the act of writing a word in a different alphabet. For instance, “sputnik” is a Russian word (Cyrillic alphabet) that’s been transliterated into the Latin alphabet. To use transliteration for learning an alphabet, start by transliterating words written in the foreign alphabet into your native alphabet. This will help you learn the sounds of the foreign alphabet. Then move on to transliterating from your native alphabet to the new one to learn how to write the letters. Just don’t spend too long at this stage because transliterations are never completely accurate and you could end up learning words incorrectly.

Just Read
Once you’re fairly comfortable with the letters, grab anything you can find written in the alphabet you’re learning and start reading, even if you don’t understand the words. By way of fair warning, this method can be painfully slow in the beginning. Over a few days of doing this regularly, though, you’ll really pick up speed. If you’re studying with a friend, try writing each other messages in your native language, but “encoded” in the new alphabet. This helps because you’ll know when you’ve got the sound right by whether you get a word or not. For instance if you read “open the wintow,” you’ll immediately know the letter you thought represented a “T” sound actually represesnts “D.” Simply reading is also a big help with writing systems like Hebrew and Arabic that use different forms of a letter depending on where that letter appears in a word. When you get used to seeing a certain form in a certain place, writing that way will be second nature.

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Prepare for Real Life
It may take you less than a week to learn a foreign alphabet well enough that you can read slowly, but without any memory aids. Learning to read as quickly as real life demands, though, will probably take a little longer. If you’ll be traveling to the country where the alphabet is used, you’ll need to read well enough to skim through lists to find what you need, read street signs and maps as you travel, and catch destinations on passing buses. To get to this point, give yourself at least a month. To build speed, use flashcards or ask someone at home to put up words around the house for you to find and read.

Speed isn’t the only thing, though. You’ll also need to learn the different ways the alphabet might be written. Try to find a few different fonts and practice reading those. If the alphabet uses both upper and lower cases, try to learn both equally well. When I learned the Armenian alphabet, I made the mistake of concentrating on lower case letters only to find out that native speakers seem to prefer the upper case. Don’t forget to study handwriting, too. In some cases, handwriting is just a more graceful (or sloppier) form of the typed letters, but in other cases, handwritten letters look almost like another alphabet.

If there’s a langauge you’re interested in learning, but “those funny letters” have been keeping you away, try out these techniques for learning a foreign alphabet. You’ll probably be surprised how quickly you’ll be able to learn.