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Learning to Read and Write in a New Language

Around the world, there are established writing systems used for nearly 4,000 different languages. Each of these 100+ writing systems was developed to best suit the needs of the language they visually represent.

Spoken languages have different features, different sounds, and different characteristics. Different writing systems came into existence to best put those features down in written form. For example, syllabaries work well for languages with simple syllabic structures like Japanese kana.

Japanese syllabary

Korean, as another example, once used Chinese characters as its writing system. But because this system didn’t really fit the Korean language, they created their own alphabet in the 15th century. Each of the letters in hangul is said to illustrate the shape of the mouth formed when the sound of that letter is produced.

The different systems commonly used are:

  • Pictographic/ideographic writing systems: Nahuatl and other Mesoamerican writing systems
  • Logographic writing systems: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan, and Chinese characters
  • Syllabaries: Cherokee, Japanese Kana, and Igbo
  • Segmental scripts: broken down into - Abjad: Arabic and Hebrew; True Alphabet: Latin, Cyrillic, Korean, and Mongolian; Alphasyllabary/Abugida: Burmese, Thai, and Tibetan

Different writings systems around the world

If you’re learning a language that uses a system different from your own, there are a few reasons you may want to consider studying the writing system before really diving in with your new language.

Benefits of Learning to Read and Write in Another Language

Learning a new writing system can seem like a lot of work, but it comes with great reward. It may seem unnecessary when you can rely on romanization, the version of your new language’s writing system converted into Roman (or Latin) letters. Take the following examples… Why learn to read 请问 in Mandarin when it’s easier to decipher qing3 wen4? ありがとうございました in Japanese when you can read arigatou gozaimasu? Or приятно познакомиться in Russian when you’ve got priyatno poznakomit’sya?

When you learn to read and write in your new language, you gain access to an endless stream of benefits. To start:

  • You can skip learning romanization — learning the romanized version of your new language’s writing system adds an extra step. It’s one more thing to learn and it isn’t always necessary. Plus, romanized versions of words aren’t always accurate, and sometimes, like in the case of Korean or Hindi, there isn’t a standardized form that can lead to mistakes in understanding or pronunciation down the road.
  • You improve your pronunciation — when you learn the writing system for your new language, you learn to more accurately pronounce the language. Take the Russian word Спасибо, for instance. Its romanization is spasibo. But this doesn’t take into account that the ‘o’ doesn’t receive emphasis, so it’s actually pronounced spasiba. By learning the writing system, or alphabet, you learn how letters, characters, and words are pronounced — something you might miss when looking at the romanization.
  • You can also use a wider range of resources — most resources assume you’re going to learn to read and write in your new language. This means after the first few chapters, romanization is often dropped (if it’s included at all). Learning another writing system, by default, gives you access to more learning material.
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How to Learn a New Writing System

At first glance, learning a different writing system can seem like a big barrier to picking up a new language. And while it does take practice, I can tell you from personal experience, that getting comfortable with a different alphabet or system is 100% possible.

Here are the steps I’ve followed to learn more than five different writing systems:

Get a general sense of the system

It helps to first approach from a wide angle and get an overview of the writing system you’re learning. Ask yourself how it compares to the writing system you already know. How does it treat vowels? How many letters or characters are there? How do they sound?

2. Repetition

Repetition, both in terms of exposure and practice, is the secret sauce to making a new writing system comfortable. This is why Drops’ new character tool uses a variety of exercises and practice to help learners master the writing systems of the languages that it teaches. As you study each letter or character, it helps to hear audio so you know not only how to read and write, but how it sounds.

3. Read before you feel ready

When you first start reading, you’ll probably feel like it’s slow going. And maybe you’ll even feel a bit silly, but the only way to build reading fluency is by — you guessed it — reading. My advice is to start reading as soon as possible. Even if you’re sounding out words letter by letter or syllable by syllable, just start. In the early stages, you may not even understand what you’re reading — you just don’t have the vocabulary, but that’s okay. It will all catch up sooner rather than later when you’re putting the time in.

4. Keep at it

Like everything else language learning related, mastering a new writing system comes down to consistency. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

If you’d like to tackle all four of these tips at once, play with a new writing system, or are just curious, Drops has great introductions to the writing systems for the languages that it supports. The new character feature not only helps you associate each letter with its sound, but you get to practice writing with intuitive swipes and beautiful illustrations.

And now I’ll turn it over to you. How do you study unfamiliar writing systems? I’d love to hear about your process in the comments below.

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