Learning a new writing system can be easier than you think.
So far I have learned to write in two syllabaries (Hiragana & Katakana) and two alphabets (Hangul & Cyrillic). That’s not counting English, German and Chinese since I learned English natively, the German is barely different from English’s and learning to write in a logography is an entirely different process. Mostly by accident, I approached the learning of each one in a completely different way and by doing so have figured out what the biggest roadblock is when trying to learn a new writing system.
Too much studying.
Hiragana and Katakana I learned almost entirely by traditional study. Cyrillic I learned with half study, half use and Hangul I learned entirely by use after trying to study it a year ago and failing. After my experiences with Hangul I realized that the harder I worked and the more I studied, the worse my gains were.
Hiragana / Katakana
I learned to write in Hiragana and Katakana in an environment that most people would think is the best you can get, a structured college course at a big university. Ironically, not only did it take the very longest to learn, but I still go blank on some of the Katakana at times. Since the textbook the professor selected used only Hiragana and Katakana after the first chapter, we spent the first two weeks of the class just learning the syllabaries.
Every lesson and all our homework for the first week consisted of essentially nothing but writing each character over, and over, and over, and over, and over again with the goal of memorizing them all. Can you guess how well that worked? Everyone did terribly.
By the end of the week, most people had only a halfway decent grasp of the characters. Nevertheless, our teacher kept going and we started on the first chapter. I kept up the memorization tactics, and tacked on the new homework on top of it. Being forced now to read and write in Hiragana, I noticed my recognition of the characters getting faster. I also noticed I was able to recall a lot more of them when I was writing. I chalked it up at the time to my continuation of the list writing, as well as making little flashcards for each character and studying them obsessively. Oddly enough, my Katakana recognition and production didn’t improve nearly as fast as my Hiragana.
Fast forward a few years and you find me in a Russian class at the same university. Our professor tells us the first day that we have to learn how to read and write Cyrillic first, in both print and cursive, before we can get going on the textbook. I think I audibly sighed when she told us. Here we go again, weeks and weeks of memorization and repetition.
Figuring I’d get a head start, I dove into it as soon as I could. I made my flashcards and I started doing my list writing. Didn’t help a bit. I progressed just as slowly as my classmates, all of us moving at a rate dismally reminiscent of my previous experiences in my Japanese class.
Fed up with it, and not wanting to waste anymore time before learning what I really cared about, speaking Russian, I just skipped ahead and started going through the first chapter of the textbook on my own. It was slow, since I didn’t really know how to read Cyrillic, but I made it work by flipping back to the chart at the beginning of the book to remind myself of the sounds each character stood for. By the time I hit the end of the chapter, something interesting had happened.
I knew the Cyrillic alphabet.
While the rest of the class was still struggling terribly, I had ditched the idea of studying and had just started working on other things is which I was forced to use Cyrillic. I started to think I was on to something.
Fast forward one more time, to just before I graduated. Caroline and I wanted to learn Korean, but the university we attended didn’t offer it anymore. We decided we would just study it on our own. After all, we’d been through enough language classes, we could figure it out as long as we had a proper textbook. One college level textbook on Korean later, we dove right in.
If I were continuing the pool metaphor, this would be the point where I realized it was empty, and I broke my spine from the fall.
I failed miserably at learning Hangul, let alone Korean. I had used all my old methods, repetition, flashcards, rote memorization. Yet by the end of it, I only knew the sounds of five or six of the letters – and even then I often got them mixed up. Feeling defeated, I pretty much gave up.
Fast forward again (last one, I promise) to this year. I find myself working as a waiter in a new Korean restaurant. I write down the orders I take in English, while everyone else writes them using Hangul. All of the notes and things they post are in Hangul (though they usually realize and put English under it a while afterward). I am essentially surrounded by Hangul.
I frequently find myself asking the other servers, the chefs and anyone else who speaks Korean to tell me what the Hangul says. After a few times of having my poor English handwriting read the wrong way, I pick a few dishes and learn how to write them copying the other servers, and start writing those few dishes in Hangul instead of English. Before long, without ever really studying what sound each letter represents, I find I can kind of figure new words out. Not long after that, and my Hangul is now better than my Katakana.
Applying What I Learned
I’ve said it several times already – the key to learning a new language is to practice it, not study it. That’s why I had such success with Hangul, and such failure with Katakana. The Hangul I was forced to use because of being at work so much. Katakana I studied a ton but, since Katakana words come up a lot less in Japanese than Hiragana words, I never got to use it all that much.
So rather than studying, start reading. Find a basic chart of what sound each character makes, and set it off to the side. Google should be able to find one for you, if not any good basic textbook for your target language should start with one. Once you have that chart set aside, find something in the target script to read.
Newspapers are good, since they’re easy to find online, but anything will work. Again, Google is your friend here. You can find lots of reading material by translating the word ‘news’ or any other topic of interest into your target language via Google Translate and pasting it into the search box.
It will be extremely slow going. At first, you’ll probably be spending equal time looking at what you’re trying to read, and the chart you set aside for help. That’s alright, before long you’ll be looking at the chart less and less. Pretty soon you won’t need it at all. Congratulations! You can now read in the script of your target language.
Once you have that down (or concurrently if you like) start learning to write some words in your target language using the native script. Using very common nouns is a good place to start. A good way to both learn the script and tie the new word in with its real world equivalent rather than its English translation is to carry a notepad around and write the word down every time you see that item. For example, every time you walk by the fridge, scribble down the word for refrigerator in your target script. It may not be the most practical, but it will definitely help you a ton.
Another way is to write words from English using the target script. This can be a little more difficult though if the target script contains characters for lots of sounds that just aren’t present in English.
So what are your thoughts? Have you had more success with immersion, studying, or a little bit of both?