The invention of writing is arguably one of the greatest achievements of humankind. It allowed history and knowledge to be documented and allows language learners the opportunity to learn new languages!
If you are thinking about starting to study a new language, but are a bit hesitant due to having to learn a brand new alphabet and/or writing system, no worries!
There are lots of tips and tricks to help you learn a new script as effectively and easily as possible.
For a great article that dives into the history of writing and writing systems around the world, check out Babbel here! For a look into what a writing system is, what the most common are nowadays, and how to best learn a new one, keep reading!
What exactly is a writing system?
Did you know that there are more than 7,000 living languages in the world right now?
Did you know that only about 3,000 of them have a writing system?
A writing system is “technically referred to as a script or an orthography [and it] consists of a set of visible marks, forms, or structures called characters or graphs that are related to some structure in the linguistic system” (Britannica “Types of Writing Systems”).
The writing systems and alphabets (if a language has an alphabet – some do not!) of the languages of the world vary widely.
They can generally be categorized into two main script types: meaning-based scripts (like logographic writing and ancient Egyptian writing / hieroglyphs) and sound-based scripts (like alphabetic writing and English).
The majority of languages use a Latin script (which falls under sound-based scripts). This would be languages like English, Spanish, German, Welsh, etc.
Other languages might use a Cyrillic script (like Russian, Kurdish, etc) or an Armenian script (like Eastern and Western Armenian), or one of the several other scripts around the world! Here is a great article from Omniglot that contains a large list of several scripts and language(s) that use each script.
Roughly 30% of the world’s population natively speaks a language with a non-Latin writing script! Just some of the most spoken languages with non-Latin scripts are Mandarin Chinese (中文), Arabic (العَرَبِيَّة), Greek (Ελληνικά), Russian (Русский), Korean (한국어), Hindi (हिन्दी), Amharic (አማርኛ), and Japanese (日本語).
This means that if you are interested in learning a new language, there is a pretty good chance that your choice will have a different script than your native language!
No worries, though! This is often not quite as difficult as people think. It does not matter what your language history is, how old you are, how much time you can devote to learning per week, etc. If you are dedicated to learning a new script and if you give consistent effort, you will definitely achieve your goals.
How do you start to learn a different alphabet / writing system?
Think about how you learned your native language’s script and how you learned to write in school. You likely started with small words (like CAT and BAT in English), and worked your way up.
You likely learned how to write the different shapes that make up an alphabet, while associating them with sounds. Then, you put sounds together to make words and eventually put words together to make sentences!
If you grew up in a US school, you were likely required to do writing drills in your early school days, as well. Writing words and sentences again and again until you felt like your hand was about to fall off. Remember writing the sentence “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” to hit every letter of the English alphabet?
These are all different strategies that can be used to help you learn a new writing system now – even as an adult!
You can of course just go the rote memorization route and learn a new script via flash cards and spaced repetition, but you can also start small and learn how you learned your native script as a child!
In any case, you need to learn two things: how to read the script and how to write the script.
Your goal should be to not only see a symbol and immediately connect it to a sound or meaning, but to also write confidently in the script you are learning.
Most guides to learning a new script (head to the bottom of this post for lots of links!) will walk you through step-by-step what exactly you need to learn to master the script.
Your exact process will be different depending on the language you are learning!
For example, a script like Hangul for Korean is very straightforward and can be learned in as little as one day! This is because Hangul has a phonetic syllabary system (AKA each symbol matches to a sound).
You don’t need a long-term plan to learn this script and you can often learn it just through one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of amazing resources to help you learn Hangul! You might just need to practice writing, to help your hand master the writing system, but your brain might not need any extra learning.
On the other hand, though, Japanese is not so straightforward and you will need a lot more time and effort. Japanese has three different scripts! Hiragana, Katakana, and, the most challenging, Kanji.
Hiragana and Katakana are fairly straightforward and simple to learn, as they are phonetic syllabary systems like Hangul, but you will need to learn both and then Kanji, as well. Kanji are Chinese characters and a logographic system (AKA each character matches to meanings/words, not sounds) used in Japanese. There are thousands of Kanji to learn and each character has rules on how to write it and most have multiple meanings.
Therefore, to master the Japanese writing system, you do need a long-term plan and it will require a large chunk of your study time. It can take years to learn enough Kanji to comfortably get by in Japanese! You will not only need to practice writing, to help your hand master the script, but your brain will need quite a lot of support in making the connections between sound, symbol, and meaning.
As you can see, how you tackle learning a new writing system and how much effort and planning it will require is very language-dependent.
The best plan is to research your target language script a bit. How long do most people take to learn the script? How long do you think you will need? Have you found some great resources to support you in mastering the script, with audio (see the links below)?
Once you know the answer to these questions, grab your favorite resource(s) and use the tips below to master your target language script in no time! 🙂
Quick Tips to learn a new writing system:
Romanization is the conversion of a non-Latin script into a Latin script. For example, 한글 (the name of the Korean alphabet) would be written as ‘Hangul’. This is fine for absolute beginners who are just starting their language journey, but it is a massive hindrance if it becomes a crutch for you.
For example, if you learn Hangul and you do not use romanization, you will immediately know how to pronounce a word very well, as Korean uses a phonetic syllabary system. The same goes for any other phonetic syllabary writing systems! For languages that do not use a logographic system, you can still learn about the origin and connections of characters by avoiding romanization, even if you cannot directly help pronunciation.
You will also be able to find resources abounding if you do not rely on romanization! Finding resources for a language where you cannot read the script is extremely difficult and borderline impossible past the low beginner level. So do yourself a favor and learn the script as soon as possible. Try to avoid any romanization after your first few weeks!
Input, Input, Input!
No matter what language you are learning, input will always help speed up the process.
I suggest watching lots of YouTube videos made to teach you the script so you can hear the sounds (from a native speaker) and see the script as often as possible. The more you see and heard the script, the better you will make connections between sound, symbol, and meaning!
Once you start to learn some vocabulary and have a good grasp on the script, you can also start to read a bit! Children’s books are best at this level, but try to work your way up to novels. You can also watch TV shows or movies! All of this input will not only help you truly master the script, but also vocab, grammar, slang, idioms, etc.
Keep a Chart and Hang it Somewhere Good
Print out the alphabet / the most common characters / etc and hang it somewhere you will see often. Perhaps the bathroom, next to the mirror. Or above your desk where you study or even in your home entryway!
Just make sure you don’t forget about it! Sometimes when we put something on a wall, it fades into the background with time. Avoid this by making a point to look at it every time you enter the room or when you do a nearby habit (AKA habit stacking!) or just move it to a new place every week! Moving it often will help avoid monotony and keep it from fading into the background. No matter what, make a point to look at it and perhaps even quiz yourself with it, whenever possible.
Practice everyday – even if it’s just a handful of letters scribbled on a scrap piece of paper while on hold during a call or just tracing characters on steamed glass while in the shower or just quizzing yourself for 2 minutes while you brush your teeth.
Using spaced repetition to help you consistently study is ideal, but any bit of daily practice will help you achieve your goals! If you can afford to spend large amounts of time studying every day, that is amazing! But if not, that is fine. Slow progress is still progress! Just make sure that you are making consistent progress.
Start small and build on it
You don’t need to learn everything all at once. You can start to learn a language without having mastered the script. Of course, its ideal to master the script to avoid romanization as you learn, but do not rush yourself and apply unnecessary pressure! And do not compare yourself to others. Some very talented individuals might master a difficult script in no time at all, but every person works at their own pace and has their own strengths. Don’t worry if yours is not mastering a new language’s script in 60 seconds flat.
Smart small and learn the basics. Set a low goal for your first week and if you decide after a week’s time that you can push yourself harder, then give it a go! But make sure that you do not stretch yourself too thin. Building a solid script foundation will help you in every other aspect of language learning!
Learn the Script Inside and Out
The best way to put something squarely in your long-term memory is to learn it inside and out. It will help you gain context on why a certain alphabet was created and why it is used now or why a logographic system is used and why certain characters have certain meanings.
Researching and knowing the answers to these questions will help you a great deal:
- Do the symbols / characters in your target script represent phonemes (one unit of sound), syllables, or ideas and meanings?
- Is there a stroke order? If so, what are the rules and are there any exceptions? And what is the stroke order for each new character you learn?
- What is the etymology of any characters you are learning? (AKA what is the origin and meaning of the character)
- What does the script look like in standard writing vs. cursive vs. typed?
Feel free to dive even deeper – these are just some great questions you can ask yourself to master your target language’s script!
One of the best ways to memorize something is to make it memorable. Using mnemonics is one of the best ways! Even years after pausing my Japanese language studies, I still remember the sound つ makes in Japanase Hiragana (tsu), because I once drew it as a tsunami wave rolling by. That simple connection and drawing I created seared it right into my long-term memory!
Here is a great PDF from the Uniersity of Central Florida that gives 9 different types of mnemonics that you can use to learn. Pick any one of these – or all of them! – to memorize anything more efficiently and effectively.
Study via Spaced Repetition
As mentioned, utilizing spaced repetition to know when to study will help you manage your time better than ever before! It has been proven that spaced repetition will lead to better memory retention in less time than other methods of studying.
Here is an article about why spaced repetition works, how to implement it today, and what the best spaced repetition resources for language learners are.
Read, Read, Read!
Reading is one of the best ways to commit to memory what you are learning. You can start as a beginner with children’s books and then work your way up to novels, reading about anything you fancy!
Not only will you be seeing the script and mastering this, but you will also be seeing and learning vocab, set phrases, idioms, slang, grammar, and more!
Here is an article about how effective and helpful reading is for language learners and here is a guide to finding great foreign language books.
Just like reading, writing is another amazing way to commit new things you are learning to your memory.
When you learn something and have to actively produce it yourself, you are making your brain work that much harder to recall and that helps push it that much deeper into your long-term memory! Not only this, but you will also be practicing your handwriting which is very important and often overlooked. If you are to become fluent in your target language, you will often need to be able to write clearly and quickly.
Here is an article about how writing helps language learning improve, with 50 prompts to give you something to write about today!
Don’t Neglect Typing
Typing in a foreign language is something that is very often overlooked! However, just as with writing, if you intend to become fluent in your target language one day, it is an important skill.
You can easily download and install a new keyboard layout on your device(s) and start typing in a foreign language today! Here is an article from FluentU explaining how to set it up.
Once you are good to go, try to practice often! Just as with learning to read a new script, writing and typing a new script take lots of dedication and consistency. With time though, you will certainly be flying across the keyboard without even the smallest strain!
Guides to learning specific scripts:
Below are guides to help you learn some popular non-Latin scrips! They range from quick introductions to the script to in-depth walkthroughs. If you don’t see your target language here, send me a message or leave a comment! I will add it as soon as I can 🙂
90 Day Korean’s “Korean Alphabet” guide
How to Study Korean’s “Learn to Read Hangul”
LingoDeer’s “Complete Guide to Hangul”
Learn Hangul’s “Introduction to Hangul”
FluentU’s “Easy Guide to Hangul”
Team Japanese’s Guides to Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji
The True Japan’s Guides to Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji
Tofugu’s Guides to Hiragana and Katakana
Crunchy Nihongo’s Guides to Hiragana and Katakana
Flexi Classes’ Guides to Hiragana and Katakana
FluentU’s “Ultimate Guide to Hiragana and Katakana”
YouYo Chinese’s “Pinyin for Beginners”
Fluent U’s Guides “What is Pinyin?” and “Learn Chinese Characters”
China Expat Society’s “How to Learn Chinese Characters”
Written Chinese’s “Beginners Guide to Chinese Characters”
Fluent Forever’s “How to Learn and Memorize Simplified Chinese Characters”
Story Learning’s “Learn Chinese Characters Easily”
Expat Den’s “Ultimate Guide to the Thai Alphabet”
Kruumui’s “Reading and Writing in Thai” Guide
Banana Thai’s Guides to Reading Thai Consonants and Ending Consonants
Learn Arabic’s Free Course on the Arabic Alphabet
Talk in Arabic’s “How to Learn the Arabic Alphabet”
Sara Hoffmeier’s PDF Book on “A Guide to Writing in Arabic”
Story Learning’s “Arabic Alphabet for Beginners”
OptiLingo’s “The Arabic Alphabet”
Fluent in 3 Month’s “Arabic Alphabet Guide”
The Online Greek Tutor’s “The Greek Alphabet”
Greek Boston’s “How to Write in Greek”
Real Greek Experiences’ “Greek Alphabet” Guide
Expat Den’s “Complete Guide to the Greek Alphabet”
Thought Co.’s “Learn the Greek Alphabet”
Russian for Free’s “How to Read Russian”
Russian Lessons’ “Russian Alphabet”
Speechling’s “How to Learn the Russian Alphabet”
Fluent U’s “Guide to the Russian Alphabet”
Babbel’s “How to Learn Cyrillic in 2 Days”
Fluent in 3 Months’ “How to Read Cyrillic”
LinguaLift’s “How to Learn the Hebrew Alphabet”
Chabad’s “Hebrew Alphabet” Guide
Expat Den’s “Beginners Guide to the Hebrew Alphabet”
Mezzo Guild’s “How to Learn the Hebrew Alphabet Quickly”
Lingua Junkie’s “How to Learn the Hebrew Alphabet”
I hope you feel confident enough to tack any new alphabets and writing systems now! As with any aspect of language learning, its about perseverance and consistency. You can teach yourself anything, as long as you value those two traits!
Good luck and have fun learning 🙂
P.S – This has nothing to do with a writing system, but I HAD to add this fun fact in. Did you know that English is the official language of the sky? Yes, the sky has an official language! And all pilots are required to have a certain level of proficiency in English to fly. How fascinating!
Don’t forget to check out my language learning printables on Etsy! 🙂
From Korean study packs and charts to S.M.A.R.T language goal creation to language vocab challenges to weekly language planners and so much more!
These printables will help any language learner - no matter the level or language!
- The 25 Greatest Foreign Language Products on Amazon!
- Spanish Reflexive Verbs: a Simple How to Guide!
- How to Learn a Different Alphabet or Writing System!
- How to use Social Media for Language Learning! [+ Accounts to follow]
- How To Use Spaced Repetition for Language learning!
Let’s be friends! 🙂
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