Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

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Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

Postby EmmaC02 » Mon Mar 13, 2017 3:08 am

I'm currently in the process of learning a new alphabet for the first time, and thought it could be a useful thread to see what advice those who already have could provide. So, to those of you who have had success learning a new alphabet/writing system/script:

What worked for you? What didn't work? If you could offer one nugget of wisdom, what would it be?
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Re: Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

Postby outcast » Mon Mar 13, 2017 3:31 am

Well, I have learned Hangul, I guess.

I say "I guess" because I am not particularly good at reading it still, though I am not bad anymore either. This was my first alphabet learned outside the Latin alphabet.

My advice is simple: just pretend the Latin alphabet does NOT exist anymore. When you learn the new alphabet, learn to associate the symbol with the sound directly. No transcript intermediary or any sort of romanization, no thinking in your head with latin letters. Just focus on the letter and the sound it represents, from the start. Several sources which I tend to trust clearly recommended that when learning Korean, it serves one much better long term to take the pain and learn Hangul without any romanization help. Not only because of what I mentioned above, but also because only through Hangul can some of the complex Sandhi rules be easier to remember or grasp (how sounds are realized between words or intra words depending on what is around the letter, similar to French liaison), and romanization makes a grand mess of it all, even if it appears an easy way in at first. Now I don't know which alphabet you intend to learn, and maybe (or probably), it has some differences with Hangul, but I do believe the main idea of my advice holds true regardless. Just keep it simple and direct. This new alphabet will be going on the ride with you for as long as you learn the language, so you might as well get as familiarized and in as much ease with it as you can.

So yes, I struggled and it was frustrating for a time, but then you do get used to it and now the Hangul letters are just like any other letters to me, and I find the Korean romanization just unseemly, even ugly looking. I'm glad I didn't learn it, though maybe at some point in the far future I will once I can speak Korean with some level of fluency, for the sake of completeness.
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Re: Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

Postby Longinus » Mon Mar 13, 2017 11:12 am

I'm limited to one nugget, so here it is:

Write all your notes, vocabulary lists, exercises, whatever, in the new script. Never write anything down in any sort of romaji. This is slow and a bit of a nuisance at first, because for most languages, there are differences between the handwritten and printed forms. This will really focus your attention on the correct forms of the script, because if you're writing your vocabulary words, for example, you will need to be able to go back and clearly read your own handwriting. You will find that you improve very rapidly.

Often you can find native language materials on the internet intended to teach the writing system to children, where you can practice tracing the letters and so on.
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Re: Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

Postby Ingaræð » Mon Mar 13, 2017 11:48 am

When I started Russian at university, we were told to do all our writing in the printed Cyrillic that you get in books. I can't remember how many weeks we did this for (maybe a month?), but when we became accustomed to it we switched to using the handwriting script. 15 years later, I'd forgotten all the semester of Russian that I'd learned, but I could still 'read' and write Cyrillic.

I'll second avoiding romanji - it's too easy to hardwire the wrong sounds into your pronunciation. I find using the IPA is much better.
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Re: Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

Postby emk » Mon Mar 13, 2017 12:47 pm

EmmaC02 wrote:I'm currently in the process of learning a new alphabet for the first time, and thought it could be a useful thread to see what advice those who already have could provide. So, to those of you who have had success learning a new alphabet/writing system/script:

What worked for you? What didn't work? If you could offer one nugget of wisdom, what would it be?

This really depends on the size of the script you're learning.

If you want to learn a reasonably small script, like Cyrillic or Hebrew, then you can just suck it up and get it done. :-) Spend a day or two writing out all the letters and reciting the alphabet, using any mnemonics you'd like, and then use that script for everything going forward. Benny Lewis has a longer article on the subject that's pretty good. I'd also recommend setting up a proper keyboard on your phone and computer as soon as possible and learning how to use it.

If you want to learn a mid-sized script, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, then things are a bit more complicated. There are about 200 important hieroglyphs for Middle Egyptian, and they fall into several categories:

  1. Uniliterals. This is an actual, complete alphabet for Egyptian! Or to be more precise, it's technically an abjad like Hebrew and Arabic, because you only have letters for consonants. Learn this like you would any alphabet described above.
  2. Biliterals and triliterals. These represent two or three consonants, and they're a bit tricky to learn, because there are maybe 60 or so that are really important, and it's hard to remember random pairs of unpronounceable gutteral consonants (OK, sure, I'm just whining). I relied heavily on Anki here, and also brute force and suffering.
  3. Determinatives. These are fun and easy! These are essentially little pictures like A1 (man) or B1 (woman) or Y1v (writing, document, abstract idea) that indicate how to interpret an ambiguous word.
So for example, consider several words spelled "sS":

Y3-Y1v sS "to write"
Y3-A1 sS "scribe"

The Y3 is a biliteral for the consonants "sS". The Y1v sign is a determinative that means "writing" or "abstract idea". The A1 sign means "man". The two words spelled "sS" would have had different vowels (which are unwritten), but the clarifying sign allows the reader to fill it in.

After having thought about this for a while, I think the best approach is to learn to uniliteral abjad by brute force, but to learn the remaining signs as you actually encounter them in your vocabulary. The best technique I've seen for this is the Lazy Kanjii method, which is a really, really brainlessly easy way to review characters in Anki. How easy is it?

  • You put the character on the front of the card.
  • You put a brain dump of random useful information on the back of the card: the pronunciation, the meaning, whatever you want.
  • When you review the card, you copy the character on paper by hand while looking at in Anki. This is ridiculously easy, but it really helps to internalize the differences between similar-looking characters.
  • Before looking at the back of the card, attempt to give one meaning that's associated with the character. So in the example above, "writing" or "write" or whatever would be fine. It just needs to be in the general ballpark. If you get this anywhere close, score the card as a pass.
The goal here isn't to memorize every fact about the character using Anki. The goal is much more subtle: You're just trying to create an "anchor" in your brain for the character, consisting of two things: (1) a pretty good idea of what the character looks like, and (2) a vague idea of what the character means. The idea is that once you build this "anchor", it will be much easier to attach any other knowledge you need to the "anchor", and you can do this in the course of your regular studies.

As always, I find it nearly impossible to make SRS cards too easy to review. I keep making them easier and easier, and yet they still work extremely well. So I don't see why anybody would want hard cards. ;-)

As for what order you should learn things in, I'm leaning towards: (1) learn things in the order you need them, and as you encounter them in your studies, but (2) learn simpler versions of signs before more complicated ones.
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Re: Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

Postby iguanamon » Mon Mar 13, 2017 2:16 pm

I'll be the one dissenter here, though the alphabets I've learned Hebrew "Rashi", "Meruba" and "Solitreo" scripts are used with a Latin based language called Djudeo-espanyol/Ladino read from right to left. Ladino /Djudeo-espanyol is the language of the Jews expelled from Iberia around 1500 who resettled in the Balkans, Greece,Turkey and the Mediterranean.

Ladino has been written in Latin script since the early 1900's. I taught myself how to read Rashi by basically using a chart and a facing page book with Rashi on the left page and Latin script on the right page. By the end of the book I was reading very well and didn't need the "crutch" any more. After completing several more books in Rashi script I now read Rashi script almost as easily as I do Latin script. I really enjoy reading anything I can get my hands on in Rashi.

Of course, from the OP's profile it looks like they are learning a non-Latin based language, so my method may not apply as well as it did for me with Ladino. Ladino isn't Japanese, Mandarin or Hindi, and, I had already learned the language with Latin script before I decided to learn to read in Hebrew scripts. I was greatly aided by knowledge of the language.

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Re: Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

Postby Ogrim » Mon Mar 13, 2017 2:29 pm

I agree with outcast that you should forget about Latin alphabet and work exclusively in the new script you are learning, but as emk says, it really depends on the size of the script as well how to proceed. Personally I have no experience with languages like Mandarin or Japanese with thousands of signs, so my own experience is limited to learning Greek, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic.

For me, Greek and Russian was not difficult. The important thing is to quickly learn to associate the script with the way words are pronounced, and to always create wordlists/Anki cards or whatever you use with the script you are learning, avoiding transliteration. (A problem with transliteration is that it is always approximative and that, depending on the base language, different transliterations are used for the same sound.)

With Arabic and Hebrew it is a bit more complex, because in "real" life they do not indicate most vowel sounds. I have therefore struggled more, particularly with Arabic, to get to a basic ability to read and decipher words. I still stick to the same principle though, and avoid transliterations in Latin script as much as I can, because it can become like the third wheel on a bike - you have to remove it to learn how to ride a two-wheel bike properly. If you learn a script like Arabic, you should get to a point where you only have to look up transliterations in a good dictionary to check what the right vowel sounds are when in doubt. So the way I work:

1. Spend much time in the beginning working with recordings and the corresponding texts - listen and read several times.
2. Copy not only the words, but the whole text/dialogue while you listen to the recording.
3. Read out the text you have written aloud, then compare to the recording.
4. Finally, use wordlists/SRS (whatever method you prefer) to check your vocabulary. Never include transliteration in your wordlists/cards.

Having used this method for the first two-three chapters of my Arabic course, I found that I could start working on a new lesson without having to check the transliteration of most new words.
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Re: Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

Postby AndyMeg » Mon Mar 13, 2017 2:41 pm

I agree that that depends on the alphabet/script you are trying to learn.

In general, from my experience with japanese (hiragana, katakana and kanji) and korean (hangul), I think these are the best tips I can offer:

- Don't use a romanized version of the sounds. Try to directly associate the sounds with their actual script/alphabet.
- Compare the printed and handwritten versions and pay attention to any differences you may find.
- Use the new script from the beginning and as much as possible, even if you can't remember all the letters yet. For this you can have a cheat sheet at hand or a video or something like that that helps you remember the letters when you forget them or if you are in doubt.
- Learn the stroke order and practice it (this mainly applies if you want to have a good handwriting and it could also help to differenciate between similar letters). This is specially useful for japanese, korean and chinese scripts. I don't know about other languages.
- Practice lots of dictation. For this you will need an audio and a transcript. I suggest this because some alphabets/scripts don't work as you would expect from knowing the individual sounds each letter represents. Sometimes, when forming words or sentences, there are complex sound changes. You could learn the rules and try to remember every time, but for me the best way to really assimilate those rules is to practice enough dictation: listen to sentences and try to write them in the native script. You can pause the audio and go back as many times as you need to be able to write the whole sentence. Then compare what you wrote with the official transcript and write it again, this time copying the official transcript. Listen to the audio again while trying to follow with the transcript. Move on to another sentence and repeat the process. For dictation practice, Glossika is specially useful, but you could try other sources too.
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Re: Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

Postby emk » Mon Mar 13, 2017 3:54 pm

AndyMeg wrote:- Learn the stroke order and practice it (this mainly applies if you want to have a good handwriting and it could also help to differenciate between similar letters). This is specially useful for japanese, korean and chinese scripts. I don't know about other languages.

Yeah, I mentioned this above and I want to repeat it.

Normally, I hate hate hate writing things out by hand and virtually never do it. I don't write out vocabulary, or sentences in workbooks, or notes. I type everything. At one point, I even built a custom input method for my computer so that I could directly type Unicode hieroglyphs. For many people, things aren't real unless they write them out. For me, things that are written out are somehow less real than things I type. (This may have something to do with being a programmer...)

But even as somebody who hates writing things down, I think that it's a good idea to write down new alphabets—and that the large the alphabet gets, the more important it is to set pen to paper. This is because when you're working with very large alphabets, minor visual details really matter. For example:

G1-G4-G5-G14-G17-G21-G36-G37-G29-G35
These are all common signs, and some of them look really similar. By actually drawing these by hand, I was forced to pay attention to where the individual lines go.

I'd imagine that similar issues apply when learning thousands of kanji.

Once you can write a new alphabet, I encourage you to learn how to type it as well, and to set up your computer and/or phone the way a native would. This means learning how to switch between keyboards on your phone, or between input methods on your computer. The advantages of doing this are many—but most importantly, it allows you to Google things easily in your TL, and it allows you to interact the way a native would. But while I think this is important, I don't think it's the best way to learn the finer visual differences between all those bird hieroglyphs. ;-)
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Re: Tips for Learning a new Alphabet/Script?

Postby rdearman » Mon Mar 13, 2017 6:25 pm

emk wrote:Normally, I hate hate hate writing things out by hand and virtually never do it. I don't write out vocabulary, or sentences in workbooks, or notes. ... For me, things that are written out are somehow less real than things I type. (This may have something to do with being a programmer...)

DItto! That is so me.
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