“It’s all Greek to me”
Have you ever heard that phrase before?
It’s a relatively common phrase in English, used when you don’t understand a bit of spoken or written language that has been communicated to you, regardless of what language it’s actually in.
Many languages have equivalent phrases, though the foreign language mentioned can often change from one language to the next.
In Italian, for example, you can say:
“E’ arabo” – It’s arabic
In German, you can say:
“Das ist Chinesisch für mich” – That’s Chinese, to me.
Here’s a list of such phrases across a wide number of languages, all used to cheekily imply that you are unable to comprehend whatever is being said to you.
Perusing that list, or even just the list of three phrases above, you may notice on particular detail:
For nearly every phrase, the “unknown” language is generally one that is written using an entirely different script than is used by the language of the main phrase. In fact, the unique writing system of the Chinese languages is the one most often mentioned as incomprehensible.
The Problem with Foreign Scripts
The existence of so many versions of “It’s all Greek to me” reveals an important reality of linguistic diversity:
Among languages that use the same script, certain ideas can be easily communicated, even if the speakers of those languages cannot speak to one another. This ease of communication, however breaks down across different scripts.
Say, for example, three tourists are traveling through Italy, towards the three-way border between Italy, France, and Switzerland. These tourists are from the USA, Korea, and Sweden, respectively. None of the three know Italian, nor can they communicate amongst themselves.
If they see a sign that says FRANCIA (France, in Italian), the American and the Swede will have little trouble understanding it, as the word for France in their languages are written similarly, using the same Latin alphabet:
Italian – Francia —-> English – France
Italian – Francia —-> Swedish – Frankrike
Assuming the Korean traveler has no knowledge of the Latin alphabet, he or she would have a lot more trouble translating, if they found it to be possible at all:
Italian – Francia —-> Korean – 프랑스
Unlike the previous examples, there is, quite simply, no common ground that the Korean learner can use to understand. This difficulty comes despite the fact that when spoken, the Korean word for France sounds very similar to the English word for France. (Romanization: Peurangseu)
Though the example is contrived, the fact of the matter is clear: foreign writing systems can be an obstacle when it comes to language learning.
If you’re a native speaker of a language that uses a Latin-based script (like English, Spanish, Czech, and Finnish, for example) you may see languages with foreign scripts and be completely scared off from learning them. If so, this would keep you from learning beautiful and fascinating languages like:
- Mandarin Chinese (中文)
- Arabic (العَرَبِيَّة)
- Greek (Ελληνικά)
- Russian (Русский)
- Korean (한국어)
- Hindi (हिन्दी)
- Amharic (አማርኛ)
- Japanese (日本語)
- among many others.
Unfortunately, the apparent difficulty of these scripts discourage many language learners from learning these languages.
And perhaps even more unfortunately, many of those who do decide to take these languages on often give up because they don’t know how to approach learning a foreign script effectively.
In this article, I have compiled a list of five tips that will help you master the foreign script of any language.
For the sake of simplicity, we are assuming here that you are learning a language with a non-Latin alphabet, like the one used to write this very article.
5 Tips for Learning Any Foreign Script
1. Listen While Reading
The very first step to learning a script is to link its written symbols it with the sound of the language it represents. Building a bond between the spoken language and the written language is absolutely key if you want to build solid reading and listening skills. Since you are an adult, you can take advantage of your capacity of reading right from the very beginning.
To do this, I recommend that you obtain a beginner language learning course, preferably with a series of short, easy-to-digest dialogues.
As you move through the course and cover each dialogue, make sure you get into the habit of reading the dialogue and listening to the audio of it simultaneously. Do this for a minimum of three months.
Now, you may wonder how it is possible to read something when the script used to write it is completely alien to you. This is made possible through a tool called transliteration.
Transliteration is the act of converting a text from one script to another. In your case, it would mean taking what is said in the original, foreign script, and rewriting it in a Latin-based script, in such a way that it can be more easily read and pronounced by learners:
Listening to the sound while reading the transliteration first will help you get a feel of how the sounds work, and then you can start focusing on the non-Latin script.
Let’s look at how transliteration works in three languages (Greek, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese), using translations of the phrase “Italy is a beautiful country”.
Η Ιταλία είναι μια όμορφη χώρα (I Italía eínai mia ómorfi chóra)
إيطاليا بلد جميل (‘iitalia balad jamil)
意大利是一个美丽的国家 (Yìdàlì shì yīgè měilì de guójiā)
In each of the above examples, the transliteration is bolded and in parentheses
Taking a moment or two to look at each transliteration, I’m sure you’ll find that you now have some idea of how to pronounce each sentence aloud, which you likely did not have when reading the original text.
You may also notice that the each transliteration varies according the the language it is used for. These variations usually mark specific linguistic elements—for example, Mandarin Chinese has a system of tones, which are marked in the transliteration through accents above each vowel)
Using transliteration allows you to better hear what you are listening to, offers comprehensible input and it is a very solid way to start.
My suggestion is to rely on transliterations for only a set amount of time, which will differ according to which language you are learning.
- For languages with a relatively close script (such as Greek or Russian) you can rely on it for the first few weeks
- For languages with a more complex, distant scripts (such as Mandarin Chinese or Japanese), you can rely on it for three to six months.
However long you do decide to use transliterations for, remember to eventually stop using them, and instead rely fully on the native script. After all, transliterations are only meant as a temporary tool, and not a substitute for the actual script.
2. Learn How to Type
Listening while reading is a fast, easy, and indispensable step towards understanding a foreign script. However, it is not enough. To acquire a new script efficiently, you will need to approach using the script from various angles.
After growing used to listening and reading, it is a good idea to start learning how to type in the native script.
If you’re reading this article on a computer or smartphone, you already have the tools necessary to start doing this. All you need to do is:
- Download and/or install the new keyboard layout on your device.
- Learn the layout of the keys, and how sequences of key presses are used to “build” or write out the target script.
- Start typing, in as many different contexts as possible.
Depending on the language, there may be alternative typing methods, but learning to type in the native keyboard is usually the most effective thing to do in the long run. To see a different example, you can take a look at how I learned to type in Mandarin Chinese in this article.
Typing is a valuable skill for learning a foreign script since it helps you familiarize yourself with the letters and characters before you need to worry about actually writing them out by hand. Furthermore, it will boost your reading skills, and give your brain further context for connecting foreign symbols to native sounds.
3. Learn How to Write by Hand
Typing is certainly the simplest way to start writing in a foreign script, as almost all world languages have found a way to adopt the standard set of 104 computer keyboard keys to the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of symbols used in that particular language’s script.
There is, however, still much value in learning how to write out a foreign script by hand.
Writing by hand adds a personal touch to learning your script. By writing by hand you are developing a personal bond with the script, and thus making it “yours”, and less artificial than typed text.
Learning to handwrite can also help you better memorize symbols and characters, as the hand-eye coordination needed for handwriting adds a new dimension to the memorization of each shape or series of shapes.
My suggestion, no matter the script you are dealing with, is to have a daily session of handwriting ranging from 5 minutes to 30 minutes.
These regular bouts of handwriting practice will help you gain more familiarity with the symbols of your target languages, and in cases of stroke-order languages like Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, help you learn to write these characters out, just as natives would.
4. Read Out Loud
Of course, one of the most important things you need to know how to do when reading any script (even your own) is read it out loud, at a natural pace and intonation.
This takes getting used to. However, if you’ve been diligently practicing your listening while reading, typing, and handwriting, you should be familiar enough with the script to be able to reliably pronounce what you see written on a page, or screen.
Reading out loud has many benefits: it allows you to physically articulate sounds, it helps you focus, and it is another way to reinforce the bond between the spoken and written language from yet another perspective, just to name a few.
The ability to read aloud well is one that will develop over time, so if you find it difficult, don’t worry. If you’re just starting how, I recommend that you start reading at a relatively slow pace and focus on pronouncing entire sentences clearly, as opposed to just individual words.
5. Interleave Your Activities
Up to this point, I’ve introduced you to four activities that you can use to master any non-Latin script:
- Listen while Reading
- Reading Out Loud
These are all great learning activities, but are hardly effective if used one at a time, every once in awhile.
To get the most value out of them, you need to learn how to interleave your learning activities.
What’s interleaving, you may ask?
To quote the popular science magazine Scientific American:
“The technique of “interleaving,” a largely unheard-of technique that is capturing the attention of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. Whereas blocking involves practicing one skill at a time before the next (for example, “skill A” before “skill B” and so on, forming the pattern “AAABBBCCC”), in interleaving one mixes, or interleaves, practice on several related skills together (forming for example the pattern “ABCABCABC”). For instance, a pianist alternates practice between scales, chords, and arpeggios, while a tennis player alternates practice between forehands, backhands, and volleys. Over the past four decades, a small but growing body of research has found that interleaving often outperforms blocking for a variety of subjects, including sports and category learning.” (Emphasis added, full article here)
In other words, interleaving is a scientifically proven way of varying practice activities to enhance your overall learning of a particular skill.
In this article, I’ve given you five ways to practice learning, interacting with, and writing out a new foreign script. To interleave them well, just schedule your practice of these activities that you practice several (or all) of them multiple times over the course of each day, or each week.
Though foreign scripts can be very intimidating for any language learner, I believe that the tools to learn them well have never been as within reach as they are now.
Coupled with an open, enthusiastic mindset, the tools I have given you in this article will go a long way towards helping you master these scripts, and help you use them as any native speaker does.
Follow my tips, and remember to vary your learning. Practice, experiment, and have fun with your new way of writing. Soon, these complex, scary scripts will become as clear and intuitive as your own.
Written by Luca Lampariello