Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Learning to Read Languages with Different Alphabets

When learning a language with a different alphabet (as opposed to the Roman alphabet we use in English) many people make the mistake of thinking that reading will be some kind of daunting challenge. They decide to concentrate on listening and speaking and leave the "more difficult" tasks of reading and writing for some point in the future.

This is a big mistake.

For one reason, you are shortchanging yourself of a true understanding of the language and culture. More importantly, it's not hard to learn a new alphabet. In fact, I believe that learning to read is the easiest of the four language skills.

The initial wall that some people throw up is because of the double mystery presented by these incomprehensible symbols that are part of the new language. While we can sound out words in other languages that share the Roman alphabet, when learning Thai or Arabic, for example, we are presented with shapes that provide no clear starting point.

However, if you actually consider this premise, you will realize that it is false. Any shape or symbol that we look at does provide us with our own internal conversation and series of images that rise up in curiosity in an attempt to understand and classify. And this is what a person can use to quickly memorize all the phonetic sounds associated with a foreign alphabet.

Let's take a look at the Thai letter gaw gai:

When I started learning Thai, I looked at this letter and the first idea that came to mind was that it looked like a bird (and the letter name "gai" means chicken, so obviously Thais had the same idea.) Then I located the phonetic sound of the letter, which is "g" as in "go," (this is when it appears at the beginning of a word--in other locations it can have a different sound, but let's keep things simple for this example!)

The trick now, is to connect the image in your mind with the phonetic sound. This letter became known as "grouse" to me. Every time thereafter as I was learning to read Thai, I saw that letter and thought "grouse" and the phonetic "g" sound was instantly there.

And I did this with every letter. It works remarkably well.

Obviously, after a period of time the letters will become ingrained in your mind and the initial memory aid will no longer be necessary. I believe this method works best if you worry about learning the actual names of the letters at a later date. Some teachers may frown on this but I feel the extra task of first memorizing all the letter names will hinder your ability to quickly acquire the phonetic sounds.

This system can be a bit trickier when learning a language with many letters that look similar to letters from the Roman alphabet (such as the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian) and some confusion is possible. But I believe it is still the best strategy in those cases as well.

A few hours of practice a night and I guarantee you can have all the sounds of a new alphabet memorized within a week or even less. Will you be looking at a sentence and blazing through it fluently? No, of course not. You will blunder and pause but you will be able to sound out the words. Of course, many of the words you will not yet understand. But that's part of the fun.

Everywhere you are (assuming you are in a country where the language is spoken) becomes your classroom. As you are sitting on the bus you can sound out traffic and business signs outside. Keep a notepad and write down the words for later reference or carry around a pocket dictionary.

This is by no means an original method for learning to read languages with different alphabets. In fact, a few years ago I downloaded a book whose copyright had long since expired. It was written in the early part of the 20th century by a Brit colonialist who had traveled far and wide and had learned a number of foreign languages. He explains the system above but in far more detail and with much more background. It's written in that slightly antiquated style of someone who lived at that time. There's also a muted but clear enthusiasm that indicates he couldn't have been happier at having chosen the life he had.

It was quite an interesting little book. However, I can't locate it in the jumble of unorganized files on my computer. I'll make an effort to find it in the next few weeks and will hopefully be able to post some excerpts.


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