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Easy Tips for Mastering a New Alphabet

jason-oxenham-ceo November 19, 2018, 12:36 am

You’ve always dreamed of mastering the delicate curves of Arabic calligraphy. You visited Ethiopia and gazed wistfully at the sprawling Amharic. You stumbled across Elfdalian in Minecraft and now you’re ready to carve out letters like you’re in Lord of the Rings.

 

No matter what inspired you to learn a new alphabet, the prospect might be daunting at first. Where on earth do you start?

 

Don’t worry. We’ve got some tips.

 

Before You Get Started

 
  1. Don’t panic! It’s not as hard as you think. If you are panicking, then remind yourself that hey, at least it’s not a logogram, or character-based language. Imagining having to learn 20,000 Chinese characters. Now Hindi’s forty-seven-letter Devanagari alphabet doesn’t seem so bad! (But learning a logogram doesn’t have to be difficult either.)

  2. Grab a whiteboard. It will be a while before your handwriting looks pretty, and that’s okay—think about how long it took you to perfect your English handwriting! In the fourth grade, you were still making shaky A’s and crooked Q’s, and you’d been learning the language for nine years at that point. A whiteboard will let you write. And erase. And rewrite. And re-erase.

  3. Similarly, if the alphabet has a cursive form, don’t start learning that right away. The basics are hard enough.

  4. But keep the cursive form in mind, because you should learn it eventually.

  5. Break the alphabet down into chunks. Learn 3-5 letters a day, and within a week, you’ll have learned them all.

  6. Make sure you know the difference between an alphabet and a syllabary. Alphabets represent consonants and/or vowels. Syllabaries represent syllables.

 

The First Few Days

 
  1. Pay close attention to letters that look similar but sound different (like dal and dhal in Arabic), or letters that sound similar but look different (like qaf and kaf).

  2. Note letters that take different forms. For example, English letters have capital and lowercase forms, while Arabic letters have four different forms depending on where they fall in a word.

  3. Beware of letters that look like English letters but are pronounced differently, which can be especially tricky. If you’re learning Russian, for example, you might be tempted to pronounce “H” like the first letter of “hat.” Nope! It’s pronounced more like “n.” Pay attention to these!

  4. Start simple. When you were in kindergarten, the first word you learned to spell was not “mnemonic.” It was probably “ant”—maybe “apple” if you were ambitious. So pick easy words, not the most impressive ones, and work your way up.

  5. Speaking of mnemonics, use them! And think of your own rhymes to help you remember tricky patterns.

  6. If you can, read out loud in front of a native speaker who can correct you.

  7. Think of each letter as an object. When I picture the Korean letter rieul, I think of a winding rattlesnake.

  8. Don’t be afraid to invest in an old-fashioned workbook. They’re not always fun, but the repetition and written guidance can be helpful.

  9. Alphabet songs! The right earworm will help the alphabet sink in. Good luck getting this Greek alphabet rap out of your head.

  10. When you watch a movie in your foreign language, turn on subtitles in that language so that you can get used to matching the letters with the sounds.

 

Get Creative

 
  1. Keep a diary. Every day, write in the new alphabet a little bit, even if it’s only a few sentences. Set a hard goal—ten minutes, perhaps, or one hundred words—and force yourself to stick to it.

  2. Find a pen pal who speaks your language: an actual pen-and-paper pen pal, not a texting buddy or an email friend. Why? Because alphabets look very different when they’re written out; chances are, your own English handwriting is nowhere near as neat as Times New Roman. Get used to reading messy foreign handwriting early.

  3. Read along to a recording, such as a storybook. First, record yourself reading the text alone. Next, listen to the native speaker’s rendition to determine whether you pronounced everything correctly. If not, note the words where you had trouble and record yourself again. Repeat this until you can read along with perfect pacing and pronunciation.

  4. Turn flashcards into a game. Draw them on handheld, half-size index cards and stash them in your back pocket for a quick review.

  5. Grab a huge sketchbook and colorful markers—you’ll have more fun learning the letters if you think of them like an art project. Draw them really big, taking up the entire page, and use a rainbow of colors.

  6. If you’re really artistically inclined, make decorative projects for each of the letters and hang them around your room so that you see them constantly. This is an easy, DIY way to spice up any space.

 

Intermediate Tips

 
  1. Read, read, read! You can’t learn what you don’t see. Keep the alphabet in front of you as much as possible, even if you can’t comprehend everything that you’re reading. You just need to get comfortable sounding the language out.

  2. Practice writing English words in the foreign alphabet. This will make you think about the sounds of individual letters, which will help you realize the subtle phonetic differences between English and your target language.

  3. Add a foreign language keyboard to your smartphone by following these instructions for Android or these for iPhone, so that you won’t have to resort to Romanization when typing in the language.

  4. Eventually, switch your entire phone over to that language. Since you already know where basics are located, such as “Settings” or “Messages,” you will easily make the connection between the English words and their translations.

  5. Throw out Romanized compromises like “Arabish.” If you force yourself to rely on the actual alphabet, you’ll learn it.

  6. Search for alphabet apps to play with on long commutes.

  7. Each Rocket Languages course includes lessons on the alphabet.  Languages such as Russian, Hindi, Korean and Arabic also include Writing lessons with videos showing how the various letters are handwritten. Pace yourself by doing one or two exercises a day.

  8. Time yourself! Time yourself saying the alphabet forward—and backward. Practice twice daily, once in the morning and once and night, and keep track of your time.

 

You’re ready to get started!

 

Learning a new alphabet isn’t as hard as you think. In fact, the hard part might be switching back to the English alphabet afterward! After you get used to the curling slopes of Arabic and postmodern slices of Russian, then English’s cold, round edges might seem a bit boring.

 

So grab a whiteboard, invest in some colored markers and get learning. And above all, have fun with it!


Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.
Easy Tips for Mastering a New Alphabet

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