Learning a new writing system

Learning a new alphabet, syllabary or other writing system can be tricky. The difficulty of this task depends on the complexity of the writing system you're trying to learn. Below are some tips on how to go about this task.

Learn a few letters a time

Learn the letters or symbols a few at time rather than all in one go. Pay particular attention to letters with a similar appearance and to 'false friends': which look like letters you are already know but are not the same. For example, in Russian the following letters look like English letters but are pronounced differently: B = [v], H = [n], C = [s] and P = [r]. So now you should have no difficulty deciphering the Russian word PECTOPAH - it means restaurant and can be transliterated as RESTORAN.

Associate letter shapes with familiar objects

Try to associate the shapes of letters with familiar objects: some letters may look like letters or numerals in your own alphabet, others may remind you of animals, objects or people. Books which teach children how to read use these techniques and will be useful if you can get hold of them.

Practice makes perfect

Practice writing the letters as often as possible. Learning the standard way to form the letters: i.e. the shape, direction and order of strokes, will help you to memorise them. If possible, take a calligraphy class, especially if you're studying Chinese or Japanese. This will enable you to improve your handwriting and to read other people's handwriting.


Practice writing things in the new alphabet then transliterating them into your own alphabet. Then try transliterating them back into the new alphabet. Also try writing your own language in the new alphabet.

You could also practice your writing by keeping a diary and/or by writing to a penpal who speaks the language. You can find penpals interested in learning languages and helping others to learn their languages at: www.mylanguageexchange.com.


Practice reading texts written in the new alphabet as often as possible. Even if you don't know all the letters or symbols, you will be able to make out some of the words and to guess some of the others. Look out for the names of people and places and for loan-words from your own language as these tend to be relatively easy to spot and decipher.

At first you'll probably find that you have to sound out letters individually before you can decipher the words. Eventually you'll be able to recognise words by their shapes and will only need to sound out the letters of unfamiliar words. You probably went through the same process when learning to read your native language.

Label things around your home or office in the new alphabet with translations in your own language. This will increase your exposure to the new alphabet and help you to recognise key words and phrases.

Try reading aloud whatever material you get hold of. There are links to online newspapers and magazines in many different languages on relevant pages of this site If you know native speaker who is willing to help, ask him or her to read things aloud. Then you try to do the same and ask your friend to correct your mistakes.

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