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The Joy of Learning Different Language Scripts

To celebrate Arabic Language Day, we thought it perfectly fit for Lindsay Dow, otherwise known as Lindsay Does Languages to tell us all about how she taught herself 31 different language scripts using Memrise. Check out what she has to say!

Understandably, many language learners place an emphasis on speaking and listening when first learning a language. This makes total sense. After all, language is communication and chatting to people is a pretty big part of that.

However, devoting a little time to reading also enables you to understand the world around you. In 2011, I visited Thailand. It was the first time I’d been somewhere where I couldn’t at least guess what the signs and words around me meant. Despite having a great time there, the trip made me realise how fortunate I’d been before. Even in countries I’d visited previously where I didn’t speak the language such as the Czech Republic and Malaysia, the language used the same letters as English and so I could at least make an attempt at the local lingo.

The Thai words and letters around me fascinated and inspired me. There’s something mysterious and beautiful about different language scripts. I was left curious to know more.

Fast-forward to November 2014. I was thinking about the year ahead and how I could satisfy my language wanderlust. I knew I would be studying for my final year of university for most of the year so couldn’t exactly focus on learning a new language. That’s when it came to me. I decided to set myself a challenge there and then to get to grips with as many different scripts, writing systems, and alphabets in the year to come as possible.

I headed across to Memrise to see what was on offer. Two years before, a scroll through Memrise one lazy Saturday afternoon led to me teaching myself the Cyrillic alphabet in a weekend. I knew it would be a great starting point for inspiration. Essentially, I based my entire year of language learning on the question, “Is there a Memrise course for it?”

A quick search gave me courses in at least 31 different languages: a huge range of scripts and alphabets – some of which can’t even be written such as British and American Sign Language and Semaphore. I was intrigued. Although I haven’t taken any of these languages further than the writing system yet, as the year has gone on, I’ve become more and more confident when it comes to approaching languages using different scripts and want to share the four things that proved absolute necessities as well as a brief outline of a few different writing systems to get you started.

Throughout this post, I’ve also linked to relevant Memrise courses where possible in case you get a wave of inspiration!

Schedule

In January, I made a rough schedule that looked a little like this:

As the year went on and I knew when I’d be super busy with other things, I adapted it to look more like this:

For me, having this set out from the start was crucial in making sure I actually did what I planned to when I planned to do it rather than thinking “Meh, later” every single week.

Memrise Goals

Telling yourself you’ll do something everyday is one thing but actually putting out there is another. Telling family and friends, either in person or over here on the World Wide Web, is a great way to create accountability and make sure stuff gets done.

A really useful tool to actually make sure this stuff gets done is by using the Memrise Goal Setting feature to give you a streak and encourage you to keep it up.

This was something I found absolutely indispensable. Each week, I’d set myself a 6000 point daily goal for the new script and a 1500 goal for the previous scripts that month. This helped to ensure I was always focusing my attention on the most important thing at that time.

Two Notebooks

As fantastic as Memrise and other digital tools are, when it comes to giving writing a focus, you can’t go wrong with actual pen and paper. I found that 2 notebooks was the best solution here for me.

I used an A4 sized one for writing each script up neatly and a smaller one for jotting down rough lines and letters in various scripts when I had moments to practise.

It can be really useful to try to write out familiar words such as your name or hometown using each new script. This is a great way to become familiar with the potentially different sounds used in your new language as well as how the letters form together. This time last year the words ‘diacritical vowels’ meant nothing to me. Now it’s a comfortable part of my vocabulary.

Evernote

The great thing about Memrise being user-created is that it makes for a much wider range of languages than many other platforms. However, some courses are created for people using different keyboards or who already know the keyboard codes and shortcuts.

When you’re just learning for fun, it can be quite tricky to quickly water some words when you’re not savvy with this stuff. I found that the best solution for courses like this was to create an Evernote document as I was first learning the letters and to copy and paste them into it in order to then copy and paste back into Memrise when watering. It sounds more complicated than it really is!

There’s also the added bonus that you’re creating your own resource as you go that you can save and print to use when you’ve not got Memrise handy. Yay!

A very brief explanation of different language scripts

To round off this post, I want to share with you a quick look at some different types of writing systems with examples. For an absolutely fantastic round-up, I’d highly recommend checking out this page at Omniglot

Alphabet

If you can read this, then you’re probably familiar with alphabets. Alphabets use symbols (letters) representing both consonant and vowel sounds and all are normally written…unless we’re talking about English and the spelling is crazy!

Examples of languages that use alphabets:
English, Georgian
Greek
Russian

Abjad

Abjads are really interesting because vowels aren’t always written and when they are, they’re often added around the consonant letter they’re attached to. Remember those diacritic vowels we talked about earlier? Looking at Hebrew back in January was when I was first introduced to them.

Examples of languages that use abjads:
Arabic
Hebrew

Abugida

Similarly to abjads, vowels are often added to consonants. However, consonant letters in abugidas have their own inherent vowel unless there’s another vowel marker added – also known as a vowel diacritic. You can see how ‘diacritic’ became my word of the year. Also, vowels do often have their own individual letter as well as their diacritic form(s). Phew!

Examples of languages that use abugidas:
Hindi
Cree
Thai

Syllabary

In a syllabary, each symbol represents a consonant and a vowel, in other words, a syllable. I wonder where they get their name…

Examples of languages that use syllabaries:
Japanese (Hiragana and Katakana)
Cherokee
Inuktitut

Semanto-phonetic

This is one of the most fascinating types of writing system because there are so few in current use. When I say “so few”, I mean two. There’s just two languages that currently use this type of writing system. Semanto-phonetic scripts can be made up of pictograms, which represent ideas in quite a graphic way, and ideograms, which represent things in a more abstract way. They can also be put together and made into compound forms.

Examples of languages that use semanto-phonetic scripts:
Chinese
Japanese Kanji
Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics (no longer used)

I hope this post has inspired you to consider learning a language with a different writing system – or at least to just take a look at the writing system!

Have you ever learnt a language with a different script? What helped you to learn it? I’d love to get chatting about this with you in the comments!


Lindsay Dow is a dedicated language tutor, blogger, and video maker from Milton Keynes, England. When she’s not teaching languages, she’s learning them herself and documenting the progress on lindsaydoeslanguages.com and her YouTube channel. When she’s not doing that, she’s playing with her tortoise Gonzo, who speaks a grand total of zero languages.

You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter!

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