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Writing systems

February 25, 2012

Don’t be intimidated.

Modification of Writing Systems of the World 3...

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Having discussed the writing systems used in modern Japanese as an example, I’m now turning my attention to the issue of learning writing systems generally. Many people have the idea that if a language is not written with the same alphabet as English, then that language must be difficult. They scare themselves out of learning many languages in this way. As with anything one wishes to accomplish, a positive attitude (in the sense that one assumes one’s goals are both possible and practically achievable) is essential.

Fundamentally though a writing system is nothing more than a set of more or less arbitrary symbols used to represent the sounds of a language. Yes, initially memorization is required but one should always remember that writing systems are intended to be used by people of all sorts in ultimately practical terms. Any writing system that cannot be learned in some reasonable amount of time would be nearly useless and so would not be the writing system of any given language. Ideographs are virtually always built up from a finite number of elements; in Chinese, these are termed radicals and 214 such radicals are recognized. All Chinese characters (at least 47,000 according to the link) combine those radicals in a variety of ways, according to certain rules. Therefore one starts by learning the radicals and the rules for how they are combined if one wishes to learn the writing system of Chinese. Most syllabic writing systems will represent similar syllables with similar-looking symbols, according again to some basic pattern– as for example the Japanese kanas. In the case of abjads, namely alphabets which do not explicitly represent vowels, grammatical rules will dictate which vowels are read where. Finally even in ordinary alphabets representing both consonants and vowels, the number of letters will rarely if ever exceed thirty or so symbols. With some effort, one can in the course of a few hours familiarize oneself with any alphabet– even if mastery of the alphabet takes longer. In fact, no alphabet will be mastered without practice reading. In other words, learning a writing system one was hitherto not familiar with is not an impossible task nor should it be especially difficult.

The trick is to find a method that works for one’s own learning style. The first task is to figure out specifically what exactly one needs to learn. The idea here is to minimize what one needs to learn but to at the same time learn all one needs to fully understand the language. For example, when learning a writing system, one needs to learn both pronunciation (which I’ll talk about in a later post) and dictionary order. For alphabets, the latter is alphabetical order. For ideographs, one show always learn the radicals first, and if the language has a dictionary order based on radicals (as do both Chinese and Japanese) this order should be learned as well. The catch here is that an alphabet can easily be learned in an afternon (or the equivalent for those who don’t really have a day off to spend on the task) but a list of radical generallly can’t be. For example, Japanese kanji are built about 79 recognized radicals whereas Chinese has more than twice that number.  One will therefore need in the case of both Japanese and Chinese (not to mention something like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics)  break up the task of learning radicals into manageable pieces. As much as possible, these should be groups of radicals with some logical connection with at most 20-30 radicals in the group. The ordering of radicals usually will aid this approach. It’s not necessary to wait until one has complete mastery of dictionary order or the use of the wiriting system to begin studying grammar and vocabulary. One can use the study of vocabulary and grammar to identify where precisely one needs more practice with the vagaries of the wriitng system. The general rule learning a language is to move forward whenever one wants to do so in order to keep up the motivation. If one finds one has gotten in over one’s proverbial head, then one just goes back and reviews the things which caused the difficulty. Then one tries again.

Why bother learning a different writing system?

Literacy rate by country based on CIA World Fa...

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Naturally this question will be trivially easy to address for those wishing to read the literature of a culture in the original language; that literature will be then printed in the writing system or at least a writing system native to that language in the vast majority of cases. So, one won’t be able to read in the target language without it.

An answer to the question aimed at the more general audience of language learners is that without learning to read in a given language one will act as a illiterate person whenever one operates in that language. If one thinks about the consequences of that implication, the prospect can be pretty terrifying. Can a person literate in one language really comprehend then what it would mean to be somewhere one cannot read a street sign or notices in shop windows, where one cannot for onself conduct any legal transactions or check bills?

Yet what if one never visits anywhere the language is used and just wants to verbally interact with local speakers of the language? Here again, not knowing the writing system will serve as a major impediment. For example, how many people would take seriously the advice on learned matters of someone who cannot even write his or her name? That in the person’s own language and cultue the person happens to be a great scholar would not change this instinctive impression. To be taken seriously in another language, one does need to be literate in this day and age.

WHICH system to start with?

Some languages will have more than one writing system, as in the case of Japanese. Determining which writing system to start with in such cases will always depend on context, namely the purpose for which one is learning the language and the general particulars of that language. For example, when I read in Aramaic, I typically read Mishna and Gemara, and so I use the Hebrew alphabet. Were I a Christian of the Nestorian or Eastern tradition, I would use the Syriac script. Moreover, the author of my Akkadian combined grmmar and reader regards Akkadian as a form of Aramaic as well, and so this form of Aramaic would then have been written using cuneiform. Reading Aramaic with the Hebrew alphabet is imediately useful to me in this example, while the cuneiform variety is just fun, but I am extremely unlikely to have any application for the Syriac.

Individual language learning ofers the advantage that one is able to focus specifically on one’s own needs in the target language. Whenever one is not sure which writing system is most useful for one’s own specific needs, one should follow the advice directed at a general learner of the target language. When learning a new language, motivation counts for a great deal.

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7 Comments
  1. Great post. It’s so true that not knowing how to read seriously impedes your ability to communicate. When I was learning Japanese I made it a priority to learn the writing systems and it helped me to make sense of the verbal language so much quicker than if I hadn’t bothered. It’s amazing how many textbooks there are out there which teach very few, if any, of the characters…

    • Yes, I have an introductory text on Japanese which I was given that is entirely written in hiragana. This simply amazes me.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Pronunciation — Hebrew — Part 1: Introduction « Language learning for reading
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