Now, you may have noticed that not everyone in the world speaks English.
And thank God for that… I mean, can you imagine if we all spoke the same language?
You may also have noticed that not all the languages in the world are written with the Latin alphabet (that’s the alphabet we used to write English).
And thank God for that too… I mean, how dull would that be?
Now, the writing system for a language is referred to as the script, and for a newbie language learner, the script can often appear to be one of the most daunting things of all.
Daunting, not because you’re aware of how hard the script is to learn, but, daunting because… it’s a bit different to English!
Like many things in life, we are easily daunted by unfamiliar things. And so it’s little wonder that one of the questions I receive surprisingly often is…
“Olly, do I really have to learn the script for this new language? I mean do I really have to learn it? Can’t I just use the English transliteration?”
This is one of those questions where there’s a simple answer and a complex answer.
And you know me – you’re going to get both!
First, the simple answer: Yes, my friend, you do have to learn the script.
Why Do I Have To Learn The Script?
The reason you have to learn the script, though, is not actually because you can’t speak the language without being able to read or write. I’ve personally learned a few languages without studying the script before.
The real reason you learn the script is because, without being able to read, there’s a “glass ceiling” that you can’t get past.
If you’re illiterate in the language you’re learning, it stands to reason that there’s only so far you can get, right?
(Imagine if you never learned to read in your mother tongue growing up!)
So, by avoiding learning the script it’s a classic case of short-term thinking.
Less pain now, for considerably more pain later.
“But how much pain?” you might ask.
Well, in many languages around the world, the script is pretty easy to learn.
It may look unfamiliar at first, but it’s actually pretty simple to learn…
- Russian – 33 letters
- Korean – 24 letters
- Arabic – 28 letters
More or less the same as English. You can learn these in a couple of weeks without breaking a sweat.
Then there are those which are a bit more tricky, but still doable…
- Japanese hiragana – 46 letters
- Thai – 59 letters (if you count the vowel symbols)
You can have these ones down in a month if you apply yourself.
And when you think that taking the time to learn this script means you’re then able to read anything in the language… well… you’d be crazy not to do it!
So just learn that script! Ok? 🙂
Now as you might have guessed… it ain’t always that simple.
But What About Really Tricky Scripts?
Because what happens if learning the script doesn’t take a couple of weeks, but rather a couple of years?
- Is it still worth learning to read Chinese, for example, if it takes years?
- Shouldn’t you spend your time on other things?
- Maybe you can learn to speak first, and learn to read later?
I’ll lay out how I see it, and then you can make your mind up.
Firstly, like we already saw, you don’t need to learn to read in a new language.
If all you are interested in is getting to a conversational level – having a bit of a chat – and you don’t have any grander ambitions, then there’s a pretty strong case for not bothering to learn the script, if it’s a hard one like Chinese.
You can use that time to practise speaking instead.
Most people would agree with this being an option.
However, there’s a counterargument here…
You see, because learning to read a language like Chinese takes a long time, if you think there’s any chance you’ll change your mind about learning characters in the future…
Maybe because you start to take your study a bit more seriously…
Or you want to get to higher levels…
Then you’ll absolutely kick yourself for not getting started sooner!
“Man, I could have been learning just one character a day for the last two years and I’d know hundreds by now! Instead I have to start from scratch!”
I’m sorry to say that this was me was Japanese…
My Japanese Script Fail…That I'm Paying For Now
I speak Japanese to a pretty good level, but my reading and writing… well it’s pretty awful, I have to confess. I never took reading seriously, probably because I was naturally quite good at speaking, so I didn’t feel much of a need.
But I seriously regret that decision now, because now I’m trying to push up to higher levels, and my semi-literacy in the language is really holding me back.
If only I had done just a little bit regularly over the years, damn… I could be reading War and Peace by now.
So, to someone starting out, I would probably say:
If you have even the slightest inkling that you might want to take your language seriously, then don’t mess around. Learn the script from the beginning.
Don’t worry about how long it takes.
Just do it.
And although it might feel hard at first, you’ll be amazed just how much being able to read helps you learn the language itself.
Even if learning to speak is your main aim, being able to read will only make it quicker.
And that’s precisely why, for example, in our new Japanese Uncovered course, the lovely Ai-chan teaches you to read and write from the very start.
It’s the right thing to do. It’s also a lot of fun!
Do yourself a favour and, don’t mess around… just learn the script from the start!
So now I want to hear from you. Have you learned a new script before? Which one? Was it difficult? Are you glad you learnt it? Let me know in the comments below, especially if you think I’ve missed something here.