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Learning Other Alphabets

A foreign alphabet is probably the main thing that scares people about languages like Russian or Japanese. After all, when you're starting, it just looks like unpronounceable chicken-scratch all across the page. Obviously for really learning any language with a foreign alphabet, you just have to dive in and memorize (cheerfully vague). But what does that mean for you? How did you learn foreign alphabets, and what would you say your proficiency in them is now?

I know that for Russian, the main thing for me was repetition (also vague). How did I get this repetition? I used to take short notes or messages in English and re-write them using the Russian alphabet. I did this so often that eventually I could do it without staring at a sheet of paper, as if I were trying to remember a top-secret code. Then, eventually, I started reading out loud. You probably know the feeling - you have no clue what you're saying, but you feel very professional and wise. After a while, I became comfortable reading and progressed from the proficiency of a first-grader to a third-grader. Yes, I'm still learning.

Share your methods below! :)


October 2, 2017



Learning another alphabet, for me at least, isn't hard so much as tedious. I can associate a symbol with a sound relatively quickly, but it's remembering that association quickly and reliably that takes time.

I started learning Japanese about two years ago, so I started learning hiragana and katakana at around that time. Going through standard drilling practice actually worked pretty well. Yes, there were 46 letters in each system, but they were fairly straightforward. It was a simple system, it was just a lot to digest at once. At first, reading any kana was very slow, like "kon... ni... chi... wa." Writing was a bit hard as I'd often confuse or just forget some kana. But I kept practicing. I read any kana I found in the wild on things like museum maps. I wrote my vocab flashcards exclusively in kana. Over time, I became more and more comfortable with it.

I guess I'd say that I gained proficiency with kana sometime in the last year. Now, I have little problem reading or writing. I can look at a kana and almost instantly pronounce it. Now, I'm learning Kanji, most of which I've still yet to learn, and it'll probably take a very long time to just get the basics down, let alone proficiency, but I have high hopes for myself.

TL;DR, practice all the time. Write vocabulary flashcards in the writing system. Never use romanization, it'll only work against you. Read anything you come across, even if you don't understand it. Write little simple sentences every so often. In time, you'll be comfortable with it.


I learned about 2000 words of Japanese before I started using kana in any serious way. I find that now it takes a lot of effort to read the kana, but I understand some of the words I'm reading. Had I started with the kana right away, there would have been the added effort of learning the words (as well as how to read the kana).

Having said that, I think you may be right to use the foreign alphabet right away. I'm learning Hebrew on duo and using anki to make my own flashcards based on duo's lessons. I've been using the Hebrew alphabet from day one, and I feel at least somewhat comfortable with the characters.


I learned Cyrillic by reading about it online. I can usually pick up foreign scripts very easily just by looking at the alphabets and their English/IPA equivalents, and the fact that I'm studying various Cyrillic script languages helps reinforce my knowledge of Cyrillic. I also used this to learn Devanagari, Bengali script, Tamil script and Telugu script. Armenian script is somewhat of a challenge for me though, because there are so many letters with only a slight nuisance in pronunciation.


I can read both Japanese (not so many kanji these days) and Arabic. I never learned to write them, as I felt it was a waste of time, since I am mostly on the computer anyway. Some people feel that writing helps them to remember. I believe it does, but I was never motivated enough to make the effort. I learned Japanese at the same time as one of my friends. He decided he wanted to write beautifully and spent a lot of time practicing. His writing was very good, but his communication was horrible. I decided to focus on speaking and reading, and as a result, I had a better vocabulary and was able to communicate much more easily. I don't regret not learning to write although I think it would be fun to be able to do so.

The first language was Japanese, and because I was living in Japan I had a lot of opportunities to practice reading. I spent two weeks memorizing hiragana. I practiced by reading the names of the train stations in hiragana and English. That really helped my recognition since I could immediately see if I was correct. I looked at the labels of everything I bought, and I enjoyed advertising materials since they were short and had pictures. It was just a matter of practice. I tried to read everything I saw. I remember the first time that I read something without any hints or help. I felt so happy. There are a lot of excellent textbooks available for the Japanese language, so I used them as well. I definitely recommend using materials created for language learners. I tried reading children's books but I didn't really enjoy them.

It was easier to learn the Arabic alphabet since I had already learned hiragana and katakana and I knew how to go about it. It just took a few weeks. I found the alphabet more difficult than hiragana, and it has been much more challenging becoming proficient. Again I just practiced until I knew the letters. After that, I read everything I could. There are very few good materials for learners, and it has been a challenge. I started by learning vocabulary using the English alphabet. Once I had some vocabulary, it made it easier to try reading Arabic. Arabic letters do not include short vowels, so if the word has short vowels you just have to know what the vowel is. I may know how to recognize a word, but often I don't exactly know how to pronounce it. Memrise has been very helpful for learning since there are good sound files with many of the words. I also enjoy reading Arabic subtitles on movies and TV. I can't read quickly enough to understand everything yet, but I pick up lots of words.


I started studying Japanese in 1997. It's been 20 years since I started, but I remember how we learned hiragana and katakana very clearly. Hiragana was quite easy. All of it in a week, and we were drilled on it. Katakana took another week, and we had to do that on our own. It was mostly writing and reading practice. We never used romaji. That would have handicapped us. We needed to learn how to read and write early on. But when I moved to Japan, and started learning kanji, I did a lot of writing practice. But I also practiced by reading ads on the trains. That actually helped a lot! I started recognising many different kanji, and could read around 400. Unfortunately, I didn't focus on learning the language as much as I should have. But I can read hiragana and katakana quickly. It's become second nature to me.


The only two foreign alphabets I have learned are Russian (i.e., Cyrillic) and Greek. Both were learned by sitting down, memorizing, and then copying out by hand a lot of words in the new script and reading aloud a lot of words or short sentences. If an alphabet has quite a few letters, like Russian, it helps to learn the letters in groups and practice what you've learned so far between groups.

The "games" for learning alphabets here look pretty good, but I haven't tried them (don't want to learn any of those languages right now).

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