How to deal with a new writing system

When learning a new language that's very different to English, a lot of the time you will have to contest with a new writing system.

It can be confusing to know the best time to learn the writing system or even if you should learn it at all.

If we choose to not learn the new script we can save time and build up our listening and speaking ability much quicker, but if we do learn then a plethora of native material becomes available that we can use to learn with.

So which is better?

When taking into account the best way forward, it is important to take a few things into consideration.

The main two factors in my opinion that affect this decision are your time frame, and your goals. What I mean by this is how high a level you are aiming for in the language, and when you want to try and achieve this by.


What is your timeline and goals?

If you are just learning over the space of a few months or even weeks in preparation for something specific like a holiday, then learning the script can slow you down considerably and draw your speaking progress to a halt.

Bypassing the stumbling block, and practicing a lot of listening and speaking right from the start is sure to give you the fastest possible route to basic conversational fluency.

If however you have more time, then the initial time investment to learn a new writing system can be well worth the effort.

Not learning the writing system of a new language can be incredibly frustrating. Putting in all that time into learning a new language and the end result being illiterate.

Never seeming to be able to break away from the intermediate level and being torn between learners materials which are too boring, and native material like TV and movies are just way too complicated.

In the long run, not knowing the writing system of the language you are learning is incredibly crippling, and it can leave you feeling frustrated, disheartened and like you are hitting a brick wall.

The upside is that if you do learn, even complicated and advanced material like TV and movies become much more accessible through subtitles, not to even mention the opportunities to broaden your vocabulary through reading.

You can engage in much more interesting and meaningful content, and really get the input you need to bring your language to the next level.


How complicated is the writing system?

A lot of people imagine learning a new alphabet to be a monumental task, one that would take years to master.

But in most cases it is a lot easier than you might think!

Where the script is particularly simple and eloquent, for example the Korean Hangul,  students have been known to learn how to write and remember the entire alphabet in a single day.

However some systems are much more complex, for example Chinese characters.

As they represent meaning and not sound words are typically made up of one or two characters, which means having to learn a few thousand to be able to achieve a comfortable level.

Therefore in such a short time frame of trying to speak as good as you can in half a year or even a year, learning Chinese characters will cut into your progress massively and slow you down a lot.

In contrast if you had a year to learn Korean, with a much simpler writing system in place, then learning the writing system at the start can be much more beneficial for you even over a relatively short time frame of one year.


Other major pitfalls in the language?

One of the most important keys to success in any task is not getting overwhelmed. This means being able to break the task down into smaller and more manageable tasks.

If you are learning an incredibly different language from English, for example Japanese. Then trying to tackle all of these new concepts at the same time can start to get very tricky vert fast.

Dealing with the Kana, varying levels of politeness, syntax very different from our own, new cultural concepts and etiquette, and then 2000 Chinese characters on top of all that!

This is a recipe to leave you feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, which can ultimately lead to you giving up.

If this is the case, then it can be better to break the task down into much more manageable steps.

Forget the Kanji to begin with!

Start off by learning just the Kana. Then practice reading along with short dialogues to get used to the sounds off the language while learning bits about the culture too.

Then once you have built up your conversation and speaking ability you can tackle Kanji further down the line to help you get passed the intermediate level.

While it's debatable whether or not you should learn Kanji right from the start, one thing is certain.

If you get overwhelmed and give up, then you won't learn.

Breaking it down and keeping it manageable, while helping you feel like you are making fast progress can give massive boosts to your motivation and be extremely beneficial in the long run.


What is the best way to learn a new script?


Usually learning how to write out all of the new symbols and attaching them to roman spelling of each one can be done over a relatively short space of time. But to be able to string them together while reading to form words is a lot more obscure for our brain to get used to and takes a bit longer.

For example, if I was learning Japanese Hiragana I could learn all the symbols, if I saw the prompt "Ko" I would write "こ".

But then to be able to read it in context, for example こんにちは as "konnichiwa" is a lot more difficult.

The key steps here are once you have the basics of writing down, you need to spend a lot of time reading to content that you have the audio for.

Either practice reading and when you don't know a word rely on some text-to-speech software, like on LingQ, or read the transcript while listening to the audio at the same time.

Taking very simple and short dialogues and reading and listening to the same thing over many times is a great natural way to get your brain to match-up all of the sounds of the language to the new script.




You need to factor in what your goals are and when you want to achieve them by.

If you want to reach a high level and are learning for the long term then it is definitely better to learn the writing system, and for alphabet based languages the earlier the better. The longer you put this off the less reading practice you are getting in the long run.

However with a more complicated system like Chinese, as well as many other stumbling blocks to deal with, I would recommend putting off characters for the first few months while you solely focus on listening and speaking.

This way when you come to learn the characters you are attaching them to words you already know how to use and understand in context.

And from then on consume lots of native content, such as books and media with subtitles or a transcript to help you get past the intermediate plateau.

If your goal is to get conversational in as short a time as possible then it is best to bypass the new script entirely and rely on learning aids to get to a conversational level. The only downside here, is it becomes harder and harder to progress past the beginner and intermediate stages if you cannot read.

Have you learnt a language with a different writing system before? How did you deal with it, did you learn the script straight away, wait until later, or did you get by fine without it?