By the Letter: How to Learn a New Alphabet with 6 Tips and Tricks
All your hard work in kindergarten really paid off.
You were just a little kid. Yet you spent hours dedicated to learning the English alphabet.
Mastering those ABCs like a tiny boss.
Now you’re all grown up and looking to learn a foreign language and its alphabet.
Can you replicate your kindergarten success?
Learning an alphabet isn’t just child’s play.
It’s an exciting and crucial step in your path to learning a new language.
But when an alphabet is unfamiliar, it can seem daunting.
Even familiar-looking languages that use the Latin script, such as the German alphabet and the Spanish alphabet, can be a little intimidating.
So needless to say, learning the Japanese hiragana and katakana scripts, the Russian alphabet and/or the Cyrillic alphabet can seem quite daunting.
However, learning a new alphabet doesn’t have to be overwhelming.
You don’t even need your colorful kindergarten classroom or shiny reward stickers to make it fun.
If you follow these tips and tricks, learning a new alphabet can be as easy as ABC!
Why Learn a New Alphabet?
There are a lot of resources out there that aim to teach students languages without the need to learn the alphabet. This is done through transliterations and/or exclusively oral language practice. However, learning a new alphabet is valuable and a lot easier than you’d think. Plus, it comes with many great benefits.
For instance, knowing the alphabet makes pronunciation easier. Transliterations are sometimes difficult to interpret, and you might not always hear the subtleties of pronunciation during listening practice. If you know how all the letters are pronounced though, it’s often easier to determine the pronunciation by simply looking at the word.
Additionally, learning the alphabet will allow you to read. Even with very basic knowledge of the alphabet and very little vocabulary, you’ll be able to start sounding out words. Once you start sounding out the words, you’ll be able to recognize the ones you’ve learned to say already. You’ll also be able to learn new words just by reading them, particularly cognates (words that sound similar between languages) shared by English and your new language.
Finally, knowing the alphabet enables you to use a dictionary. Without knowing the letters and what order they appear in, it’s hard to look up words in a foreign language, so you might struggle to find a proper definition for a word you just encountered.
How to Learn a New Alphabet: 6 Tips and Tricks to Learn by the Letter
1. Study a few letters at a time.
Trying to study the whole alphabet at once might be biting off more than you can chew. If you break it down into small chunks, though, it’s easily digestible.
There are several different ways you might do this.
One way is to start at the beginning of the alphabet and simply learn the first three or four letters. The next time you study, work on the next three or four letters. Continue doing this until you’ve learned the whole alphabet.
Another way to break up letters into more manageable sets is to group similar letters together. For instance, in one study session, you might choose to focus exclusively on vowels. In the next session, you might work on a group of consonants that sound similar to each other.
If you’re learning a language that uses a different script, you might even try breaking the letters down into groups based on what letters look similar to you. This way, you can pay particular attention to distinguishing between the appearances of similar looking letters so that you don’t mistake them for each other down the road.
Regardless of how you break the letters into groups, focusing on just a few letters at a time is an easy and painless way to learn a new alphabet.
2. Use mnemonic devices to learn letter shapes.
If your target language uses a script you’re unfamiliar with, memorizing the alphabet can be exceptionally hard.
Luckily, using mnemonic devices to learn letter shapes is a fun, easy way to memorize even the most challenging alphabets.
A mnemonic device is whatever technique or trick you use to remember something. For instance, ROYGBIV helps you remember what order colors appear in within rainbows.
Similarly, mnemonic devices can be used to help you learn a new alphabet. One helpful way to learn letters in an unfamiliar script is to associate those letters with images. If you consider the letter a tiny drawing, you’ll have an easier time recognizing it when you see it again.
For instance, the Russian letter ю has always reminded me of a tiny fish.
What do letters in your target language look like to you?
3. Try writing out words in your native language using the alphabet of your target language.
Think of words you know in your native language. Then, sound those words out using letters in your target language.
Not only will this help you associate the letters you’re learning with the sounds they make, it will also make you feel like a spy preparing a secret message. Just try not to do an unnecessary backwards somersault to exit the room after.
4. If there’s an alphabet song in your target language, listen to it.
Whether or not the alphabet song is well known, chances are strong that someone has made up an alphabet song for your target language. Listening to such songs is incredibly useful because it’s often easier to remember material that’s put to music. That’s why you still know all the lyrics to “Call Me Maybe.”
Luckily, you can use this phenomenon for more than just karaoke. It can help you learn a new alphabet quickly and efficiently.
And when it comes to alphabet songs, YouTube is a treasure trove of options. You might try an Arabic alphabet song, a Chinese pinyin song, a Japanese alphabet song, a Korean alphabet song, a Russian alphabet song or countless others. Simply searching your target language and “alphabet song” will likely produce several options for you to choose from. You might even try listening to several different songs so you can hear all the letters in a different context.
5. Learn to repeat the alphabet yourself.
Let’s be real. The more you learn, the less likely you are to need to know the alphabet in order. After all, no one is going to come up to you on the street and insist you recite the French alphabet. While having a general idea of alphabetical order will certainly help you look up words in a dictionary, knowing the exact order isn’t always essential.
That being said, when you’re first learning the alphabet, it’s helpful to memorize it in order.
Once you have it memorized, you can easily repeat it to yourself on your way to work or school, in the shower or while waiting in line somewhere.
Visualize the letters as you go through the alphabet, and you’re reinforcing your ability to identify the written letter, your ability to associate the letter name with the letter and your ability to connect sounds to letters. That’s a lot of extra studying you can pack into any spare minute!
6. Write the letters down.
In the internet era, it can be easy to overlook the value of writing down letters.
However, the act of writing down letters can help you remember them better. One study suggests that taking notes on a laptop rather than in writing hinders retention.
Handwriting seems to have some mystical study power. After all, you’re actively using and interacting with the language in a hands-on way, which is generally more useful for learning any material than studying alone.
It also helps that there are plenty of ways to practice writing letters.
For instance, when you first learn letters, you can try to write them all down right away, along with the sounds they make. This can be your handy guide you take with you everywhere. Then, whenever you have a few extra minutes, you can use your guide to rewrite the letters. You might find your new alphabet cropping up on scraps of paper all over the place!
You can keep a whole notebook where you practice writing letters. If you’re learning a few letters at a time, be sure to jot down each set you learn after you’ve studied them. The more you write them, the better, so aim for 15 to 20 repetitions each time.
Once you’ve learned the whole alphabet, try writing it down in its entirety every day or two as you say the letters aloud. This is a great way to reinforce what you’ve learned and help you connect the written and spoken letters.
These tips and tricks make learning new alphabets as simple as ABC.
So, go ahead and master that language’s alphabet—kindergarten style!