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March 10, 2015

Answer by André Müller on Quora.

I memorized over 23 writing systems so far, starting from those very similar to Latin, like Cyrillic or Greek, over quite distinct ones like Arabic or Devanagari or Tibetan, up to quite foreign scripts like Burmese, Thai or (some) Chinese and Egyptian. I even learned Tengwar (you know, the Elvish script)! And I find it very easy to learn new ones…

I don’t have a special trick for it, but these procedures might be helpful to you:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the system of writing. Not just with the letter shapes but with the way the alphabet is used. There are different ways. Some are based on syllables, some are based on consonants and vowels, some only write consonants and long vowels, others write vowels on top of the consonants, some connect their letters, some stack them in blocks, others do it differently again. With some, you need to memorize a lot of extra rules, while others can be straightforward. Learn the order of how they are written and read.
  2. Learn the sounds these characters represent. This is trivial. You need to know this of course. To memorize the characters, I recommend to know how the corresponding phonemes sound, e.g. associate ค not with an abstract “kh”, but with a concrete sound, like the first sound in the word “cat”. Or better, both! Getting familiar with the pronunciation helps.
  3. Use the alphabet to write familiar words. Names of people, places, languages, or even whole words in your native language. Feel free to use the alphabet as a code for English. That way you get writing practice. It can also help to look up the spelling of those proper nouns on Wikipedia, if the article exists in that language.
  4. Use mnemonics to memorize letter shapes. If you find it hard to memorize the letters’ shapes, use mnemonic methods, like associating letters with familiar objects that you can also associate with sounds. E.g., “რ is r, because it looks like a radio”; “架 means shelf, because it’s made of wood (木), is square-shaped (口) and needs to be strong (力), and it’s pronounced similar to 加”; “ง is ng, because it looks a bit like the IPA character ŋ”, and so on… the crazier, the better. I believe Memrise has a lot of sets to memorize different letters and scripts, try it out! You can also use Anki to practice characters, or later, vocabulary in your target language.
  5. Transliterate a text from that language. Look for a text written in that alphabet and keep a letter-pronunciation table next to you. Now try to write the text in Latin letters. Many foreign scripts have an official or common transliteration system, I recommend to use that one. You will also come across words you can recognize… probably.
  6. Also read about special rules of this script. You can find a lot of additional information about this particular script and the language on the respective Wikipedia page, or on the Omniglot page.

Every person is a different type of learner. Some can learn new scripts very quickly (I usually need less than a day), some others need graphical help, or just practice, or need funny mnemonics. Try them out, and you will find your way. Good luck!

This question originally appeared on Quora: What are some tips for memorizing a new alphabet?

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