Language Learning = Code Cracking?

I spent my life believing that “Rosetta Stone” was a woman who wanted everyone to learn languages, and looked a bit like Mavis Beacon.

I was wrong.

The Rosetta Stone, apart from being an American language course, is actually the reason why we understand Egyptian hieroglyphs.   On that note, it’s not hieroglyphics, that’s an adjective, everyone knows that. (I didn’t until about 10 minutes ago).   This stone is a decree written in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs and has a translation underneath, almost parallel, in Demotic Egyptian and Ancient Greek.   When it was discovered it enabled linguists and historians et al. to crack the code of hieroglyphs.

This led me to think that language learning is cracking a code.  The more vocabulary and grammar you learn, the more familiar it is, even if you do not have a solid grasp of it.   In my first year of university I studied Dutch.   While I was completely bamboozled for the first few lessons, within a matter of hours of learning letters, the and the pronounciation of these letters, a gateway was opened.   I could look at a text and, while I didn’t understand what it meant, would know how to pronounce it and how to find it in a dictionary.   But, as Dutch is written in the Latin alphabet, it was automatically a lot easier.

I therefore decided to talk to some people who have started learning languages which do not use the Latin alphabet.  Here are their views:

Cyrillic Script

James Palmer
James Palmer, 23, is a Transport Management finalist at Aston University.   He is the managing director of the Manchester-based train touring company Retro Railtours.  He has been studying Russian as a nightcourse for a year and a half and in his spare time he likes travelling, real ale and listening to electronic music.

The Cyrillic script is one of the most used writing systems in the world, and with Bulgaria entering the EU, it is the third writing script used in the European Union (along with Latin and Greek).   This writing system is used in Eastern Europe and north-East Asia, and encompasses Serbian, Ukrainian and Macedonian, but the language it is most associated with is Russian.

I spoke to James Palmer, who, apart from GCSE French, was not too familiar with other languages.  He decided to study Russian as a night-time course when he was on his Year in Industry, working for London Midland trains.

“Before I started my night course in Russian I had to buy a textbook, and I was so worried when I was flicking through!   As soon as I had the first lesson, however, I realised that the letters were similar to Latin text and it was easier than I expected.   The first word we learned was ‘mother’ (мама).   This is pretty much spelled how you would spell ‘mama’.  In this first lesson we learned which words that looked similar to the latin equivilants to ease us in.   My fears were definitely alleviated!   I pretty much learned the cyrillic alphabet in 8 hours – so, in four 2-hour sessions.   By the end of these four weeks I could say how words sounded and would know how to look them up in a dictionary.   It definitely opened doors for me.  I went to the Ukraine in April 2012 and found that I could understand signs, which I wouldn’t have been able to do at all before.  Ukraine is very different from Hungary, where I had been travelling around.   The culture is still a very Soviet mindset: I found that the people weren’t as friendly as the more ‘western’ Europeans, and that many people didn’t speak English.   In the border place I ended up at I arrived with no money, and the border control people couldn’t speak English.   I had to use my little Russian knowledge and hand gestures to change my money into Ukrainian currency, which worked.  Language learning is like cracking a code.   Even if you know only a small amount of a lot of languages, you’re then not completely mute”

Arabic Script

Kat Harris
Kat Harris is a 19 year old German student at the University of Nottingham. This year she is studying Arabic through the language centre. She is the secretary of the Nottingham University Quidditch Society and is a fan of the TV shows Doctor Who, Sherlock and Supernatural.

The Arabic script is the second-most used script in the world, just behind the Latin system.  It is mainly used in Northern Africa and the Middle East.   It is the language of the Islamic Holy book, the Qu’ran.   At my Secondary School, we studied Islam and Buddhism for GCSE, rather than Christianity (A religion of which I confess to be ignorant)   The Qu’ran is written in Arabic.  While translations of the Qu’ran are used, they are seen as inferior to its original Arabic text.  This is in contrast to the many translated copies of the bible.  A tradition in the Islamic religion is to become a Hafiz – a person who has learned the Qu’ran off by heart.   This tradition has made the necessity to learn Arabic script more prevalent, even in countries where Arabic is not spoken, but Islam is the culture of the home.

Arabic script is used to write down the Arabic language, as well as Farsi (Persian) and Urdu.   I spoke to Kat Harris, a second year straight honours German student.   As a straight-honours student she has the option of taking subsidiary modules in other languages.  In her first year she chose Russian, but this year she decided to choose Arabic…

“I chose Arabic because I thought it would be a good language to diversify my language skills and would be good for businesses.   Also when I was signing up, the queue for Arabic was shorter than that of Spanish…!   My class was for absolute beginners but some of my classmates could already read it, which made me feel at a massive disadvantage. I was terrified at first, but we studied the alphabet before we tackled looking at texts, so it wasn’t as scary as I anticipated.   It took me about three months before I was able to recognise words, and be able to look at a text and look at it.   Each character can be written in about four different ways.  It wasn’t long before I could recognise letters but I couldn’t necessarily remember what they were.    I should be at a stage now where I am technically able to pronounce words, but it doesn’t always work that way.   I could probably read a text out loud and make myself understood but I wouldn’t be 100% right.  Now that I’ve got the basics of the writing system I have definitely crossed a few barriers.  I could start remembering vocabulary easier as well as a result, so that made the process a lot easier too!   It is kind of like cracking a code, but not much more than learning a European language.   It’s definitely more accessible in that I have more exposure to it – I have friends who can read and speak it now.  From what I’ve seen so far, spoken Arabic can be massively different [to written Arabic].   Each country has its own version, like Egyptian vs. Palestinian Arabic.   Though from what I understand they’re like dialects – so imagining Scouse vs. Brummie!   If you can master it it’s a very impressive language to learn.  It is difficult, but I really enjoy it!”

Chinese Characters

Emily Mason
Emily Mason, 19, studied German and beginners’ Mandarin Chinese at Nottingham University but is currently suspending her studies, hoping to return in September. She currently lives in Reading and works as a receptionist. She likes giraffes and enjoys drawing and painting.

Chinese characters are used in East Asia.  The Chinese writing system is called “Hanzi”, and is used in writing simplified and traditional Chinese.  These characters are also used in the Japanese writing system called “Kanji”, although Japanese employs 3 “alphabets” concurrently.   This writing system occasionally appears in Korean and Vietmanese written texts.

While I was researching the history and background of Chinese characters, I must say that I felt completely overwhelmed.   It was such an alien concept to me and it was difficult to get my head around.   I remembered that I had attempted to learn Japanese a few years ago and fell at the first hurdle because it seemed too daunting.  I decided to talk to Emily Mason, a 19 year old German and beginners’ contemporary chinese studies student.

“I decided to learn Mandarin Chinese because I thought it would be good for business knowledge and is a sought-after language nowadays.  Nonetheless I was completely overwhelmed when I first saw a Chinese text – i thought I would never get to grips with it or that it would take my whole lifetime to understand!  Mandarin Chinese has over 5,000 characters and we still haven’t learned them all properly. There are so many that it will take forever to learn, but by drawing it you do learn the stroke patterns.   They taught us the main stroke patterns for the first couple of months, before moving onto main topic areas such as greeting people, shopping, schools etc.  I got to know the main stroke patterns after a LOT of hard work.   We only studied dictionary use near the end of the first year of University, so it was quite a long time really.  You can’t tell pronounciation from the characters and I can only sometimes pick apart words in a Chinese text because you actually have to know each individual character.   I definitely feel that learning a language is about cracking a code, but I found it 100 times easier in German because of the alphabet system.   Although in a way Chinese characters aren’t really a code, they’re more random.   There are characters for things within characters, but they don’t often give any hint towards the meaning of that actual character.   The written word for “Germany” has the character meaning “heart” in it, and “France” contains the character “to go” so sometimes it doesn’t help at all!”

So, have you ever learned another language which uses a different system to your own?  Have you found it difficult?  Does another world of languages feel open now that you’ve learned the script?  I’d love to hear your comments!

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