Any phonetic script can be learned in just a few hours

Any phonetic script can be learned in just a few hours

Benny

If you liked my association technique mentioned below, you would also enjoy my tips on using imagination to memorize vocabulary, which are discussed in great detail with many other hacks in the Language Hacking Guide. See the most popular posts on the right below for other interesting topics.

For those curious, this post discusses Thai, but the ideas can equally be applied to other phonetic scripts such as Japanese (but not as well for Chinese).

Just one week into the challenge of reading/speaking Thai in 8 weeks (actually only about 5 hours total, since I’ve been quite busy since I arrived, but I’ve made time to learn on the skytrain/in restaurants/taxis etc.) and I’ve reached the first major milestone already.

I can read Thai.

The major thing still missing is tones, which admittedly are an extremely important part of this language that cannot be ignored and I will get to shortly (Edit: Done! Thai tone rules aren’t that bad either), but in terms of phonetics I no longer need to rely on romanisation (using the Latin alphabet to see how a Thai word is pronounced).

Based on recommendations from other learners, abandoning romanisation was a huge priority for me; I didn’t want to use that system as a crutch preventing me from having a more natural way of learning Thai from within the language. Romanisation is a purely academic concept for Thai. Interesting for studying the language, but not so great when you actually want to read it. I don’t study languages, I learn them and speak them. I needed to abandon romanisation quickly.

It was actually way easier than I expected.

From squiggly symbols to new letters

When first looking at Thai it reminded me of the language Frodo read inside the ring he threw into the volcano:

เดอะลอร์ดออฟเดอะริงส์ เป็นนิยายแฟนตาซีขนาดยาว ประพันธ์โดยศาสตราจารย์ชาวอังกฤษ เจ. อาร์. อาร์. โทลคีน เป็นนิยายที่ต่อเนื่องกับนิยายชุดก่อนหน้านี้ของโทลคีน คือ

It’s a mess of incomprehensible symbols that would take possibly years to get your head around, right?

This is exactly the attitude that seems to hold everyone back. I can tell by talking to those who have given up on learning languages that they just see each aspect of a “hard” language as this insurmountable monster. The reason for my success in languages has little to do with natural talent and a lot to do with attitude, especially in the early stages.

When you look at the letters as ‘squiggly symbols’ it’s very hard to imagine them worming their way into your head. How could you possibly even remember what each symbol means? Is months or years of practice the only way?

I threw out this unhelpful concept immediately.

The technique used – image association

With a bit of imagination (in the same style used for learning vocabulary) you can very quickly associate each symbol with its corresponding sound.

There are 44 consonants, 15 vowels (which combine into about 28 forms) plus 4 tone marks, so let’s say there’s a total of about 75 “symbols” to learn. If you use a good memory technique and devote an entire minute or two to each symbol, that’s just about two hours to learn the entire set. Add in extra time for practising and testing yourself and it really isn’t that much time, especially since there are patterns in some symbols you start to see that reduces the work for others.

If you aren’t used to image association, then the first few will take more time but you’ll get the hang of it (you were certainly imaginative as a child, it will come back to you!) and the rest will come much quicker.

In my research since arrival (and thanks to commenters on this blog) I’ve come across Stu Jay Raj; another polyglot who has had many many more achievements with languages than I have. What most interested me is two short videos he made about remembering Thai vowels. After watching them, I applied his suggestion and think immediately of “ah” when I see:

His amusing suggestion is to imagine the path taken by your pee as you relieve yourself against a tree, and the sigh you’d make as you do it – more relevant for men of course!

His other suggestions were also very useful, and I’ve applied the same concept to consonants myself. For example when I saw

and needed to associate it with ‘t’, I thought of a number of common words starting with t. None of the first few looked anything like it, but then I got to toe! The symbol looks pretty much like your big toe, with the circle representing the nail of the second toe (if looking at your left foot). It’s very easy to remember and very hard to forget! Now I think of t instantly when I see that symbol.

It took time, but I’ve come up with such an association for all symbols. Some are funny, or nerdy, or related to sex, or something childish. Some require a ridiculous stretch of the imagination to make it work. Whatever did the job best to help me remember.

Practice makes perfect

Learning with image association is way more fun than pure repetition, but it still slows you down as you try to recall the association. With very little practice it comes quicker and quicker and soon you can skip the association altogether as the sound comes naturally and quickly. About half of the symbols are like this for me already (such as the two mentioned above), and I no longer need to remember the association. In my mind is ah and ท is t. Plain and simple.

Here in Bangkok, many signs are “bilingual” Thai + romanisation. This can be extremely useful to learners of the language, and not just tourists who don’t speak Thai. When it is a translated word like hospital you can use this to learn vocabulary, but this is not currently what I’m focussed on.

Instead, I look at untranslated words (names of places etc.) and see if I can pronounce it based on the Thai. I do this with advertisements, road signs, notices inside a taxi etc. and all of this practice is giving me an idea of how to read the language. The romanisation used by the Thai government does not help at all with tones, but it does help with confirming and checking pronunciation; the focus for my first week.

Challenges

One thing I never even thought about, which confuses matters somewhat, is fonts. You never even think of this when learning other languages that use the Latin alphabet, since fonts work the same for them as in English. But there are completely different ways of writing a letter in formal announcements, casual advertisements/magazines, LED displays, handwriting, and within each one there are subsets of fonts or styles (e.g. a versus a are quite different if you really look at them).

This means that the symbol is not exactly as I remember it. I kept seeing an “S” for example when reading shop signs and couldn’t find it anywhere in my notes until I put two and two together and realized that it’s just the way that

is rendered in that font.

Another issue is separating words; finding out where one word ends and another begins is a challenge since there are no spaces, but it is still doable, as the order of vowels before or after consonants is consistent, so you know which one it is associated with. Thai is extremely phonetic (with a few exceptions), so reading it left to right as you see the symbols really isn’t that bad.

The road ahead

I have started learning some basic vocabulary entirely through the Thai writing system with no romanisation. i.e. to speak is พูด for me and it’s clear how this is pronounced without referring to romanisation. This will be important in how I continue to learn the language.

There are some surprises still incorporated in the writing so I definitely can’t read perfectly yet, but I’ll continue to practise as I go on with other aspects of the language. Something I’ve said a few times this week to people is that I do not aim for perfection. Reading “pretty well” is quite alright for me, even if there are several holes in it. The rest will come as I progress with the rest of the language. I don’t want to dwell on reading too much; for the moment “good enough” is enough!

This method could work just as well with any language that uses a phonetic writing system. (I’ll deal with languages like Chinese some other time)

Right now, I still am not speaking much Thai beyond basic courtesies; I feel that trying to do several things at once will slow me down a bit and result in me spreading myself too thin, so I am focussing on the building blocks that will take me to my objective. I can now start to learn some key vocabulary, specifically to words I am likely to use in day to day encounters. I’m using the triage system as always, to prioritise what I learn, so if it’s something I can point to or mime then I don’t need to learn the word yet.

I’m expecting to have an explosion of vocabulary and conversation when the time is right. Until then, I need to continue building the foundations to make sure that that can happen.

For the purposes of this mission, I will try to have mini-goals that last for 1-2 weeks and the next couple of weeks will be focussed on tones and learning vocabulary through the writing system (both to practise it and to increase my communication ability). The tone part can be subdivided into being able to decipher from the text which tone is involved, saying the 5 tones correctly, and of course distinguishing them when others speak.

—————————

In my next post, I may mention a little of what I generally think of Bangkok (edit: that post is here); my first window into Thai culture, before I fly to Phuket on Saturday.

However, very soon I want to talk about something that I feel holds many learners back from ever making progress; focussing on what they don’t know. I feel like this attitude may be the biggest block for learners to even get a good start on a language (and the greatest fuel for sceptics of my method) so I want to discuss it. (Edit: that post can be found here: Is your language half full?)

So, for example, anyone who meets me over the next few weeks who speaks Thai to me or tests my spoken Thai will be greatly disappointed. I don’t care. I have a plan and I’m sticking to it. I know from experience that speaking doesn’t happen magically overnight, so not being able to have a casual chat in Thai for the next few weeks is not going to discourage me, since I’ll be working on making a structure out of my Thai and have a clear idea what I’m aiming for. When you have a well formulated plan, you should stick to it and not give in to pressure to change from that course. ;)

Any thoughts on how I’m going through with my challenge? Did you learn Thai’s (or another Asian language’s) script this way or was it completely different for you? What do you think my chances are of speaking and reading Thai in 8 weeks? Do share it with us in the comments and don’t forget to stumble this post or share it with your friends!! Thanks :)

http://www.fluentin3months.com/thai-in-8-weeks-mission/

If you liked my association technique mentioned below, you would also enjoy my tips on using imagination to memorize vocabulary, which are discussed in great detail with many other hacks in the Language Hacking Guide. See the most popular posts on the right below for other interesting topics. For those curious, this post discusses Thai, […]

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  • jonrussell

    Congrats – I can't say I memorised the alphabet as quickly as you but within 6 months of living here I could read signs and basic Thai which makes a huge difference to learning.

    However, I think you're a little premature in announcing that you can “read Thai”, it is much harder than simply knowing the alphabet. There is no punctuation or spaces between words: knowledge of words and typical word ending is crucial to be able to read the language.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the positive encouragement!
    I'm learning new vocabulary through Thai and as I said, what I have now is not perfect. There is no punctuation between words, but the fact that vowels must come specifically before or specifically after/above/below a consonant indicates which consonant they belong to. Most of Thai seems to be based on one-syllable units, so with what I have, I have been learning a few words and have checked the romanisation to confirm that I am indeed pronouncing them correctly. There is extra to this to be sure when two consonants are part of the same word, but I'm already getting the hang of it.
    I still think I'm reading Thai; learning particular word endings and improving my vocabulary will make me read better, but I don't believe I'm being premature in stating that I've reached the first milestone in learning the language ;)

  • wccrawford

    It's funny you mention runic (Lord of the Rings) as another language of squiggles. I bothered to learn to read runes back in highschool just for fun.

    So when it came time to learn the Japanese phonetic alphabets, I already knew I -could- do it, because I'd done it before. I managed to skip that whole 'fear' stage.

    Who knew it would be so useful?

    • Master Choy

      Not to nitpick or anything, but the writing system inside the ring is Tengwar, not Cirth (runic) ;)

  • http://www.spanish-only.com/ Ramses

    Benny, this is one of the smartest things you could've done. Relying on romanization just isn't smart and won't enable you to truly become fluent (although I know that isn't your goal for Thai).

    A friend of mine speaks Mandarin pretty well after studying it for five years or so, but she still relies on pinyin to read it. That's just stupid, because it only holds you back.

    Good luck with Thai, it certainly is an interesting language!

  • http://www.randem.net/ Randy

    Congratulations. Well done.

    When I started learning the Cyrillic alphabet (which is admittedly less foreign than that of Thai) it looked strange and has strange new sounds. But by simply sounding out words I already know, such as something from a page in a phrasebook, I was able to get more comfortable with it. What also helped is when people told me their name, or taught me a new word, I made sure to write it down in front of them to see if I understood correctly. Not only is this a good way for you to further commit the new symbols to your memory, but it will also get you a chance to watch how they form the symbols when writing them to correct you.

  • http://hsomnibus.com/anotherweblog Johano

    I know Tengwar (as on the One Ring inscription). I think it's a really beautiful script.

  • http://twitter.com/thaifaq Khun Tony

    Fascinating stuff. I have the same experience as Randy when I was trying to learn Serbian I thought learning the Cyrillic would be the hardest part because it looks like code from an old James Bond movie, but actually it turned out to be fairly easy as the symbols were easy enough to match pictures to. The different fonts are a tough one.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Excellent story! Who would have thought that Lord of the Rings would help you with language confidence :)
    I've never learned a non-Latin script before but I jump into projects with little fear anyway from so many of them, so I try to skip the fear stage no matter what! But I can see how that would have helped!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the vote of confidence Ramses. Glad to see you are still reading!
    I've met some expats who have lived in Thailand for up to 10 years. Their Thai is ok, but they can't read ANYTHING. They are as good as illiterate, it's not the way to go about it. Speaking is always a priority to me, but reading is just as important nowadays to try to have a normal life.
    Thanks for the well wishes!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    I know, the fonts thing was a big surprise for me. It's just not something you even think about!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Cyrillic would definitely be interesting; albeit much much easier compared to Thai because there is an almost one-to-one correspondence with the Latin alphabet (unlike Thai, which really is very different). I definitely plan on learning a language (such as Russian) that uses this writing system :)
    What would help me with Cyrillic is the Maths I've studied in school, so the Greek based letters are not so unfamiliar. I already know how to pronounce Р (the name of the letter being “row”) for example. But without that familiarity, and for symbols I haven't seen before I would indeed apply the same system as I described above for Thai! :)

    • Matt Wright

      Sawasdee krup…

      I studied Russian for four years and can vouch that it seemed much easier to learn Cyrillic than Thai. The combination of Greek and Latin characters as it’s foundation made Cyrillic familiar enough to catch on quickly for me. That said, I’m spending some down time over the holidays practicing reading and writing Thai script in more of a formal manner, at a desk with paper, pen, and iPad. (I didn’t have the iPad 25 years ago when I studied Russian, however…). To me, Thai script has been such an enigma and I want to break through that and read (and write!) it comfortably.

      Cheers!

  • martinperry

    Congrats! Keep up the good work!

    What your doing is very inspiring, giving me the needed push to start learning this stuff myself too, was great meeting you at the Tweetup last week too!

  • Goŝka

    I've just been thinking about learning georgian alphabet, so you say I can do it in a few hours? :) good to know, although I know Cyrillic, I thought it would be very hard to learn a new alphabet

  • rickd123

    I have been reading this for awhile now. And it all sounds good, and perhaps I'm just thick, but how about some more detail or examples. It all seems a little vague.

    What are your “mini-goals”? What is your “well-formulated” plan?

    I have been struggling for months with French and spend at least 3 hours per day on it, still can't hold even a basic conversation.

    :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Katleen-Rousseau/754065649 Katleen Rousseau

      try Pimsleur!!
      this is the best learning progrm that I’ve tried, and I’ve tried A LOT of them!!
      I speak french, english, spanish, japanese…
      Pimsleur use your plastic memory and make you learn vocabulary and grammar at the same time, and make you put it in your long term memory before you can forget it!
      for all languages, learn to speak before, ant then, learn to write. To be able to speak with french speakers (even a little) will improve you motivation a lot!!

  • sam

    Hey Benny, I think you've done pretty well to learn the Thai alphabet so quickly.
    I learned Mandarin in 3 years and can definitely say that the biggest challenge isn't the speaking (because the grammar is really simple!) but the characters. I don't know any shortcut methods for reading Chinese. Relying solely on Pinyin isn't a good idea, because a lot of Chinese people don't really know it, and many things don't come with a Pinyin translation.
    Anyway keep up the great work, I'd be interested to see how you get along with Mandarin :)
    Cheers, samantha

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks Martin! Hope to run into you again :) I'll be back in Bangkok at the end of this mission (first few days of March)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    If I'm successful in this mission, I may write a short e-book that I'd go into much greater detail and outline the images I associated with most symbols. However, I'll still be giving the core important parts in these posts. Unfortunately I can't teach people how to be imaginative, it just takes practise! You look at the symbol and really think what it could possibly look like by squashing and stretching it in your mind and bringing up all sorts of animals and objects doing stuff :)
    I also haven't outlined my well formulated plan here for the purposes of suspense (like for when I only say what the mission will be at the last moment). You'll just have to see it as it goes along :D But as I mentioned here, working on various aspects of tones and learning vocabulary is generally what I'm up to for the next few weeks.
    As regards your French studies, somehow I imagine you may be studying grammar in those 3 hours a day. That does NOT help. You should leave grammar until you are already speaking and be learning words and vocabulary that you can practise immediately. Get yourself a good phrasebook and study that instead!

    • http://twitter.com/Pogodragon Traci

      A few years ago I took Turkish lessons. It was hideous and I dropped out after about a term. The teacher insisted that we learn grammar and do so perfectly and the vocab. would just come.

      There was no chance to actually speak or consolidate anything we went over we just bounded at speed through the material. I wish I’d had this to show him back then.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    If I get to Mandarin in the next couple of years, I'll have to learn it in a Chinatown somewhere :) I won't be able to spend 3 months in China if half of my most used websites are completely blocked ;)
    But I'll get to it eventually. I imagine a more complex version of this imaging technique could be applied though – you'd have to get quite good at it since you need to do it per word rather than per symbol

  • http://www.learnlangs.com/ Judith

    This is something entirely different. Without the Thai script, you can't represent Thai pronunciation accurately. However, Chinese characters give little to no clue to their pronunciation, so you have to rely on Pinyin in order to learn the pronunciation.

    Of course you should be able to read the characters which you have learned previously, but characters will at no point make Pinyin obsolete for study.

  • amaiakuyume

    You can learn Mandarin in Taiwan, it's a lingua franca used to communicate between different groups (who speak languages like Taiwanese and Hakka), as well as the population who are monolingual in Mandarin. I recently spent a month attending immersion classes in Tainan- it's a wonderful place and I miss it a lot (我很想回去 ;_;)

    Also, there's a book called Remembering the Kanji, which teaches how to memorise all 2000 or so of the Japanese “daily use” characters by breaking them down into components and assigning them images (the author apparently taught himself to write all 1900-and-something* characters from a keyword prompt within two months. I personally went from being able to read 500 characters and write maybe 150 from memory to writing just under 1500 from memory within two weeks, although now I have the REVERSE problem of not always knowing the Japanese word that matches them). I recall there was a version released recently for Chinese, too.

    *I don't remember the exact number off the top of my head, but it's somewhere around the “just under 2000″ mark.

  • amaiakuyume

    Oh, and I forgot the POINT of my first comment- the Taiwanese government is far less restrictive than the Mainland Chinese one and I never encountered internet censorship or anything else that bothered my western sensibilities while I was there (except for the rotten duck eggs that are apparently a delicacy- eugh)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Excellent advice!! I never thought of Taiwan, that could be a real option :)

  • Nitty

    FYI, the one that looks like an “S” is not ธ, it's ร.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for pointing that out; someone corrected me last night when I was reading text and pronounced the S like a 't' instead of an 'r' (or 'n'). Oh so confusing the use of fonts! :P
    I've edited the post to reflect this

  • Sprachfanatikerin

    I don't quite agree to leaving grammar until you are already speaking (although I should point out here that I enjoy grammar and reading, and that speaking is not necessarily my No.1 priority). I believe that, as my parents told me when I refused to eat my greens as a child, “a little bit of everything does you good”. Based on my own experience of learning and teaching various languages, the problem with grammar is that many students are trying to learn the rules in another language without actually understanding the 'mechanics' of grammar and language in general.

    When teaching German to native English-speaking students, I often have to convince them they were not born without the language-learning gene and that the real problem is they don't really know what a noun, an adjective or a verb actually is or does. The best way to remember is to understand something. I usually end up teaching English grammar at the same time as the German, but having de-mysitifed that my students have told me that learning another language often becomes more enjoyable.

    I'm also often asked if once you've learned one language, learning others is more easy. I believe it is and that this basically boils down to understanding how grammar works. I think it's a bit like being a mechanic – not all cars are built in exactly the same way but once you understand their basic construction and how each part interacts with another, you can work out how to take all manner of cars apart and put them back together again (although not necessarily all with the same amount of ease).

    Having got all that off my chest all that remains is to say, Benny, you are an inspiration – keep up the good work!

  • Kyrene

    Good job Benny. I was looking forward to seeing what method you would use to learn this.
    Cyrillic (as used sometimes in Azeri) and the Arabic Script are the two scripts I have taught myself. Cyrillic was pretty easy, it took two Algebra classes to learn. I just wrote things using it over and over again.
    The Arabic script was a little trickier since none of the letters looked like Latin ones, and pronouncing everything was difficult since not all the vowels are written, but I found a way that was really effective for me after a bit of searching. I found a webiste that had sound files that played when I clicked the words. I learned it in a couple of days after that, and didn't have any trouble pronouncing the words. I was so surprised when I could look at that mass of scribbles and get a meaning out of it. The next time I learn a script I will have to try your technique out because I don't think I'll ever forget ท.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    That's an excellent method! A lot of people have been recommending a similar website to me in Thai – I'll get to it to reinforce what I have once I finish my current minigoal!
    I hope to try my method on the Arabic script one day!

  • Shane O Connor

    Good man Benny- Stumbled on the page with stumbleupon and there you are now!

  • Hunter

    Same way I learned Japanese!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    I got 5,000 hits from stumbleupon on this page today!! So you weren't the only one sent here… Cool :D

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Excellent to see this works for Japanese too! I'll get to it whenever I can :)

  • Bill Bixbey

    It's Practice not Practise

  • Swamp Angel

    Well done, mate! German was my first foreign language to “study” and it kicked my ass quiet well. However, I began studying Russian immediately after my first semester of German and went in with the idea, “I don't know nuthin', so teach me.” Learning the Cyrillic alphabet and learning how to read smoothly helped immensely. My studies in German became much easier, and after graduating from college, I have found it quite easy to pick up another language with a minimum of effort. Spanish fell into place rather easily for me since I work in construction. And being a bit of a fundamentalist Christian, I decided I wasn't to keen on letting the clergy interpret my Bible for me, so Koine Greek was the next language to learn [to read].

    There's no better way to learn a language than to jump right in and begin using it, and having no worries about screwing up along the way. The native speakers get a kick out of a mispronunciation or two, and they relish the opportunity to help someone learn to correctly speak their language.

    I'm not ready for Thai yet, but I am willing to try Amerikh [sp?] and Pashtu within this next year.

    Keep up the hard work, and reap the benefits of acclimating to more than one culture! (Crap! I'm an American. I can't believe that I'm actually advocating learning a language other than English!)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    I don't speak American. Please read this article:
    http://www.world-english.org/practise_practice.htm.

  • Vanessa

    I'm living here in China. I've learned about 400 characters so far. The only real way to grasp Chinese characters us by learning the radicals (which are the base elements on all characters)
    otherwise you'll have a hard time retaining all of it in your mind. Plus you need to know them in order to look up words in the dictionary. Also, learning to write the characters reinforce them in your brain. I suggest mandarin coach for the nintendo ds.

  • http://vampiredaze.com/ Vampire Daze

    Brilliant! I just stumbled upon this and will also stumble it. It makes me want to give it a go :)

  • Ben

    Hi,
    If your goal is to SPEAK Thai asap and communicate with people orally, then you are wasting your time learning the script. For speaking, you can use excellent learning methods, e.g. the Michel Thomas method is maybe the fastest.
    If you plan to read and write Thai (wonder why would you want to do it?), then indeed learning the alphabet might be useful. But I still don't see the point of learning any language in written form, as writing has always been secondary in importance and aimed at conserving information, rather than live communication.
    This comment is an exception to the rule, of course :-)
    Cheers

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Good to know! Note that this post does not apply to Chinese, and this is why I specifically said “phonetic” script (Chinese script is not phonetic, whereas Japanese and Korean I believe are, as well as Thai of course).

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the thumbs up, hugely appreciated :) I've gotten some great stumbleupon traffic to this post thanks to stumbles like yours!!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Ben, judging by your comment I'll hazard a guess that you do not speak Thai, so I have to disagree with you.
    I've met expats here who can “speak” Thai, but they can't read and frankly that makes them nothing less than illiterate, and their capacity to communicate is limited by their audible memory (which can be aided vastly by visual memory through reading).
    They can't look up words in the dictionary because they don't understand how the language works and the order of symbols (I'll be writing another post about Thai script and how I've learned the final parts of reading, such as the dictionary order). They can't read signs or menus and they learned vocabulary inefficiently. Speaking is not the only priority if you want to live in a country, but speaking and reading are also intertwined in so many ways when you are not in a casual conversation.
    Romanisation absolutely must be abandoned as soon as possible in languages like Thai (commenters have told me that pinyin in Chinese is more useful) because the ability to read Thai script helps you understand how the language works and lets you learn new vocabulary entirely through the language within the language. This leads to speaking it better.
    I don't plan to write Thai, but reading it is essential for my purposes of really getting into the language rather than just memorising some phrases and being able to respond like a parrot. Romanisation will only be a crutch and is useless if you want any grasp of how the language really works.
    Asian language writing systems need to be understood if you want to understand the language. The reading aspect is a non-issue in European languages that use the same alphabet as English, so it may be considered “a waste of time” to those only familiar with European languages who don't have this extra step to worry about, but it really is necessary.
    My goal is actually to speak AND read Thai (you must have missed it at the top of the page), but even if were just to speak it, I would have nothing more than a superficial set of memorised phrases and responses if I skipped the process of understanding the language on a deeper level.
    Thanks for your comment ;)

  • Bob

    If you think the differences in fonts was a challenge, wait 'til you see the handwriting! I can speak read and PRINT Thai, but the various personal handwriting forms escapes me.

  • He who wears pants.

    I've always hated image association for foreign languages, so it's really good to see it working for someone! Japanese teachers seem to be notorious for this style of teaching the 'alphabet'.

  • http://www.stooryduster.co.uk/ Alan Scott

    Having worked with proof readers over the years I got this. I'm against simplification of spelling, grammar and languages – and don't get me started on metrification. I think our mind is like a muscle and if we start organising the world to avoid giving it any exercise it''ll get flabby and we'll be at the mercy of others that stayed trim.

    I learned to read French and Spanish but cannot speak or understand it when spoken. I only wanted to be able to read it. But what I did get as a big bonus, mentioned elsewhere in the comments, is a much better understanding of grammar. Now I'm finding that if I watch French or Spanish movies and ignore the subtitles understanding does begin to sneak up on me.

  • http://www.stooryduster.co.uk/ Alan Scott

    Damn – I knew I'd make an idiot of myself – it's metrication.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    I can barely read some people's handwriting in Latin script. I'm a 21st century nerd; to me handwriting in all languages is a thing of the past and to be avoided at all costs :P Apart from my signature, quick notes, and postcards I don't think I've written anything more than a few lines by hand in years.
    Luckily, the Thais like their printed signs and I haven't seen many scribbles in my travels so far. I hope it stays that way!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Great to see various comments on how effective this will be for Japanese!
    Note that if a teacher gives you his associations and it's still not effective, it's not as much a failure of image association, but more a failure of HIS/HER images for you. If I shared all of my associations for Thai with everyone, I can guarantee that half of them would not work for most people. They are ones that work for me personally, and if I were to teach them in a classroom my students would like it for some and find it a waste of time for others.
    Try it with your own images in Japanese :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Judith, this post is only relevant to “phonetic” scripts, as stated in the title. That would include Korean and Japanese and a few other languages, but Chinese is not covered, simply because it's not phonetic as you mentioned – I'll find a shortcut to learning Chinese another time ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yes, I agree with you Judith. This post is only relevant to phonetic languages (as stated in the title), and wouldn't work on Chinese. I believe pinyin is more crucial to improving your Chinese over time, although if possible its use should be minimised.
    I'll see when I get to Chinese if I can find some shortcuts!
    [previous comment edited]

  • Lilian

    Japanese cannot be considered truly phonetic, I think. Even though the hiragana and katakana are classified as such, kanji usage is so extensive it kind of blurs the line.
    A relatively easy language to learn, though. Your image association method is extremely easy to apply to Japanese characters.

  • Harsha

    I came here through StumbleUpon. I just wanted to say I've really enjoyed reading your articles! This site would certainly help me as I'm moving to France and this can help with my French. Bookmark'd! Keep up the good work!!:)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    I LOVE stumbleupon this week; it's doing my site huge favours in terms of traffic :D
    Glad you are enjoying the articles! For French, check out my tips to see how to learn thousands of words of vocabulary in an instant ;) Most of the tips I blog about are conceptual and can be applied to any language (although for the next month I'll be talking about Thai a lot of course).
    Looking forward to reading more of your comments! Enjoy the move – I'll be in Paris for one week in March myself

  • http://blog.langalot.com/ Patrick Crosby

    When I was in Vietnam, I was completely flummoxed by the Vietnamese alphabet…I wish you had written this before then as I would have given it more of an effort…Next time!

  • Bouquet

    Hi, I'm one of those who stumbled upon. Im native Turkish speaker with kurdish roots. and I've learned English for loooong and finally became an English teacher :D But it's irritating to have a foreign accent although it'S not as disturbing as a german who speaks english (no offence lol) As I never been to an English speaking country I excuse myself. My own way to deal with that problem (and i think i do pretty good) is exposure to american media and imitating my boyfriend who is from states and has indian origin.
    I'm pretty sure I'll get better when i stay in US for a couple of month so no problem with that. But my boyfriend is so frustrated with his experience of learning Turkish. as he was so obsessed with pronouncing right in Turkish , he missed the points like understanding words and different grammar. As it is the case with many languages a sound that exists in one may not exist in the other. So sounding like a native shouldnt be the main concern. so now I'm busy with encouragin him to keep learning.
    btw i also want to learn his native language Hindi. seeing devanagari (the hindi alphabet) was discouraging. But you inspired me too. So my next task is to learn devanagari with your image- letter match technique. I know it is pretty effective on learning new vocab. But this will be new thing for me.
    I'm also elementary in spanish and portugese. I need to spend several months for each. Sooo my dear friend I'm planning to be a polyglot too in a couple of years :D
    Thanks again for inspiration i'll push my bfriend to take a look at here.
    Ate logo!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Next time you know! :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for sharing! I hope your bf gets some use out of my tips! :)

  • jan

    Yes, difficult at best, I am struggling, I walk up to this lady selling food on the street, students are waiting behind me, I ask if the selectio is hot, she asks the students what the farong is saying, they reply, he is speaking Thai….and so goes life hee….

  • jbacrypto

    japanese is a relatively easy language to learn? this seems to be a popular meme on the internet and i think it is encouraged by the japanese, because they generally praise your efforts even if you can barely manage a broken 'hello'. maybe 'travel japanese' with a few basic sentence patterns is relatively easy. but learning japanese sufficiently well to conduct business meetings, have meaningful discussions with lawyers, present papers at academic conferences, complete a literature class involving reading novels in japanese and writing papers – no way. ive done all of those things over the course of the last 5 years living in japan, and i can tell you from experience that not one of those was 'relatively easy'.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Those examples you gave are very strange – I don't ever “conduct business meetings, have meaningful discussions with lawyers, present papers at academic conferences, complete a literature class…” even in English (like a LOT of people), so I don't intend on doing it in any of my other languages, and the same would be true for pretty much all language learners. The only slightly realistically useful one you mentioned for some people could be the business meetings one, but that's about it (and not what I'm personally in languages for).

    That's a very tall order and would be an extremely difficult task in any language. I don't know any Japenese, but it isn't special in this.

    It's important to remember that your goals for how you use the language are not the same as others', so what some of us attempt to achieve may in fact not be that hard, even if it's more than basic travel lingo. ;)

    Good job on achieving all that yourself though!

  • Neal

    I agree with you 100%. I studied Arabic, both with the Arabic alphabet and at a school where they tried to transliterate everything (with a lot of mistakes). There are a number of Arabic sounds that English doesn't have (and some that English has and Arabic doesn't, but that's a different story), and it just makes so much more sense to learn to read it in the proper alphabet.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for that confirmation! When I take on other non-European languages I am definitely going to take the same approach of learning the writing system – it was way easier than I thought :)

  • Anna

    I'm so glad I fell upon your website. After spending years living in Thailand, I could read passably- but after hours and hours of repetition of writing out letters and trying to remember them. Your way is much better! Also it's nice to see someone else notices the font confusion-I swear, they were the bane of my existence! Using your system, I have now firmed up my shaky writing and reading skills. I would be interested to know how everything is coming a month later than this post?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    haha thanks Anna!!
    I'll be updating my Thai mission status over the next week, as it's my last week in Thailand. I'll be linking to a great resource for Thai fonts that someone passed on to me, keep an eye out!
    Best of luck improving your reading and writing skills, so glad I could help!! :)

  • Jeff

    Agreed. A friend of mine learned hiragana and katakana (the Japanese phonetic scripts) in just over five hours. Even though he was never able to learn the language beyond a low intermediate level of proficiency and stopped trying over 10 years ago, he can still read both scripts.

  • http://friedelcraft.blogspot.com/ chris(mandarin_student)

    I agree I don't see what possible problem associating sounds with a few tens of new symbols can present, people learn far more than that about things they are interested in in short spaces of time. I guess long-term Thai speakers who have not learned to read yet just aren't interested enough, but it takes all sorts.

    Don't forget that Japanese has its phonetic systems but also 200o odd Kanji characters, non- phonetic, see my comment on Hesig below as a possible solution to that.

    Yaay I have just discovered I can read German, wonder how many other European languages I can read :).

    In reference to the Chinese comments, if you are going to start Chinese look up Heisig method, based on a memory association technique with visual stories originally developed in the 1970's for learning Japanese Hanzi (which are mostly the same as traditional Chinese characters). Heisig's stories (which then develop into a system that allow the user to apply their own stories) were based on tried and tested memory association at the time and on anysis of the structural component similarities in characters (much more efficient than treating each character in isolation). Personally I don't like learning that way but for memorisation of Chinese character structure (or Japanese Hanzi) depending on which version you choose is unparalled imho.

    To save time for commentators who are confused about pinyin romanisation for Chinese, unlike for languages like Thai it is essential to nail it early on, rather than being a crutch for learning it is an essential tool for most native Chinese, most use pinyin input systems to write chinese on computers, they use pinyin to txt on their mobiles, to input Chinese characters into electronic dictionionaries etc. etc. Their own character dictionaries for their own use have pinyin indexing to allow them to look up obscure characters they have forgotten etc. Whether you hit characters early or not you need pinyin to master Chinese writing (older Chinese that never learned it at school or later are stuck with writing tablets and handwriting recognition software, which is slow).

    Note: There are other Chinese romanisation systems and input systems like wubi (hard to learn even if you are Chinese). But pinyin is the best.

  • grayson

    wow man, totally interesting. i spent some time in thailand and didn't even think to attempt to learn the language beyond simple phrases. anywhere i can go for all the symbols listed out? i like your image association so far! any tips for speaking it?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      http://www.thai-language.com/
      This is the best resource for reading and generally learning Thai :)
      Best of luck!

  • Kenneth

    Any suggestions on how to learn any language cannot be called anything other than “Positive”.
    I wholeheartedly congratulate you on your skills of presentation; your ideas on how, and the imagination required to demonstrate that which is needed at the very least.
    You Will do well in this and any other quest you put your mind too.
    I myself now live in Thailand; am Married here and settled. My aim is to take the challenge; do the hard yards and see what comes of it.
    Already I have memorised many pleasantries and how to find the toilet; two distinctly important issues to my mind.
    Good luck, although I personally think with your determination, luck will play little part in your objective.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Awww, thanks a lot for the lovely comment :)
      How are you progressing in Thai? :)

  • http://twitter.com/emhcx Martyn Jasinski

    Instead of using pinyin romanisation as a phonetic system, in Taiwan I believe it is more common to use zhuyin, a phonetic system comprising about 40 different characters. The advantage of this system is that these zhuyin characters are placed next to each hanzi (traditional character) in a text instead of below it as is the cae with pinyin. This means instead of jumping back and forth within a text to decipher the hanzi you are more exposed to the original zi. As you say you dislike romanisation, this is definitely an option I would look into! I certianly wish I had been taught zhuyin when I started learning at school 4 years ago, now halfway through a university course pinyin is still a crutch that I can't seem to cast off :'(

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/about/ Andrew

    “I’m expecting to have an explosion of vocabulary and conversation when the time is right. Until then, I need to continue building the foundations to make sure that that can happen.”

    Sounds like you're employing Iversen's “epiphany method” ;)

    (I, too, have decided to change up what I'm doing to learn Spanish to something much more similar to this as well, basically he's pretty well sold me on the idea, I can't wait to see what happens)

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://sratoz.wordpress.com/ João Paulo

    Benny,
    You do realise, of course, that the alphabet itself started with an association of sound to concept. For example, the Egyptian word for water began with an M sound. So, the letter for the M sound took on the shape of waves on water. In time, through Hebrew, Phoenician and Greek, it became our letter M.
    More on this (and a lot more) can be found in John Man's Alpha Beta, which I bought on the way from Israel back to Brazil through Frankfurt and only read five years later. If only I'd known, I'd have read it sooner. Few times have I spent my money so well.
    Cheers,
    JP

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Fascinating! I didn’t know that, thanks for sharing it :)

  • http://sratoz.wordpress.com/ João Paulo

    Benny,
    You do realise, of course, that the alphabet itself started with an association of sound to concept. For example, the Egyptian word for water began with an M sound. So, the letter for the M sound took on the shape of waves on water. In time, through Hebrew, Phoenician and Greek, it became our letter M.
    More on this (and a lot more) can be found in John Man's Alpha Beta, which I bought on the way from Israel back to Brazil through Frankfurt and only read five years later. If only I'd known, I'd have read it sooner. Few times have I spent my money so well.
    Cheers,
    JP

  • http://twitter.com/nick_sponge Nick Abasolo

    First of all, this looks like a great site! I aim to be a polyglot myself; I can speak two languages fluently (English and Filipino), and I’m learning two more right now (Spanish in school, and Korean more informally from friends and online), and I have several more lined up (mainly French, Japanese, and Latin).

    I did learn Hangul, the Korean writing system, very quickly, although I didn’t use this association method. In all honesty it was just through practice and a lot of exposure. I started by looking up the character list and just familiarizing myself with the letters and trying to remember them. Then I went on to listening to Korean pop songs and reading both the hangul lyrics and the romanization. Now I read many of the signs around my city (there is a large Korean population here, which means a lot of stores have Hangul signage), and I frequently practice writing in hangul in my notebook. I proud to say that I can quickly and easily read hangul on command, although I might not know what it is I’m saying :P

    I think that hangul is just an easy writing system to learn above all – it’s featural, so letters that sound alike look alike (e.g. d looks similar to t, which in turn is similar to n, which are all dental consonants) and it is almost (99%) completely phonetic. In addition, I think writing something, anything in the language helps in reading – I would suggest this to you if you are looking to practice reading Thai more! Also, when I learn a new word from my Korean friends I try to get them to write it (either on paper, electronically or in the air :P) to make sure I pronounce it correctly from then on.

    Anyway, this is a rather long comment, so I thank you for reaching all the way here! I look forward to checking your blog frequently and hoping to pick up a couple tips along the way! :D

  • Mojo

    Nice post! I think your advice is great! I learned the script used in hindi/sanskrit/nepali a few years ago, and since then I found learning new written languages really fun! I currently know korean hangul, nepali, ancient runes and I am working on arabic script. All using essencially the same technique you describe :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Great to see how well it works in other languages :) Great job on learning all those languages!

  • http://n-true.livejournal.com André Müller

    Quite a late comment, eh? But as I’m in China right now, learning Thai as well, this post suddenly became more interesting to me, and the one about the tones, which I will devour in an instant.

    I don’t remember when and why I learned the Thai script, but being the writing system nerd that I am, it must’ve been back in my school days, maybe 8th or 9th grade. Back than I only remembered the consonants and vowels I needed to write German words in Thai script, and I ignored the tone signs as being mystical altogether.

    Now I’m really getting into this and remembered (without relearning them thoroughly in one shot) all the consonants and all the vowel signs, but some di- and triphthongs I’m still a bit unfamiliar with. That will come over time…

    About vocabulary: I have a different attempt than you, and it works really well (too). Being familiar with the IPA and being able to read and write this phonetic script fluently, I use ANKI (I guess you must know that vocabulary learning program) to learn Thai words in IPA. It only asks me English→Thai(IPA), on purpose. That way I learn the correct pronunciation quickly, so I can start to have simple conversations with my Thai friends here in a dormitory in Kunming. I asked my friends for the words that I deemed necessary and important (speak, see, hear, go, come, pronouns, today, tomorrow, yesterday, good, bad, book, university, boy, girl, person, dog, and, or, when, why, where etc.) and while saying something and lack a word, I say it in Chinese, waiting for them to tell me the correct Thai word. I only use the dictionary to confirm the tones (which are still sometimes difficult to hear for me).

    Now that I use a textbook to actually systematically learning the tone rules as well, I only now begin to know how the words I already know should be written, and vice versa, how the words I sometimes read are pronounced WITH tones.

    In my opinion, this is quite a useful way of getting into Thai, when focussing on speaking (as I do), and not on writing so much (because there’s not so much written Thai here in China). As I am planning to spend one or two weeks in Thailand (Kamphaeng Phet and maybe Chonburi) in January ’11, I guess, my Thai will improve quickly and I will have more visual input as well.

    BTW, I’d love to read more insightful blog posts about the particular languages you’re learning. It personally interests me more than general suggestions about learning languages.

    Greetings from Kunming, China (14°C, sun’s shining)
    – André

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I talked about Anki too ;) Here: http://www.fluentin3months.com/spaced-repetition/
      Native English speakers tend to have little use for IPA for learning other languages. With Thai, since it’s already phonetic, I think it’s better to learn their alphabet first and work from there, but whatever works for you! I know the situation is different for Chinese since its writing system is no help for pronunciation.

      You can see posts about Hungarian, a recent one about Colombian Spanish, an entire book about German, a post about the Carioca accent in Portuguese etc. I will write about these when the time is right for each language ;)

  • http://twitter.com/JakePendragon Diego T. Guimarães

    Olá. Escreverei em português pois sei que entendes e tem a ver. :)
    Bom, para aprender hiragana (para japonês, naturalmente) havia varios macetes de associações, como NInho, HElógio (relógio, pela pronúncia), NUvem, SEntauro (centauro, pela pronúncia. Esse fui eu que inventei) etc., além de alguns meio forçados, como TSUbarão… :P
    Ensinam assim em cursos de japonês por aqui (Rio de Janeiro, Brasil)…
    Falando nisso, também para aprendizado de vocabulário há coisas como habiliJOZU (hábil, habilidoso, adj.) e HETArdado (“retardado” pela pronúncia; inábil, adj.)… :P
    Até! o/

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Boa aplicação da técnica! :)

  • http://www.genvejen.dk/ Genvejen

    Totally agree. Association is the way to go if you want to remember a lot of stuff in a quick and easy way.

    But what about the names of the letters, i.e. consonant names like “ก ไก่” and “ข ไข่” and vowel names like “–า” and “–ำ” – how would remember these through association?

    Thanks,
    Mads

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      The same – when it’s a combination just imagine something involving both symbols :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Confusing isn’t it! But I’m sure Thais learning English start wondering why we are copying them :P

  • Davin Atkins

    Benny,

    I couldn’t help but notice that you not only learn the alphabets, but you also learn how to type them…  I’m curious how you manage that?  Certainly in a local internet cafe it wouldn’t be too difficult to write in that language, but (assuming you were answering these comments while in Thailand) you also managed to write in English and Portuguese at the same time.  What keyboard encoding do you use – or more generally – what methods do you use to learn how to type?

    When I was in Mexico, the local cafe didn’t have the @ symbol, and I didn’t know how to ask where it was.  (What is the Spanish word for @? Still don’t know)  Apparently they are used to using an alt-code – have you noticed this difficultly elsewhere, and how to you overcome it?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I have a Spanish keyboard set up. This allows me to write in all Latin languages without any configuration change. Otherwise alt codes can help if you are on Windows. I’m actually in Linux and there are other advantages ;)
      @ is arroba (at least in Spain) and it is DEFINITELY on the Mexican keyboard. It’s Alt Gr & 2 – this isn’t an Alt code, this is using the Alt Gr button, which is like a different version of the shift key. No keyboard in the world will not have the @ key to my knowledge.

      • Lasecta_esclavo

         In a Spanish (Spain) keyboard “arroba” is located in Alt Gr + 2. In a Spanish (Latin American) keyboard is in Alt Gr + Q.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I have a Spanish keyboard set up. This allows me to write in all Latin languages without any configuration change. Otherwise alt codes can help if you are on Windows. I’m actually in Linux and there are other advantages ;)
      @ is arroba (at least in Spain) and it is DEFINITELY on the Mexican keyboard. It’s Alt Gr & 2 – this isn’t an Alt code, this is using the Alt Gr button, which is like a different version of the shift key. No keyboard in the world will not have the @ key to my knowledge.

  • 5ftflirt

    OK you’re ready for Hebrew now, another completely different alphabet with the added challenge of reading right to left, and most of the vowels don’t have letters. This bothered me until i realized that when you are a fluent reader in ANY language, you don’t sound out each letter, you recognize each word as a gestalt. Same with Hebrew. After a while you don’t miss the vowel marks. Learn to write the cursive or script (which isn’t cursive but you can write in it faster and more legibly than trying to write the block printing fonts, also lots of things are written in cursive).

    To compensate for the alphabet, Hebrew has very regular verbs with only past, present, future, and imperative.

    Unlike in many countries, Israelis start rolling their eyes when you start speaking Hebrew, and they switch to English (which most natives speak, plus many native English speakers live there). I have found  cab drivers, for some reason, are happy to converse in Hebrew with you and are very helpful. Also get out of the Tel Aviv – Jerusalem urban belt; especially up north fewer Israelis speak English.

    A bonus is that after you learn modern Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew is easy and you can read the Old Testament in the original. (You also have a leg up on Aramaic, if you can find anyone who still speaks it. And you have a good gateway to Arabic, although Arabic is more complicated.)

  • 5ftflirt

    OK you’re ready for Hebrew now, another completely different alphabet with the added challenge of reading right to left, and most of the vowels don’t have letters. This bothered me until i realized that when you are a fluent reader in ANY language, you don’t sound out each letter, you recognize each word as a gestalt. Same with Hebrew. After a while you don’t miss the vowel marks. Learn to write the cursive or script (which isn’t cursive but you can write in it faster and more legibly than trying to write the block printing fonts, also lots of things are written in cursive).

    To compensate for the alphabet, Hebrew has very regular verbs with only past, present, future, and imperative.

    Unlike in many countries, Israelis start rolling their eyes when you start speaking Hebrew, and they switch to English (which most natives speak, plus many native English speakers live there). I have found  cab drivers, for some reason, are happy to converse in Hebrew with you and are very helpful. Also get out of the Tel Aviv – Jerusalem urban belt; especially up north fewer Israelis speak English.

    A bonus is that after you learn modern Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew is easy and you can read the Old Testament in the original. (You also have a leg up on Aramaic, if you can find anyone who still speaks it. And you have a good gateway to Arabic, although Arabic is more complicated.)

  • 5ftflirt

    OK you’re ready for Hebrew now, another completely different alphabet with the added challenge of reading right to left, and most of the vowels don’t have letters. This bothered me until i realized that when you are a fluent reader in ANY language, you don’t sound out each letter, you recognize each word as a gestalt. Same with Hebrew. After a while you don’t miss the vowel marks. Learn to write the cursive or script (which isn’t cursive but you can write in it faster and more legibly than trying to write the block printing fonts, also lots of things are written in cursive).

    To compensate for the alphabet, Hebrew has very regular verbs with only past, present, future, and imperative.

    Unlike in many countries, Israelis start rolling their eyes when you start speaking Hebrew, and they switch to English (which most natives speak, plus many native English speakers live there). I have found  cab drivers, for some reason, are happy to converse in Hebrew with you and are very helpful. Also get out of the Tel Aviv – Jerusalem urban belt; especially up north fewer Israelis speak English.

    A bonus is that after you learn modern Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew is easy and you can read the Old Testament in the original. (You also have a leg up on Aramaic, if you can find anyone who still speaks it. And you have a good gateway to Arabic, although Arabic is more complicated.)

  • http://www.laurita.ch lacosta

    Learning phonetic writing systems is a very fun thing to do and your own associations reveal a lot about you =P 
    I just stumbled upon your blog, got your ebook and watched the video about your flat in berlin and I’ve to say – I’m impressed! You are exactly the opposite of me ~ I grew up trilingual (German, Spanish, Italian), learned English/French at school and studied Chinese for 5 years, now I am studying Japanese and Korean… 

    Anyway, I’m still not fluent at all in any of the last 3 languages and that’s mainly because of shyness and perfectionism. The fear of being judged/ridiculed by native speakers is too big. I think if you study a language for more than a year and still aren’t able to hold a conversation then you have to overthink the reasons (mostly fears) that hold you back. 

     One question: You list 8 languages that you can speak fluently but you managed to do a lot of challenges in various other languages – how do you keep these new languages “fresh”? You couldn’t be practicing all your freshly learned languages every day, could you?

    You’re doing a great job! I’m looking forward to your new challenge! ^_^ 
    Greeting from Switzerland ~ 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      This post will answer your question! fi3m.com/never-forget/

      Thanks :)

      • http://www.laurita.ch lacosta

        thanks for the reply and link – I hadn’t discovered that article of yours yet : )

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Please read the introduction to my Thai mission a few posts back. I wasn’t aiming to be fluent in 3 months, but to get by basically. Here is how I ended my Thai mission:
    http://fi3m.com/say-something/

  • Amanda Patterson

    The issue of fonts is one I had a lot of trouble with when I arrived in the Middle East (Egypt) for the first time. My Arabic was mediocre at best, but those damn signs were so discouraging. I had known the alphabet for two years, could read anything out of a book without much hesitation (most likely didn’t know what it meant, but hey, small victories), but the fonts they used on store fronts were just SO DIFFERENT that I had no idea what was going on. And don’t even get me started on calligraphy.

    Right now I’m learning Korean, as of last week (I’ll be getting there in February), and I’m hoping (and from pictures I’ve seen, thinking) that the font they actually use isn’t too different from what I’ve found in my book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/iamneilkeleher Neil Keleher

    Hi, I’ve forgotten it now, but ten years ago I learned the hirigana alphabet really quickly. Simply studiend 5 characters at a time, and then read them in words containing only characters I was learning. Then moved on to the next set of five. Was frustration free and felt really nice at the end of it all.

    Later I learned the cangjie typing code for typing chinese characters. For that it helped to have some sort of mnemonic, like what you did with toe. The cangjie typing method has some irregularites, but then if I don’t know or can’t remember the code i switch to typing in pinyin.
    That’s my 5 cents worth.

  • Anon

    For Chinese, Japanese, or any language for that matter, http://www.memrise.com is really amazing. They use mnemonics, and people can leave their own to help others. I highly recommend it!

  • Mark Gladman

    I’m coming into this some time after you have originally posted it, but I have only just come upon your blog. I am currently teaching myself how to speak Karen, the tribal language of the Eastern State of Burma and people who have been oppressed in the world’s longest running civil war and, as a result, are currently predominately IDP’s or refugees. It is in those capacities that I unfortunately know them and work with them.

    I am using a program whose approach I thought very weird at first – learn how to read and write Karen. The reason was because a) there are many sounds in Karen not in English and not good ways of Romanizing Karen; and b) for the tones (very much like Thai). This was the best call – I spent 8 “lessons” (about one every two days, no more than an hour each time) learning to read and write – first hour doing revision of previous letters by writing saying and reading what I wrote, second hour learning new material. Within 3 weeks I had it down pat and began learning the words and vocab without hesitation. It also means when I miss a word, I can ask a Karen person to write it for me so I can make sure I am hearing the sounds and tones right.

    I think I am speaking Karen quicker because of this technique. Winner!

    Mark G

  • Sarah Warren

    A lot of people seem to use visualisation to learn new scripts,and I always find it really weird. I guess my brain simply does not work that way/is not wired that way. I can read and write Cyrillic fluently, my Hebrew is I proving enormously, and I can decipher names in Arabic and Greek. The only different writing system I ever learned primarily by visualisation/association was Japanese kana, I did an intensive, immersion evening cours iny last year of uni. Arabic I’ve only ever studied by myself: my entire Greek education was one evening of Koine Greek for Fun at my college and one entirely oral-aural lesson as part of my Greek TEFL course. I have all but completely lost my ability to decipher hiragana and katakana (though strangely enough, still retain the few kanji I learned), but can easily figure out how to say Greek words and often surprise myself how much Arabic I can work out.

    Granted, Greek has a lot in common with Cyrillic, but it’s fascinating to me how many people this route of associating letters with ideas and shapes and stuff. I’m usually a really visual person, but I don’t find this helps me at all with learning languages. Clearly it helps some people – maybe most? – enormously, which makes me all the more curious why I find it confer intuitive.

    My method of learning scripts has got down to a pretty fine art. I sit down and write it out, lots of times write names, write English wording the target script, read any and all thins I can find in the script even if I don’t understand the meaning, write some more and read some more. I really find when I read “imagine this letter as X” it gets in the way. I tried the method with Arabic, and my brain just rebelled. It made no sense and was just like another barrier between me and actually reading the script/reading the words. I have usually put it down to it being a way that people use who find the idea of a different writing system too intimidating to tackle it head on, but clearly from your blog, that doesn’t seem a likely scenario. Which just makes me more intrigued.

    Weird, eh? I’m planning to start learning Devanagari script, and have a willing friend to help. I’m wondering now about attempting to learn some of the script via my usual sit down and learn the damn thing method, and some of it via visualisation. Though offhand I have no idea if I could make that work.

    It’s really quite intriguing to me to see this technique suggested in a context where the user is an experienced linguist and not someone who would be looking for props. I guess maybe it just plain old goes to show we all learn differently! :-D

  • Sarah Warren

    That’s how I learn alphabets, syllabaries and the like, too.

  • Jony B

    สวัสดีครับ เบ็นนี่ อยากจะรู้ว่าเธออ่านข้อความนี้ได้หรือไม่ ສະບາຍດີເບັນນີ້ຢາກຊິຮູ້ວ່າເຈົ້າອ່ານຂໍ້ຄວາມນີ້ໄດ້ຫຼືບໍ
    Hello Benny, what do you think about mainland Southeast Asia? I find the languages very interesting. You should come to Lao, if you know Thai then you can easily learn Lao as well, although this is tricky because the spelling of words is constant throughout the country but each area pronounces them differently. You should come visit less developed nations, you might like it. What do you think about learning Vietnamese, or Khmer?

  • Brian

    I learned the Hiragana in about two hours by applying this method to one of those Kana learning apps! I found it neurobiologically interesting that after using this method, I could read the hiragana extremely well, but I could not write them easily, because I had learned to recognize the visual shapes apart from practicing the kinesthetics of actually writing them. I find the same is true in ASL, because I can fingerspell extremely fast, but I am utterly terrible at reading something someone fingerspells to me. :)

  • Lizzie

    I tried to teach myself some Greek while I was at school, but lacked the motivation to study the alphabet properly which hindered progress. However, after doing a maths degree I can read Greek (by ‘read’ I mean read out loud so that a Greek speaker would understand what I was reading – I can’t ‘read’ Greek in terms of understanding). Seeing how I had subconciously learned the squiggles made me realise how quickly I would have been able to learn them had I bothered to put the effort in, and consequently, learning the Hebrew alphabet, which is much more squiggly than Greek, was far less daunting and enabled me to just get on with it!

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  • Sarah Pires

    Wow that really impressed me. I decided to give this a try and found myself being able to memorise phonetic scripts in japanese with no suffering at all! Thank you very much!