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Just Ask Alex: October 2013 Edition Posted by on Oct 28, 2013 in Just Ask Alex, Language Learning

Avid language learner Alex Rawlings believes everyone can master a language, or many languages, like he has. That’s why he’s sharing his advice and answering your questions each month in the Just Ask Alex series. Missed a previous entry? See them all here. Have a question for Alex? Leave a comment or tweet @TLILanguages using #JustAskAlex.

Learning a new alphabet: is it really a challenge?

When I tell people that I’m studying Russian, I often get this reaction: “Russian?! That must be so difficult! How on earth did you ever learn a whole new alphabet?!”

As anyone who has studied Russian will tell you, the alphabet is something you’re confronted with at the start of your studies, that you learn, and then quickly forget that you ever didn’t know it. It looks like a huge mountain to climb, but in the wider scheme of what awaits you when you start with things like verbs of motion and aspectual pairs, it is barely even the foothills. And in fact as with all languages that use different alphabets, when it comes to pronunciation and spelling you’ll be very glad that it’s there.

Depending on the language (excluding Chinese character systems which are entirely different), you can expect to be able to read and write a new alphabet after a week to a month of practice. Some alphabets like Greek and Russian have a lot of letters that are similar to Latin and therefore will be learnt more quickly, while Arabic, Hebrew, Georgian and Armenian bare little if any resemblance at first glance to familiar letters, and might require a bit more patience.

Practise writing and reading as much as possible: start off with words that you already know, like English loanwords in the language, names, and so on. When choosing a language course, pick one that provides a Latin transliteration for at least the first few units, just while you’re still getting to grips with your new script. But make sure that it drops that eventually – you don’t want to become dependent on it.

If you’re really struggling, you might want to consider a course that just teaches you the alphabet. For Arabic I can recommend Teach Yourself Arabic Script, which introduces everything in a very logical order, or you can check out the new interactive alphabet courses by Transparent! These are very clear, fun to use, and will give you a solid knowledge of whatever new script you need to learn.

Once you’ve learnt your new alphabet, pretty soon reading it will be like second nature. And then you’ll start to see the advantage of it. Every language has a completely unique sound system, and the danger of learning languages that use Latin is that you might think, for example, that letters you’re familiar with from your own language are the same in your new one.

 The letter ‘g’ in English is used to spell Spanish words as well, but they don’t sound anything alike! If you learn Greek, however, you’ll have come across the letter ‘γ’, which is never pronounced like an English ‘g’, but a softer, more throaty ‘gh’. This is more like the sound in Spanish but because it looks like a ‘g’, many people tend to overlook this.

I’ve always thought it’s easier to learn new sounds with a new alphabet, rather than relearn the sounds of an alphabet you already know. And when it comes to spelling in your new language, you can bet it’s a lot easier!

Can you ever learn a language completely on your own?

This is a great question, but not least because it’s difficult to answer. I find it hard to confidently give a yes/no response to this, because in my experience it is only through combining a range of different learning methods that I have been successful in learning languages. But as a result, I think the answer to this question is probably no, you can’t learn a language completely on your own. Here are a few reasons why.

Self-study does play an important role for learning languages. We turn to it because we might get frustrated with the pace of a language class, or because we can’t afford the cost of hiring a teacher. But in fact when it comes to the learning part, pretty much the only way to do this is by yourself.

Students sometimes put pressure on language teachers to just ‘insert’ vocabulary into their heads during class, so that they don’t have to work much outside the hour or two a week they’ve paid for. But this is always really the responsibility of the student – to take materials and notes from classes and process and memorise them in their own time by themselves. Because everybody learns differently, it’s impossible for a teacher to use all the various techniques that any one group of people might use. And if students aren’t supplementing their classes with self-study, this is the point at which they might start to complain that the lessons aren’t useful for them, or (unfortunately) that the teacher is no good.

But this isn’t really the role of teachers and educators, at least when it comes to languages. Languages can’t be taught, they simply have to be learnt – this is now a fairly widely accepted fact. And as a result, teachers can guide students, advise them, correct them and encourage them, but they can’t perform miracles. At least not without the student’s full cooperation.

But teachers, friends, language exchange partners and native speakers do have an invaluable role to play. These are the people that lift the material from your textbook and help you integrate it into your life. They show you what’s relevant and what’s right, they stop you from learning mistakes and help fine tune your pronunciation.

Learning with other people’s help offers an interactive, real and entirely new dimension to your language learning that simply relying on textbooks never can. Languages are, after all, an innately social phenomenon – we learn them in the first place so that we can connect with people that sometimes we might never have been able to reach out to otherwise. You can’t really lock yourself away with books for a few months and then emerge and claim fluency, but without having ever spoken to anyone. No matter how good your theoretical knowledge may be, who knows how well you can put it into practice if you don’t give it a try!

Besides, friendship with people developed in two languages rather than one are very special. When both people are able to express themselves in an almost infinite number of ways, that brings them closer than a monolingual friendship ever could. That is the best and most motivating way I’ve ever found to learn languages. The people that I’ve met are often what inspires me to do it.

So can you learn languages on your own? Not entirely, but both self-taught and supervised methods have advantages as well as disadvantages. The truth is that a healthy combination and balance of both is what’s really needed to get the best results.

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About the Author: Alex Rawlings

I'm 22 years old and studying German and Russian at Oxford University. In February 2012 I was named Britain's most mulitilingual student after being tested for fluency in 11 different languages, including English, Greek, Russian, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Catalan and Afrikaans. Apart from blogging on my own site at, I run a monthly language learning Q&A session on Transparent called Just Ask Alex, with videos and articles answering questions that you send in! If you've got a question, send it in and perhaps you'll see it in the next edition!


  1. Hazel:

    Hi Alex,
    Do you see any place for machine translation tools in language learning. I mean, might it be possible by using simple sentences and making slight changes in gender or case etc to reinforce grammatical grasp of a language. How reliable are they at a simple level ?

    • Alex Rawlings:

      @Hazel Hi Hazel,
      Absolutely! I use things like Google Translate to answer those kinds of questions all the time. Just bear in mind that they’re not always that accurate and may not offer you the correct translation, so it’s worth double checking in a proper dictionary to make sure.
      If you’re learning any of German/French/Russian/Greek/Spanish/Italian/Latin/Turkish/Chinese/Portuguese/Polish/Slovenian or even Latin, this is an amazing (and free) online dictionary which gives far more information about use of words and grammatical properties than Google Translate does!
      Thanks for commenting, and good luck with your language learning 🙂

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