The Advantages of Knowing How to Read Foreign Languages

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There can be no denying the great advantages that come with being able to read something that has been placed in front of you. It would be almost impossible to otherwise function successfully in a society, or at least in most societies as they are currently designed.

We take this for granted, not thinking twice about whether we’re able to read the directions for how to assemble our new IKEA furniture or the warning label on the package of a poisonous substance.

On the other hand, if you have ever traveled to another country, and especially to one with whose language you are unfamiliar, you surely know that it is another world you have now entered into, one that is much more difficult to navigate on a daily basis.

Not only can you not speak with any local people, but you can’t even trust that you’ll be able to get around on your own since you probably aren’t able to read any of the signs.

However, I’ve come to see that there is an easy little trick that can help you with this problem: learning the written script of the country that you are planning to visit.

This is easier than it sounds, is far easier than learning an entire language, and it can be done in just a matter of days.

I learned the Arabic script in about 2-3 days, and since written Turkish uses almost the exact same letters that are used in the Roman alphabet, it only took me several hours to gain a familiarity with it.

Although it might be more difficult to apply this process to a language like Chinese, it is particularly doable with languages that use letters to represent their specific sounds.

This does not mean that you will necessarily be able to write this language well after only just a few days of study, but you will be able to recognize letters and you will be able to slowly sound them out.

Not surprisingly, this leaves you with a greater feeling of control when you are in a foreign country in which everything around you is new and unfamiliar.

Here is one example.

I took a trip to Korea in the summer of 2010 to visit a friend from high school. Now, other than some simple phrases, I cannot speak Korean at all, and was lucky enough to have my friend as a guide for most of the time I was there

(As a side note though, I did manage to order breakfast by myself once at a McDonald’s in Pusan. I learned how to express that I wanted pancakes and coffee, and then I just said ‘yes’ to all the subsequent questions that were rattled off to me, somehow getting my order exactly how I wanted it in the end!)

 

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Having had more than just a few Korean friends throughout my high school career, I had previously had a lot of contact with reading and writing Korean.

By reading, though, I don’t necessarily mean understanding; I only know how to sound out the letters. But this was more than enough to maintain a superficial feeling of understanding in a foreign country.

For example, the picture above is of a bill from a coffee house in Seoul – an order for a waffle and an americano. The thing about Korean is that a lot of new words that have entered into the language are from English, so if you can read how they’re transliterated, you’re automatically good to go!

Waffle is 와플 (wa-peul) and americano is 아메리카노 (a-me-li-ka-no). Imagine yourself now getting this bill. Already you’d be more in tune with your surroundings simply because you could read the letters that make up this language.

Having a background in Chinese especially helped me to navigate Korea. Since many Korean words have also been adopted from Chinese pronunciations, it is sometimes fun to see if you can spot where they are.

For example, there is a massive golden statue in Seoul of King Sejong. As you can see in the picture below, the statue has some lettering below it: 세종대왕.

From my knowledge of Korean letters, I knew that 세종 was Se-jong (the king’s name). The second part, 대왕, pronounced dae wang, is from the Chinese da wang (大王), meaning an emperor or a king.

In this way, I was able to guess at the meaning and get a better understanding of what I was seeing, all without actually speaking Korean and without any explanations from local people.

 

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A second example of this was when I was at the Coex Mall in Seoul. They have a really neat indoor zoo and aquarium there with many animals that I had never seen up close before in real life.

One was a two-headed turtle, and from the sign shown below, I saw the words 쌍두거북.

Being that this was an animal with two heads, I guessed that the first word, 쌍 (ssang), was the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for double: 雙 (shuang).

Similarily, I guessed that the next part, 두 (du), was the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for head: 頭 (tou).

From this I could guess that the remaining phrase, 거북 (geo-buk), means turtle. I never actually looked this word up until just now while writing this article, but not surprisingly, I was right.

 

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I know that there is English on the sign as well and that I could have been very happy just reading that part, but I was in Korea, so why not try and participate in any way possible?

Even if that participation only included reading a sign, it allowed me to feel more included and better able to navigate through my surroundings.

So that is my push for learning foreign scripts even if you are not planning to learn an entire language. If nothing else, it will help you to identify words that you might see everyday, but that you might have previously ignored because they seemed too complicated or too strange before.

My favorite example is the foreign names that I find when looking things up on Wikipedia. For example, I was recently reading about Bactria, an ancient Greek region in what is now Afghanistan.

Since I can read Arabic, Cyrillic (Russian), and Chinese scripts, I could understand the writing on the Wikipedia page regarding what this region is called in various languages that use these scripts (or variations of them):

  • Persian/Pashto (which uses a version of Arabic script): باختر (Bākhtar)
  • Tajik (which uses a version of Russian Cyrillic): Бохтар (Bākhtar)
  • Chinese: 大夏 (Dàxià).

It’s much easier to understand what’s going on even if you can only read a bit of what’s written around you. It’s not about fluency here, it’s about getting by and gaining that much more of an understanding about the immediate world around you.

 

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