Learning to read aloud fluidly in a new alphabet

As you know, I’ve been learning Ukrainian through Duolingo for about six weeks now. I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that I am progressing. The bad news is that Duolingo doesn’t give me enough context! As I’ve said before, in the Ukrainian lessons there are no stories or conversations (in contrast to the German lessons, for example), so all I get is isolated sentences with no surrounding context. In some contexts isolated sentences are what is needed, as when you only have eight hours to learn some basic structures and vocabulary in a new language. But at this point I’ve spent almost 20 hours of learning time on Ukrainian, and I need stories or (better yet) connected conversations! The German lessons provide both.

Anyway, that’s not really what I’m talking about here. I’m really talking about the alphabet, and how quickly or slowly we can read text in a new alphabet. This is my fourth experience trying to master a new alphabet, trying to get beyond the point of decoding it letter-by-letter to the level of fluid reading aloud, so I should be used to the process. Here is what I’ve found over the decades:

  • First came Hebrew. I think it was in the eighth grade, if memory serves, when a rabbi who was one of the chaplains at my dad’s hospital offered to teach me Hebrew, and we took him up on the deal. In early months I had to decode Hebrew letter-by-letter. Then one day it all clicked and I could suddenly read an entire word at a time—even an unfamiliar word—rather than perceiving individual letters. Of course if the word was new to me I wouldn’t know its meaning—but I could sound it out fluidly. (For many of my friends, reading aloud without understanding was the default endpoint for reading Hebrew, not a mere step along the journey!)
  • Then came Greek (Ancient Greek, that is). I had already learned the alphabet in Middle School, as one does. But when I started studying the language for real, I noticed the same phenomenon as I had seen in Hebrew. At first I was decoding it one letter at a time, and then after six or eight weeks I could magically just read a whole word at a time. Of course it was easier than Hebrew in that regard (and other regards), not just because it is written left-to-right but because most of the letters either appear in math or else look like ours: consider, as example, θ and π for the first set, τ and κ for the second.
  • In college I had a moral obligation to take a two-semester course in Middle Egyptian. (Why, you may ask, a moral obligation? It’s because I had been captivated by the Egyptian collection at the British Museum when visiting it in the summer with one of my roommates, so I casually remarked to him that I wished Harvard offered Middle Egyptian, as I would take it. This was a safe promise, as I knew from the course catalog that Harvard offered no such course! But, when we got back in September, I found a whole set of Middle Egyptian courses newly offered, and so…) Now you may know that contrary to popular opinion today (and contrary even to scholarly opinion before 1822), Egyptian hieroglyphs are not actually pictographs representing whole words but are usually phonetic; many of them are actually an alphabet of sorts (one sound per character). So my pattern repeated itself: at first I had to sound out the characters one by one, but eventually it all clicked and I could read entire words.
  • Finally, we come to Ukrainian, which uses (a form of) the Cyrillic alphabet. Most of the 34 letters resemble Greek, from which they are derived—so it shouldn’t have been hard to sound words out. As a bonus, I had learned the Russian form of the Cyrillic alphabet back in eighth grade, so that helped with almost all of the remaining letters. That didn’t help with ї and ґ, but it meant that I was in good shape to start out with. Despite that, I still find it slow going. Note that I am not talking about the complications of Ukrainian syntax and morphology, which are many; I’m just talking about looking at a sentence and reading it aloud immediately at normal speed. Probably it’s just that I’m getting old, or maybe it’s because I’m not studying it in the best way. (Returning to my Hebrew-learning experience, what my dad actually said to the aforementioned rabbi was “My son wants to learn Hebrew in the worst way.” The rabbi, not knowing that idiom said that he would be happy to oblige but that of course he would teach me in the best way.) We’ll see if things improve in a month. If they don’t, I still won’t know which of my two conjectures is correct. In the words of my former students who are better known as They Might Be Giants, “you’re older than you used to be…and now you’re older still…and now you’re older still…”

Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning