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Languages: Symbols vs. Letters

Tatiana Cober, Millennials Staff Writer

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Languages have evolved in a variety of ways. Of course many sound different or look different. For example, many Asian countries use languages that have characters rather than letters like the English alphabet. Without taking dialects into play, several people, ranging from students to adults were asked about the differences. All interviewees had English as their first or second language. The main goal of these questions: figure out whether native English speakers find learning languages with symbols hard to learn and why they find it so different than their own language.

Each person was asked a series of six questions. The questions asked whether they have any experience with languages other than English, what those languages were, and what they thought about languages that contained symbols instead of letters. Out of the 9 interviewees, 5 responded that they aren’t currently learning a language that contains symbols. At the same time, 6 responded that they would be open to learning a language with “difficult” symbols.

Next, they were presented with two samples of different languages, Swedish and Korean, and asked which they would be more comfortable reading. 8 reported they would be more comfortable reading Swedish, while only one responded with no preference. Some of them explained why, many following the same pattern: the letters look more similar to English when in Swedish. There’s also the fact that the language looks totally different and it’s harder to know what it would sound like, even if you learn another language in the general region.

“Swedish because it feels like I can pronounce the letters versus Korean which I don’t know how to pronounce anything.” -Amelia Luna, SMA Freshman

As for where they would see these other languages, only 3 said they had friends who could speak other languages, but they don’t speak the language around them. Family members have a role in this as well, as exposure can come from someone’s culture. Another factor in exposure to languages with symbols are art pieces and the internet. Pictures spread much faster, and a fashion trend in the US is wearing clothing with words in other languages, like Japanese. In the same way, a trend in some Asian countries is having words in English or French on clothing. 

“I really love looking at foreign language symbols, particularly in art, even though I don’t know what they mean.” -Serena Johnson, SMA Freshman

Many schools offer language classes, but they don’t always have languages such as Mandarin or Thai, the majority have Spanish or French. This, in turn has an effect on how much a student will want to learn a language. The amount of exposure one has with other languages plays a role in how open minded they are about learning these unique languages and reasons behind that decision.

I really would love to learn other languages besides English or French that is at our school.” – Maddie Ray, SMA Freshman

“I love learning new things, especially new languages because you’re not just learning the language of the place, but you’re also learning about the culture. Also English gets really boring after a while.” – Maddy Fleck-Hannan, SMA Freshman

Intimidation can also play a role in the scaring away of people wanting to learn, as at first glance these languages can seem completely alien! The addition of schoolwork and learning for a grade can seem intimidating, feeling forced to learn at a pace set by others can scare some off pretty easily. Depending on the language you’re learning, it might not be so bad. Overthinking seems to be the main problem.

“I’m sure the pronunciation is different and formation of words is different [in Swedish] but all the letters I already know. I can attempt how the phrase possibly sounds but when it comes to Korean it’s 100% alien.” – Jac, Freshman

In conclusion, learning a language with symbols that look different than English can be quite scary and intimidating to a native speaker, but as one gets involved, it might not be as hard as you think.

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Languages: Symbols vs. Letters