Why Don’t I Just Learn the Script?

I’m feeling a little inspired by a recent post on learning a new alphabet. This is a blog about learning Korean, but when you’re self-studying a difficult language, you gotta take what you can get. I think of it as “interdisciplinary learning.” And Korean is one of those languages I’d love to learn when I have the time–not because of “Squid Game,” but because of my favorite drama “Who Are You?” A female detective, a ghost lover, and an array of cold case mysteries–what more could you want in a drama? 

Although Urdu (which uses the Arabic script) seems a far cry from Korean, they have one major similarity–it’s a completely different alphabet from English. 

Now, I have actually made a foray into studying the script before (even though CWM might not believe me). A few years ago, I had a very long commute to work. I took the train to the subway to the mean city streets to get to my office. This gave me an opportunity to do something other than listen to music (this was before I got hooked on podcasts). So I took my little “Read and Write Urdu Script” book and studied it for at least an hour every day, sometimes two. Occasionally, I tried to do the writing exercises.

But trying to soak up information while being jostled on a crowded commuter train is much different than sitting in a classroom. It was a little maddening to try to slowly sound out groups of letters, feeling like a toddler. And, as a grown-up, you don’t get the same doting patience when you’re trying to sound out words on a menu at a Pakistani restaurant, for instance. Sometimes it’s so much easier to just rely on other people to translate…or, in fact, read the transliteration.

After my commute changed, these letters were quickly forgotten. And although I can still identify alif, kaf, and gaf, my eyes glaze over when I see lots of words.

Here are some special challenges with the Arabic script (and Urdu in particular):

  1. This script has something against vowels. Except for “alif” (A), you pretty much have to know what the word is in order to read it. There are 3 main vowel indicators–zabar, zer, and pesh–but unless you’re looking at a dictionary or the Qu’ran you’re not going to see these. That poses a difficulty for non-classroom learners. Should you learn to speak it or read it first? 
  1. There are 35 letters (in the Urdu alphabet, at least), compared to the 26 in the English (Roman) alphabet.
  1. If you think you’re just learning 35 letters, think again! Most letters have a final, medial, initial, and independent form. The independent and final forms usually look the same. But that leaves you with over 100 different permutations! 
  1. Everything is written right to left (which is easy enough to get used to).
  1. Urdu has a special writing style called nasta’liq. As with all calligraphy styles, it’s beautiful yet deadly. As you’re trying to track down the medial forms, the letters all seem to walk up the stairs and disappear into the mist. Before identifying the letter, you’ll have to find it first! (To all the publishers of Urdu textbooks–please make the font bigger!!)

But there are 2 huge benefits to putting in the time and effort:

  1. According to Wikipedia, the Arabic script is used for Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Uyghur, Kurdish, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balti, Balochi, Pashto, Kashmiri, Rohingya, Somali, and others. So if you’re interested in learning some of these later on, you’ve done the hard part already.
  1. Without knowing the script, you lose out on a lot of resources for self-study. I just found a new one, brought to you by the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (no transliteration there, surprise surprise). You can’t read books in your target language, or even news articles. And did you know that if you click on the news in different languages, it features different articles? I want to see those! There is such a thing as a “script ceiling.”

A lot of textbooks (and classes) start out with a Sound & Script section. If you’re in the military, this is apparently referred to as “scream and scribble”–which sounds very “on brand.” But even in a super accelerated program like the Defense Language Institute (DLI), learning the basics of the script takes up to a month. And when you’re eager to start learning conversations, that’s a loooooong time at the starting gate.

Well, back to the alphabet for me. I’ll be watching the children’s version. Too bad they don’t include all the forms. I guess you’d need a much longer song for that…

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