Writing Systems and Inclusivity

Published on by David VanDusen.

When I realized I could look at writing in a non-Latin script and make sense of it, it felt like a breakthrough. I could actually see it as text, not just texture on a page.

A short while before my first trip to Japan, I built a little flash card app to help me learn katakana—the script used in Japan for loan words, among other things. My hope was, even if I couldn’t read most text (which would be written in other writing systems: hiragana and kanji,) I would be able to read some restaurant menus and signage. I didn’t realize how much impact it would have on the way I see the world in general.

I’m a monolingual English speaker. My grade school curriculum included French language classes, but the language didn’t stick because there were few opportunities to practice it on the west coast of Canada. (The majority of French speakers in Canada are in Quebec, on the east coast, thousands of kilometers away.)

I never had to engage with a writing system beyond the roman characters that can be input directly with the keys on a qwerty keyboard. I knew awkward ways to put accents on letters in the rare cases when I needed them.* But, even though I would see writing in other scripts thanks to the Chinese and Punjabi communities where I lived, I didn’t have anything compelling me to learn how to interpret them.

Screen shot of the Character Map program in Windows 95
*I spent a good amount of time in the Character Map in Windows as a young’un.

When I started to use katakana, I felt many of my assumptions about learning languages being challenged. Foremost was my belief that it would be difficult to learn a completely new writing system having lived in a Latin-centric world my whole life. Beyond that, I believed that the value of understanding a writing system would be minimal compared to learning to speak the language—a tradeoff due to the amount of investment required.

Knowing now how easy it is when given the right constraints (for example, just learning the English names of letters in another alphabet,) and how valuable the insights it provides are, I’ve decided to learn more of the world’s writing systems. It feels like a great investment given the benefits I’ve gained from learning just one new script.

One benefit that stands out is how much easier it has been listening to native Japanese speakers speaking English. The way my app works, you learn to recognize aurally and recite the characters in the writing system as well as recognize them visually and memorize their English names, accomplished using the Web Speech API. I think this tuned my ear to the sounds used in the language, which also made learning about the culture behind the writing system more accessible. This led to an improvement in my ability to put myself in the shoes of people who have roots in a different culture from my own.

As a software developer, I now have a better understanding of how users switch between input methods for different writing systems, and I am able to ensure that the interfaces I create are supportive to that use case.

If you’re interested in trying your hand at learning another alphabet, have a look through the supported scripts on the Phonograph app. I’ll be adding new ones regularly as I expand my own repertoire. 🔤