How to learn another alphabet

by Sara Clarke

Communist graffiti in Kolkata, India. Photo by Sara Clarke.

People say I’m good with languages. On a family trip to Italy when I was in college, I somehow became the de facto group translator even though I do not speak Italian. I was vice-president of the Spanish club in high school despite a total lack of passion for the language of burritos. I have this uncanny ability to say two or three words just well enough to be mistaken for fluent in any language. Me and talking just click, I guess.

I'm so gifted with languages that I managed to decipher this sign after spending all night on an Indian train. Photo by Sara Clarke.

Similarly, I’ve always been big into the written word. I taught myself to read by the time I was four. I have amazing handwriting. The books in my apartment multiply like roaches. I spend an inordinate amount of time working on this here blog.

And yet.

I have never been able to learn to read any alphabet other than the Latin one. I sort get how Greek is supposed to work, and I can grok Cyrillic if it’s a word I already know, like Starbucks or Moscow. That’s the limit of my ability to comprehend other writing systems. This is really embarrassing. In fact, I consider it one of my great failings as a human being. There are people in India who use 4 or 5 different writing systems on a daily basis, and yet here I am with my puny repertoire of one.

The work of a genius, I tell you. Photo/illustration by Ryan Estrada.

Because of this, I’m wildly impressed with the work of illustrator Ryan Estrada. Estrada managed to explain the Korean alphabet in the form of a web comic. An entire writing system in eight panels. And one of those panels is just a big header that says LEARN TO READ KOREAN IN FIFTEEN MINUTES. This guy. I just don’t even. I think I want to marry this dude.

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