Accomplishing Fluency with Non-Latin Script Languages through Romanisation

Non-Latin script languages such as Japanese, Chinese and Russian can be daunting. Not only are you faced with learning complicated grammar and immense vocabulary, with non-Latin script languages you have the added task of processing completely different alphabets. Having a different alphabet doesn’t necessarily mean that a language is more difficult than languages such as French or Tagalog; it does present another obstacle in language learning. Then again, for some that might be the attractive aspect. Part of the allure of the Ancient Egyptian language in its hieroglyph form, for an example, is deciphering its messages – the meaning behind the pictures. If you have photographic memory and you’re a native speaker of English, are you going to remember the transliterated version more because you understand it better? Maybe. You will also remember the non-Latin symbols, however, it will take time for you to deconstruct the sounds and meanings produced. If you’re a problem-solver you’re going to find ways to cut corners.

Romanisation should not be completely revered. It was undertaken by colonisers as a way of transmitting their deliberate messages – particularly of conversion – through native languages. An example of this was initial romanisation schemes of Chinese by Protestant missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries to translate the Bible[1]. The same can be said of the Konkani-speaking region of India, where Portuguese colonisers banned the Devanagari alphabet from being used: ‘Being torn away from Devanagari script and with no other alternative but to keep Konkani alive only through Roman script, many Goans took to writing Konkani in the Roman script’[2]. By eliminating, or trying to eliminate the script, colonisers were doing away with cultural and ethnic identity. Not only this but any allegiance which didn’t belong to their colonising sovereigns. This idea of cultural identity is echoed by Martin D. Joachim: ‘Systematic romanisation of languages written in the Arabic alphabet – and in the Hebrew alphabet, Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan glyphs, etc. – means forcing something into a mould that was not designed to fit it.’[3] Pictorial alphabets lose their essence when they are reduced to Latin letters.

Nevertheless, individual application of romanisation for initial language learning doesn’t carry the same implications. Individual language learners are not trying to dominate, or trigger the extinction of the language, but just find accessing them through what they know to be an easier route. Unless you have secret designs for world domination(!) When faced with an alien script, you are going to take longer to understand what it is you’re reading. Romanisation is relied on by holiday-goers looking for a crash course to survive in their destination, but has romanised script been used to achieve fluency?

Case 1Russian

Здравствуйте. (If you don’t already know Russian) Exactly. What? Where do you begin breaking down this cluster of letters? It would take minutes to rove your eyes over it slowly until you can build some sort of pronunciation. It means: “hello/greetings”.

Zdravstvujte. This is the transliterated form. Now, as a native English speaker, this is much less scary. Pronunciation will have to be worked on to get it sounding exactly right, but this guide can help that. I can read Cyrillic, but when I was initially coming to grips with Russian transliteration helped.

Case 2Japanese

初めまして. Nope, me neither. Might be because I’ve never been able to successfully learn the Japanese scripts. Even if I were to learn, and I was still memorising the alphabet, I would be frustrated that I’m not learning phrases quickly enough. It translates as “pleased to meet you”.

Hajimemashite. By reading this as a 14-year-old, I memorised the transliteration and convinced myself I was one step closer to being fluent in Japanese. Of course, it doesn’t quite work like that, just don’t tell an idealistic teenage polyglot. Let them find out the hard way. Again, a pronunciation guide is needed otherwise you will have no idea if you’re saying it correctly.

Case 3Hindi

Hindi for me is slightly easier having been subjected to Indian cinema growing up. Nevertheless, the script is different from the Gurmukhi script of my native tongue Punjabi.

आप कैसे हैं?  āp kaise haiṅ? Is asking: how are you? (form). If I need to recall a sentence of conversational Hindi, I just need to picture that in my head and I can say it.

Does this mean students should be lazy and only learn the romanised form? No, because the path to true fluency means being able to speak, read, write and listen. If you can’t read the script, then you won’t be able to soak up newspapers and literature. What can speed up fluency is by working on the transliterated version first, and then when you’re confident, mastering reading. I have learned the syntax of South Asian languages a lot easier – and remembered them when I go to bed – when I’ve focused on the transliteration of the sentences. However, every student is unique, and some may find that they learn languages quicker by listening to speech, and others feel like just sitting down to write in the script creates a flow for absorption. Romanisation is just one of many ways to achieve faster language acquisition, as long as complacency doesn’t set in.


[1] Language Planning and Language Policy: East Asian Perspectives eds. by Ping Chen and Nanette Gottlieb (Richmond: Curzon, 2001), p. 84.

[2] Manohararāya Saradesāya, A History of Konkani Literature: From 1500 to 1992 (Pune: Sahitya Akademi, 2000), p. 109.

[3] Languages of the World: Cataloguing Issues and Problems ed. by Martin D. Joachim (New York: The Haworth Press, 1993), p. 138.