Tips for Reading Foreign Languages: Finding the Familiar in Russian and Greek



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Learning a new language can be daunting enough, but what happens when the language operates in a completely different writing system? It can be a frustrating experience trying to teach yourself to read in another language, but if you use some of these tips below, you’ll be on your way in no time.

1. Find the Familiar

Finding familiarity in the foreign is key. It can either be something you recognize from your own language, or the one thing that you’ve already learned in your new language and are already able to recall. Relying on these senses will give the rest of the content valuable context that will help improve your reading skills.

First, we’ll look at how to find the familiar in Russian and Greek, two writing systems that don’t stray too far from our own. (Down the road we’ll share tips for reading in other languages: Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Arabic, and Farsi.)

Russian

The Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet may seem completely foreign at first, but when you look closely, you start to see a lot of familiar letters. For example,

Russian а е к м о т
English a e k m o t

Easy, right? Makes words like мама (mom) a piece of cake to recognize. Additionally, while it may take a bit of study to learn their meaning, you can easily read and pronounce Russian words such as как (how) or то/тот (that). The following Cyrillic letters are similar to their English counterparts, though not exactly the same:

Russian б д л
English b d l

Which gives you pretty good recognition for words such as балет (balet: ballet). Then there are letters that look like English letters, but are completely different in Russian:

Russian в ё н р с у х ы ъ ь
English v yo n r s oo kh y hard sign soft sign

And finally, there are the letters that are completely foreign looking to English speakers:

Russian г ж з и й п ф ц ч ш щ э ю я
English g zh z ee y p f ts ch sh shch eh yu ya

For these last two groups, start to look for words in the language that are familiar, and contain familiar letters, but that might contain the unfamiliar too: Москва (Moskva: Moscow), робот (robot: robot), макароны (makaroni: macaroni), and грамматика (grammatika: grammar).

Greek

The Cyrillic alphabet was based on the Greek alphabet, so there are a lot of similarities. Let’s look at the letters in Greek that are identical to their English equivalents:

Greek Α α Ε ε Ι ι Κ κ Ο ο Τ τ Χ χ
English a e i k o t x

Some letters in Greek are recognizable as uppercase letters, if not as much in their lowercase forms:

Greek Ζ ζ Μ μ Ν ν Υ υ
English z m n y

Again, the Greek word for “mom” is easy in all caps (ΜΑΜΑ), if only slightly familiar in lowercase: μαμά (just think of those as really squashed or melting Ms).

In Greek, the following letters are similar, though not exactly the same:

Greek Δ δ Λ λ Π π
English d l p

There are just a few letters in Greek that look like English letters, but sound completely different:

Greek Β β Ρ ρ
English v r

When learning the rest of the Greek alphabet, the letters might not be as recognizable unless you were ever a member of a fraternity or sorority:

Greek Γ γ Η η Θ θ Ξ ξ Σ σ/ς Φ φ Ψ ψ Ω ω
English g/y/ng i th ks s f ps o

Once, again, with these last two groups, it’s good to look for cognates, or words that are already familiar in English. It’s especially helpful to look for English words of Greek origin: μανία (mania: madness, passion), κόσμος (kosmos: order, the universe), ἱστορία (historia: history), διαβητικός (diavitikos: diabetic).

2. Sound it out.

It may seem silly to read texts out loud to yourself, but it is an important part of learning how to read another language, especially those with alphabet systems. Simply by reading Russian and Greek out loud, it will help retain the letters as sounds in your brain.

3. Aim low.

The easiest books to start reading? Children’s books. This comes with a bit of a warning though: children’s books can contain a lot of nonsense words, so you may encounter unfamiliar words that would even be unfamiliar to adult native speakers of that language. That said, the language in children’s books is usually basic and repetitive enough that you should be able to quickly grasp the concept.

4. Read texts you already know.

Also, it can be easier to follow names, plot points, and turns of phrase if you read a translation of a book you’ve already read, such as the Harry Potter books (or, to use a Russian example, Anna Karenina, which you may have already read in English translation). Some publishers even publish side-by-side translations so that you can see the foreign language and the English at the same time.

If you’re interested in learning more of the languages we talked about above so you can read the books, newspapers, websites, and magazines of another culture, start here for Russian, and here for Greek!