Opinions on East Asian Writing Systems and the Benefits to Learning One

Language learning is one of the most rewarding activities out there, with many fascinating aspects to it. Whether you are drawn in by ... the intricate grammar differences, the ability to communicate with people all over the world, or the connections between language and culture, there is something for everyone in the vast world of languages. For me, that something is the various beautiful writing systems and scripts that make up the languages around us. I love language learning, and my favorite part of the process is learning to decode the writing system one is written in. I have especially focused on East Asian scripts, from the practical Hangeul script of Korea, to thousands of Chinese characters, to the three daunting “alphabets” of the Japanese language.

Arguably one of the easiest scripts to start reading is the Korean Hangeul script. It is a very logical script, created by King Sejong around 1443. 24 symbols representing consonants and vowels are used to construct individual syllables in a box-like shape. For example, hangeul is written like this, 한 (han) 글(geul). Taking a close look at한 (han), you can see that it is made up of three smaller symbols, ㅎ(h), ㅏ(a), and ㄴ (n). The first time I learned this information, I was enraptured by the simplistic structure and idea that I could also learn to decipher and sound out previously unknown words. I was able to slowly read hangeul after reviewing the “letters” for 30 minutes and can read and write out words without much thought today. I speak next to no Korean, but I still hold pride in the fact that I can pronounce the once elusive words on the Korean menu when my dad orders kimbap from the restaurant downtown.

Unlike the seemingly simple Korean script, the tens of thousands of unique Chinese characters (hanzi) that make up languages like Mandarin, Hakka and Cantonese seem to be unfathomably difficult to most people. (And that’s not including the difference between simplified and traditional characters. Look how different the characters for noodle seem! 麵is traditional and 面 is simplified.) However, I disagree. While still very complex and near impossible to master, one can get by with the knowledge of only a few thousand hanzi, and there are often clues in every character. Characters are made up of radicals, 犭meaning dog, and 良meaning respectable. Putting these together forms 狼, meaning wolf, and what is a wolf if not a respectable dog? The pronunciations of radicals can also contribute to the pronunciations of hanzi. 良 sounds like liáng, similar to 狼, which sounds like láng. Recognizing even just a few hanzi can also help you make multiple words. For example, 狼人 is werewolf, or literally “wolf person”. Clues such as these help demystify the Chinese script, and make hanzi much easier to learn than an outsider might think.

Compared to hanzi, Hangeul seems pretty simple to learn, but to me, neither of these compare to Japanese and its three scripts. Made of hiragana, katakana, and the dreaded kanji, Japanese is maybe the most arduous language to master. There are 46 “letters” in both the hiragana and katakana scripts. Hiragana is recognizable for its loopier style (ひらがな) and katakana is sharper and more geometric (カタカナ). I can read and write hiragana pretty fluently now, but the similarities between characters such as さ、ち、ら and る、ろ can be a bit challenging. Personally, katakana was much more difficult, and I still can’t recall all of the characters today, despite trying to learn Japanese on and off for a year. シ、ツ、ソ、ン look basically the same to me. Hiragana is used for native words, whereas katakana is used for loan words and scientific names. 92 symbols is a lot to memorize, but still doable. The main issue for most people is kanji. Kanji has all the issues that hanzi has, but somehow makes it even more difficult. Every hanzi has one syllable that is used every time you come across the character. However, kanji have multiple possible pronunciations (onyomi and kunyomi), and the best way to know which to use is to memorize the word on its own. No more putting together 2 characters and learning a word! 来 could be pronounced “rai”, “ku”, or “kita”, and you have to memorize every word individually to know which pronunciation to use. The way Japanese uses scripts is unique, and extremely fascinating, but it is a daunting language to learn, and new learners should be aware of the dedication it takes to learn even basic Japanese.

Every language and writing system has its charms, and I’ve only focused on a small sample of what this subject has to offer. Even if you don’t want to fully learn how to speak a language, understanding different scripts can give a tremendous sense of pride and help you decipher the world around you. Whether you want to start with the logical Korean script, jump right into the world of hanzi, or bury yourself in the complexities of Japanese, learning to read another writing system is an enriching pastime for anyone.

Live, Laugh, Language

Even the most hopeful optimist couldn’t deny the concerning state of the world today. From seemingly endless war and ... the looming threat of climate change to new life-changing technologies and old divisive prejudice, the list of reasons to be angry and afraid appears never-ending. It is no wonder mental health issues are so prevalent today, and for many young people, the future is an uneasy prospect. But this means that it is more important than ever to enjoy the present and cherish every mundane experience- not to forget our troubles, but to give us strength to face them.

When my uncle finally got married, he and my now-aunt decided to invest in an extravagant destination wedding in Costa Rica. This was the most amazing experience of my life, and I will never take it for granted. But the most significant event was not the wedding reception or whale watching, it was sharing a coconut on a small beach with a total stranger. Like any good beach movie, one common treat sold on the beaches was fresh coconuts, with a small hole for a straw so consumers could enjoy the refreshing juice. Of course, coconut shells are extremely hardy, so I could not crack one in half to get at the meat, but determined not to waste any fruit, I sat struggling to scrape small strips of coconut from the inner walls with my straw. I was startled from my efforts when a motherly woman who I had never seen before asked me something in Spanish. With my amateur attempts at the language and her patience, I found out that she had a machete to crack open the coconuts with, and a metal spoon as well. I was already shocked by her kindness, but as we continued to speak, she revealed her pets, 2 small colorful birds on her hand. She let me pet and hold them, along with her little dog, as we laughed about our badly translated jokes and complements. She asked for nothing, but my family ended up sharing some beer with her and her husband, as their kids and my brother ran on the beach.

Moments like these are what fuel my passion for language, art, and learning more about the world around me. Language helps connect people to each other, and just by learning a few words or a different writing system, a whole new world of opportunity and culture is opened. When someone takes the time to learn another’s language, political and cultural barriers are broken by the realization that we are all the same. Art is also a universal characteristic, and another form of connection that all of humanity can experience together. When I create my art, I strive to capture these small, everyday moments of life and love, to remind viewers to value their human experiences, even in a hectic world full of conflict. I want to dedicate my life to these moments, where we share language, food, art, and culture. I want to be that woman who reached out through language and compassion to split a coconut. I want to be like my father, who becomes fast friends with any Spanish speaker around him and introduced me to Korean and Vietnamese food when I was barely walking. But most importantly, I want to emphasize the beauty in every single human and the hope for our world, because despite the exhaustion, we must not stop caring, learning, or fighting.


When I found out the truth about my cousin’s death, my world changed. It changed ...the way I thought about my family, took away a sense of innocence, and helped me understand my family’s past. I was looking up random members of my family with a friend, looking for obituaries or other information, when I got the idea to search for my cousin, who I believed had passed away from a heart condition. I couldn’t have expected to learn that she had died of a heroin overdose. I couldn’t have prepared myself for the list of articles detailing the events leading up to and after Mellie’s death. I couldn’t have expected the photos of my family members grieving the loss of their baby. How do you grieve for someone you’ve never known? My cousin Mellie Carballo will never be 19. And I will never get to meet her

Of course, everyone has sad stories about a lost family member, or one they never got to know. Life is messy and families are large and spread out. Technically we are all related, but even on a smaller level, there are dozens of family members I will never know. She passed away months before I was ever born, so why was I so affected? Mellie was just like me. A young, rebellious, girl, interested in punk and club subculture. She was intelligent and witty, and always did what she wanted. She once dyed her hair blue just to protest against a rule at her high school. But by 18, she had matured, and was ready to attend college and find her own freedom. She loved fashion, partying, and her family. My family. The tabloids don’t mention this. They speculate that she was just some clubgoer, too foolish to go far. They blamed her for the overdose of her friend, who died the same night. But she was more. She was a little girl. She was my cousin. And everyday I try to keep her memory alive.

The Value of Language Learning

What if there was a way to increase social and intellectual understanding? To better connect with ...everyone around you? This amazing way exists, but the US ignores it. The importance of linguistics in understanding the world around us cannot be understated, and more value should be placed on this topic.

It is true that in SOME high schools around America, there are classes for foreign languages. In this very school, we have multiple classes for German, French, and Spanish. But if you take these classes for years, you may notice that fluency still feels miles away. Of course, much of this is due to the arduous nature of language learning and the lack of rigorous practice and immersion in these classes. But another factor that makes fluency appear so unattainable today is the delay in when we offer these languages.

In this district, the middle school offers some basic courses where you learn some important words and grammar. However, a Harvard and MIT study shows that language acquisition is most effective before the age of 10. There are many reasons for this; the brain changes with age, work and school take up more time, and one’s mother language becomes more and more engrained. When children are younger, it is much easier for them to take in and adopt new grammatical patterns and speech. They also lack much of the anxiety around failure, leading to more participation and earnest attempts to speak. By investing in early language education, we can help develop children’s linguistic and intercultural awareness, promote confident participation, and introduce a stronger foundation for future studies.

This idea is not a radical one either. The Pew Research Center found that schools in Europe place far more emphasis on foreign languages than America. European students start learning another language from ages 6-9 and are even required to take a SECOND language class in 20 countries. A median of 92% of students in Europe are learning a foreign language, compared to the 20% in America.

Of course, Europe is a continent made up of many small countries and many different languages all constantly interacting with each other, and America is a huge country, where English is the primary language spoken and taught. It’s understandable that those living in English speaking countries are less motivated to learn a language. However, this shouldn’t mean that we dismiss the value of linguistic knowledge. We are a country of immigrants from all around the world, and the 2019 census shows nearly 1 in 5 people speak a LOTE at home. Even in my own life, anywhere with a decent amount of people, I always hear Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, and Korean. By prioritizing English, we exchange tolerance for ignorance. Living in a country where nobody else but your own group speaks your native language is isolating and frustrating. Even if it is just a few sentences, people will appreciate your effort and be happy to share their personal pride with that language and culture. But immigrants who learn English are rarely given such accolade. Often, they are mocked for their accent or grammar difficulties. But learning a language is an incredibly humbling experience, and ignorant remarks like that will be much less normalized.

The past few years have shown how racism, xenophobia, and ignorance affects every part of our country. But by learning about different cultures and languages, we can break down this barrier. The Australian Broadcasting Channel discusses how language learning can combat racist mindsets. The subject requires learners to immerse themselves in a different perspective and invites people to understand the cultural “others”. When you spend effort in learning the nuances and characteristics of another language, it is almost impossible to not grow an appreciation for that culture. Of course, racism won’t be eradicated if we all took a linguistics course, but it’s much harder to dehumanize those you understand.

But why learn a language when we have new technology such as Google Translate and AI interpretation? Learning a language seems useless when instant translation is just a few clicks away. But as of now, this artificial translation is no replacement for educated human translators and interpreters. Pew Research Center concluded that its usefulness was limited to specific languages and situations. This quick tool is good enough for most small interactions, or figuring out a few words, but when it comes to more serious issues, accurate communication is vital. Oftentimes, machine translation will directly translate word for word, resulting in stilted speech and lost context. Mistranslations can range from mildly offensive to downright dangerous. For example, in the medical industry, faulty translation leads patients to misunderstand their diagnosis, follow the wrong dosage instructions, and misunderstand informed consent papers for surgery or early release. Only human translators who have studied the complexities of those languages can account for tone, context, and nuanced rhetoric.

There is one more reason that machine translation cannot replace human translation- it’s incredibly rewarding emotionally. I love being able to recognize the individual threads of the tapestry of conversation around me and appreciating the diversity of experiences around me. It’s impossible to convey how I feel when I can sound out the Cyrillic words of my favorite Ukrainian snacks, stagger through a conversation in broken Japanese, or celebrate Argentina’s victory in the WC with total strangers. That spark of recognition, and the pure human nature of these connections, is what I base my life around. I want more people to understand that feeling.