Learning a Language with a Foreign Writing System? 5 Benefits of Learning to Type Early

The ability to type using a computer keyboard has become one of the indispensable skills of the 21st century.

Whether you are typing out an email on your laptop or tapping out a text on your phone, it is knowledge of your native language’s keyboard layout that allows that to happen.

Despite the fact that communication via typed messages is so commonplace, many language learners will postpone any thought of learning to type until they’ve developed basic reading and speaking skills. Once those skills are in place, common sense suggests that the ability to type will be acquired more quickly.

Though that may be true, my recent experiments in learning to type in Korean—months before I even bothered to deliberately learn the meaning of a single word in the language—have shown me that there is considerable benefit to learning to type in a foreign script as early as possible in the learning process.

In this article, I will describe 5 benefits to learning to type in a foreign writing system as early as possible when learning a foreign language.

Note: By foreign writing system, I mean a script that does not use a Latin-based alphabet (i.e. the ones used by English, Spanish, German, etc.). Most languages with Latin-based alphabets use an approximation of the standard QWERTY keyboard layout, or a common variation thereof (i.e. AZERTY, QWERTZ, etc.). While learning to type in these languages is still an immensely valuable undertaking, it will not necessarily provide you with all of the benefits described below.

With that out of the way, let’s first take a look at how to learn to type.

How to Learn to Type in a Foreign Language

I must begin by saying that if you’re learning a language with a non-Latin script, and wish to type in that language, I recommend you learn to type by using an online or software-based typing tutor.

A typing tutor is a program that teaches you to type on a particular keyboard layout through either a series of practice lessons or a game-like typing challenge.

Hangul Attack, a free-to-download typing tutor for Korean. To find out more, visit www.gobillykorean.com

There are many such typing tutors available to use free online in your web browser, or available for download onto PC or Mac. Simply input the name of your target language and “typing tutor” into your preferred search engine, and visit the top results. Once you’ve found an appropriate website or program, all you have to do is change your keyboard layout to your target language, and then start practicing with the typing tutor.

Once you’ve gained some familiarity with your target language keyboard layout, I also recommend that you test your skills using online typing tests. While these tests will not necessarily teach you to type outright, they will help you increase your typing speed. I’ve included links to both typing tutors and typing tests in the Additional Resources section of this post.

Got all that? Now it’s time to look at the five benefits of learning to type early on!

1. Increase Your Reading Speed

The first key benefit of learning to type early is that it will immediately boost your reading speed.

This is because most typing tutors teach you to type by showing you a series of letters or words, and then asking you to type that same series of letters or words for yourself.

Simply put, you cannot retype what you cannot read, so any success with a typing tutor will require you to develop reading and typing skills simultaneously. As your skills grow, you will become better and better at recognizing symbols, words, and phrases on sight, and then reproducing those symbols via your fingers on the keyboard keys.

2. Develop Proper Spelling Skills

The second key benefit of learning to type in a foreign script early on in the learning process is that it will force you to develop proper and accurate spelling skills in your target language script.

Just as we determined earlier that you cannot accurately retype what you cannot read, you cannot accurately type a word that you do not know how to spell.

As your typing tutor begins training you to type and retype actual words and phrases, you will have to quickly familiarize yourself with the proper sequence of letters and symbols that comprise those same words and phrases. If you mistype a word, or press the wrong key while typing, most typing tutors will immediately halt your progress, and highlight the mistyped letter or word in red. In most cases, you will only be allowed to proceed once you have eliminated the mistyped symbol (via the backspace or delete key) and then typed the correct symbol in its place.

3. Reduce Reliance on Romanization

The third key benefit of learning to type in a foreign script early on, is that typing will force you to familiarize yourself quickly with the foreign script, and reduce your reliance on romanization.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, romanization is the term for using the Latin alphabet to represent a language in writing, particularly a language that does not use a Latin-based script. Romanization is generally used as a tool to help learners begin reading and pronouncing a language before they are familiar with the native script.

Many language learners, intimidated by the unfamiliar and challenging scripts of languages like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Korean, and more, will become too dependent on romanization as a means to read and write, and so will never advance to reading and writing solely in the native script of those languages.

Example of a one-minute typing speed test in Traditional Chinese, at https://10fastfingers.com

Learning to type directly in the foreign script will largely help you avoid this problem, as it will encourage you to begin recognizing and reproducing the symbols of the foreign script from the beginner stages, without the “crutch” offered by romanization.

This particular benefit is a feature of languages that have a set of symbols that is small enough to fit on the three central rows of a standard computer keyboard (usually alphabets, syllabaries, abugidas, or abjads). In these cases, one key on the keyboard will directly represent one symbol in the target language script.

For other languages, like Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese (one logophonetic script) or Japanese (two syllabaries and a logophonetic script), romanization is an actual, necessary aspect of typing, and is used by both natives and learners as a tool for inputting the language on a computer keyboard before it is then converted to native symbols on the computer screen.

For Chinese languages (i.e. Mandarin or Cantonese, among others) this is usually accomplished by typing in Pinyin romanization and then converting to native Hànzì. For Japanese, this is most often accomplished by typing phonetically using a variation of the QWERTY keyboard, and then converting the text on-screen to hiragana, katakana, or Hanja characters.

4. Send Texts, Emails, and Online Messages Quickly & Easily

The fourth key benefit of learning to type in a foreign script as a beginner is the ability to send text-based messages quickly and easily, with minimal stress or frustration.

The majority of language learning tools nowadays are only accessible through a computer or smartphone, and are either partially or completely online.

This is true for popular learning resources like:

  • Language learning courses and platforms with an interactive, community component (i.e. LinguaCore)
  • Voice- or text-based language tutoring or exchange (i.e. italki)
  • Language learning forums or Q+A resources (Facebook groups, language forums on Reddit (subreddits)
  • Online dictionaries

If you want to use these resources to communicate with others, ask questions, look up information, and get feedback about your target language, it’s in your best interest to be able to type words in your native script.

Furthermore, in tutoring and exchange situations—where you’re essentially sharing your learning time with other people,—you don’t want to risk wasting your partner or tutor’s time by having to hunt and peck for every symbol on the keyboard when you want to ask a question or seek clarification. Gaining typing skills early on ensures that you’ll be able to communicate quickly when you need to, with minimal stress or loss of time.

5. Access Learner Materials that Require the Native Script

The fifth and final benefit of developing typing skills early on in language learning is that it will allow you to access resources that only allow input in the native script.

While the exact nature of these resources will vary from language to language, there will always be the occasional resource that doesn’t allow you to write in romanization.

From my own experiences in learning Korean, for example, I know that many of the best Memrise decks for the language only accept Hangul (Korean script) input. If I had not invested the time and learned to type before I wanted to use those decks, they would be completely inaccessible to me. Moreover, a lot of these same decks require not only that I type completely in Korean, but that I do so quickly, as the majority of learning and review activities have a set time limit of 15-30 seconds.

Conclusion

Learning to type in your target language will, quite simply, never be a waste of your time. Once you’ve acquired the skill, it will be ingrained into your muscle memory, and depreciate little with time, if at all. Because of this, so long as you keep studying the language, you’ll always be ready to communicate in print or text at a moment’s notice.

The only question in the learner’s mind, then, should be not if to learn to type, but when to learn to type. And as you’ve seen here, I highly recommend learning to type in your target language’s writing system as early as possible—even before you officially begin studying.

This will unlock a number of benefits which will become immediately useful when your language learning is underway, including faster reading speeds, better spelling skills, decreased reliance on romanization, faster text-based communication, and access to resources that exclusively use the native script.

So, if you’re learning a language with a non-Latin script, please spend the hours necessary to gain familiarity and comfort with the keyboard of that language. The sooner you put the work in, the faster you will be able to learn and communicate in your target language when the time comes!

Additional Resources

How to Change Your Keyboard Layout

Typing Tutors in 25 Languages (& Dialects)

Typing Speed Tests in 54 Languages