Thoughts on Made-Up Transliteration
How would you spell German numbers?
1 – Ayn
2 – Swayn
3 – Dry
4 – Fier
5 – Fünf
6 – Sex
7 – Zibın
8 – Ahkt
9 – Noyn
10 – Tin
Emrah, a Turkish guy who also speaks English, wrote this list with a pen on his arm as his German friends pronounced the words. Emrah didn’t bother to ask, “How do you write that?” He just wrote each word in a way that made sense to him, using Turkish and English phonetics. “Swayn” uses Turkish phonetics (“w” sounds like a mix of English “v” and “w”; “ay” sounds like “eye”). “Dry” and “Sex” use English phonetics. “Fünf” is actually how you write “5” in German; here Emrah got lucky because that makes sense in Turkish, which also has the vowel “ü”.
Speak now, write later
I liked watching Emrah write down German in his own way, because I could see his priorities in action. He lives in a climbing campground full of Germans, so he wants the numbers to use in speech, not writing. If he is a visual learner, then he will remember the pronunciation better it is written in a way that makes instant sense to him. Later in the evening, Emrah added the German spellings, but I suspect the Turkish/English transliteration will help him more.
The importance of evolution
Of course, there are hazards in making up your own transliteration system. The main one is failing to catch some sounds in the new language, because you just don’t have a way to write them down. As long as you are open to evolution, however, you will self-correct. When I was learning Arabic, for example, I made up my own transliteration system (my reading and writing in Arabic is sloooow) and began writing “h” for two different sounds in Arabic. I just couldn’t hear the difference. Eventually, though, my ear got better, and so did my transliteration system. I began writing “H” for one sound and “h” for the other.
Advice for learners and teachers
In short, make up your own transliteration system! Especially if you want to understand and speak before moving on to other skills. Just be sure to keep listening and adjusting your system.
As for teachers in the classroom, look for the systems that your students create independently. They might do it secretly, but you can encourage them to explain their systems and show their peers. I remember two Iraqi sisters who wrote new English vocabulary in Arabic script; this amazed the other students and led to a rich discussion of different writing systems around the world.