Latvian writing (spelling) rules are more straightforward than English spelling rules. In English, the consonant “c” can sound like an “s” or a “k”. In Latvian, there is no such ambiguity. The “s” sounds like “s”, the “k” sounds like “k”, and the “c” has its own sound — it’s neither “s” nor “k”. (I teach how to pronounce this sound in many free videos.)
Also, you’ll pronounce the combination of “oo” long in “loop” while it will sound short in “wood”. This is how Latvians reflect these two sounds in writing:
The letter “u” would be the Latvian transcription of the “oo” in the English word “wood”.
The letter “ū” (with that dash on the top) would be the Latvian transcription of the “oo” in the English word “loop”.
Thus, I’d say that Latvian writing (spelling) is not difficult. We, Latvians, don’t even call it spelling. We call it writing because we learn to write what we hear.
Why Does It Seem Difficult to English Speakers?
Let’s remember that Latvians in Latvia master writing during childhood. Just like it is with English, adults change their voices when they talk to children. They also talk more clearly and with more intonation. That’s how my Latvian language teacher spoke at elementary school. Hearing such clear language helps mastering writing.
For beginner adult learners a normal pace of native Latvian speakers is too fast. Problems start with not being able to distinguish separate sounds in a speech. It’s also a known fact that babies hear differently than adults. (Here’san interesting article about this topic.) What I’m saying is that you can’t write down what you don’t hear. You need to learn to hear more consciously when learning about sounds in another language.
What I’ve also noticed is that adult learners don’t give up the concepts of their first language willingly. They want to apply them in Latvian, yet it doesn’t work that way. You wouldn’t be able to apply Latvian language concepts in English either. I’ll explain this to you by using an example from the time I taught English in Latvia.
I usually worked with Latvians. Yet, once I had two very bright Russian students. They were twins – a brother and a sister. I didn’t have to explain grammar twice to them. Pronunciation of English vowels was what they often struggled with. I remember there was a text about ships in the sea. They pronounced the short vowel “i” in “ships” long. If you’d written down what they said, you’d have a text about sheep in the sea.
The same way you need to be careful about the pronunciation of Latvian vowels. If you are taking minutes about a wedding (kāzas), be sure to not forget that dash on the top of the first vowel. If you ignore it, you’ll end up with a text about goats (kazas).
Should You Start With Mastering Latvian Writing?
Mastering Latvian writing can be a good starting point for adult learners. It is even more true for those adult learners who don’t live in Latvian environment.
Children start by learning to repeat what they hear. Adult learners will definitely think through the filter of their first language. It’s unavoidable. Adults want to understand how their first language differs from the new language. At least I do.
Thus, I am not a great fan of the slogan “Learn like a child” when it comes to learning Latvian as a foreign language. I don’t teach to avoid the filter in your brain, but to make it work for you.
Explaining how you can teach yourselves is the core skill that I help with in all my courses. I explain mechanics. If you expect me to teach you like a child, I’m not a good teacher for you.
About My “Sounds & Writing” Course
In this course, I explain mechanics producing sounds and how they look when written down. Then, I ask you to do that – to write down. I also point to the differences between English and Latvian sounds. Most importantly, I start by speaking very slowly. I increase the speed very gradually.
I don’t focus on teaching words and phrases. Of course, there are Latvian words and sentences in the course, but I don’t expect you to memorize them. I have picked them because of what letters or letter combinations they comprise. They are not organized under certain topics, such as “Greetings” or “Travel”.
(To learn phrases, I encourage you to use free resources online. There are plenty such resources which is why I don’t focus on teaching them. I teach what I don’t see well explained elsewhere.)
In the “Sounds & Writing” Course, the majority of exercises are small dictations. An example of a task would be to distinguish whether I’m pronouncing an “u” as in “wood” or an “ū” as in “loop”.
There are also exercises where I ask to count how many times you hear a certain word in a language flow. In some exercises, I ask to arrange written sentences in the order they are pronounced. There is an exercise where I explain Latvianization of names. My students really like that one. To give you an idea, the Latvian word for New York is Ņujorka. That’s because we write names down as we hear them and then we add Latvian endings.
The “Sounds & Writing” Course is rather extensive. It has 3 parts and 36 practice exercises. The course is set up so that it is being dripped. What it means is that you’ll only get Part 1 immediately after the purchase. You’ll get Parts 2 and 3 a week after the previous one. That’s to protect hasty students from getting overwhelmed.
There are students who take it slowly, at their own pace and spend months on it. Here’s a fragment of what my student Esme Zarins wrote to me:
“I am doing the S & W course with my daughter to help start her off with Latvian and improve my residual knowledge from my childhood in London with my Latvian Mum & Dad.
We are still working on it and are not proposing to give up any time soon, I’m sure we’ll stick with it! I think it is excellent, and it is providing Ros and I some structure. It is taking us a long time to get through it as we both work full-time so we fit in a session at weekends whenever we can, but sometimes it doesn’t happen. We are looking for the chance to marathon it before much longer. I understand that pronunciation is the best place to start when learning a new language. […] Perhaps there is almost too much good stuff in it…”
The course “S&W – Easy” is a shortened version of the “Sounds & Writing” Course. I hand-picked 17 practice exercises for it from the full “S&W” course. If you choose my course “S&W – Easy”, you’ll get it all at once. There are only dictation exercises in this course though, but that might be all you need — depending on your goals. The exercise about Latvianization of names is not included in it.
Latvian writing (spelling) is not complicated if you learn to hear and distinguish separate sounds within a flow of speech.
The concepts adult learners have learned about their first language often interfere with learning Latvian sounds unless they understand mechanics how those sounds are made.
The core competence I teach in all my courses is how to understand the mechanics of the language and learn independently.
If listening for Latvian sounds and writing them down is a skill you want to master and if I sound like a teacher that makes sense, I’d be glad to see you inside one of my courses: Sounds & Writing OR S&W – Easy
Go to this page for my FREE 4-day courseon how to read Latvian letters or read my article about how much Latvian you can learn in one year.
Check out some of my YouTube videos where I talk about how differently Latvian and English speakers think about sounds and writing:
Ilze Be is a Latvian born American public speaker and entrepreneur. She speaks about culture, race, and money. Her firs 20+ career years were spent in the translation industry. After moving to the US, she created digital courses for learners of Latvian.