How to learn the alphabet

How we learn anything

Our brain works like a big network, a vast complex structure to process experiences, thoughts and emotions. In this network feelings, images, experiences are like little nodes, and associations are like pathways connecting one node to the other.

During the evolution of mankind over thousands of years our brain has been optimized to process experiences, thoughts, emotions - things that are of value for us to survive. It is built to process the data it gets from the nervous system like sound, smell, taste and so on. But it is very reluctant to process something that it deems meaningless for our life. And there is a good reason for that. Since we are continuously exposed to enormous amounts of data - all of which has to be processed in real time - our brain needs to constantly filter out the important from the unimportant. So we developed a very sophisticated sense to decide within a very short time span if something is of value for us or not. Most of this is done unconsciously. And if our subconscious mind can not see the value in something it just dumps it out. So our subconscious mind is very, very good at throwing away the information it deems not important, less interesting or simply boring.

This is an important fact to remember when we begin to learn something abstract like Telugu letters. Without any meaningful relationship to these symbols – this information is just discarded.

So there are two important factors that determine how fast and who good we remember something new:

  1. Associations: Is that what we learn important, interesting, fun, new for us? Is there some meaning for our life? Can we relate to it in some way?
  2. Repetitions: The more, the better we remember. Our brain loves to reproduce things.

All this is neither new nor revolutionary. But it is important to remember that before we spend endless time repeating a certain letter, getting frustrated and finally give up, thinking we have no talent for this: if we do not remember a simple fact easily we just have not enough associations connected to it, that is all. Yes, we can make that up by a higher number of repetitions, that is possible. Exercise drills are a application of this effect. However, there is an easier way to reach the same goal, one that saves a lot of time and is much more fun! Let me give you an example to show you what I mean...



Let's take this letter for example:


It is associated with the sound of "la". Now the first thing to do is to ask myself:

What does this shape remember me to?

What do I associate with that form? I want to connect this new information to something I already know so what does my mind come up with when I see this sign?

Let us say, I see a smiling face in this letter, a smiley, like this:


There may be several other things you may see in this symbol - that is fine, please use what ever comes to your mind! You need to build upon what YOU already know. It does not matter what I or any one else on the planet thinks about this fact, YOUR inner image counts.

If you play with this symbol here, please do NOT try to be smart. Be funny, inventive, creative. The more curious, the more feelings, the better you will remember the story later on.

The next step is to connect the image or story to the sound of the letter - this is called a bridge. In our case the sound is "la" so the bridge I came up with is:

"This smiley is laughing"

Now I have a connection from the image ల to the sound "la" using the bridge of the smiley. Do you see how this works?

This step is simple but the key for learning the letters the easy way, so let me state it again: Learning means to build connections – mental bridges between the things you already know and he new thing you want to learn. In our case we want to learn Telugu script. Or in other words: we want to remember certain shapes of letters and associate them with a specific sound. Our brain is made to process feelings, colors, taste, sound - things that are interesting or fun in some way. And an abstract list of Telugu letters has no sound, color, taste, feeling, fun, …. unless we add it! And this is the very point! If we can not remember a certain letter, we are not "bad" or "incapable" – we are just missing a better image, feeling, or something that is more meaningful to us, something more colorful, more fun. That's all.

So there are two steps I would really suggest for each new letter in the alphabet:

  1. find an image for the symbol and
  2. connect that image with the sound of the letter in a story



Coming to repetitions, we all know that the more we repeat a certain fact the higher the chance we will finally remember it, even if it is total nonsense. This way of learning is sometimes abused in drill exercises. However, it still makes sense to use it in a good way. Let me show you what I mean.

Take the following number: 3.1415. Does that sound like something useful for you? May be you recognize the number of Pi, the mathematical constant to calculate a circle's circumference. If you did not attend a school where this was particular stressed, you probably have no feelings for that otherwise arbitrary number. However, it is almost certain that you did learn about it and probably used it in several hundred examples. Still hardly anyone remembers it.

Now take the date of your birthday. Do you remember the date? It took some repetitions to learn it, right? But you loved the date so much, you could remember it pretty soon.

So what is the big difference? Yes, you are right, we are back to the very point from above: it is in the way our brain works, that system that filters out the nonsense. If you use repetitions to learn a certain fact against that inner system, for what ever reason, it will be much more effort to learn and there is a high chance you will forget it as soon as you stop repeating it.

My point is: Never use repetitions to compensate those "learning nonsense feelings". If you do not remember a certain fact well, step back and ask yourself: "What does that mean to me?". Do not accept any fact just because you "have to" - there is no reason for that. Either find a better reason, find some sense, create a mental bridge, make it more fun - or just drop it – it is not important for your life.



This system was proposed by the Austrian writer Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s. The basic idea behind the system is that if we repeat the whole list of facts regardless of our knowledge, we get bored by the repetitions of facts that we already know and chances are we stop repeating the list, thereby do not taking enough time for other facts we would need more repetitions for.

flashcards box

So the idea of Sebastian Leitner was to split up the whole list in small chunks. For each fact, in this case the Telugu letters, you prepare a single card. The question concerning this fact goes on one side, the answer goes to the back. Prepare several boxes for these cards.

Now you can start by picking up a small subset of these cards, reading the question on the front of the first card. Try to recall the solution and compare the answer with the one written on the back side. If you was right, send the card to the second box. If you failed send it to the first. Then take the next card from the stack and follow the same procedure. So by the end of the exercise you have all the facts you need more repetitions for in the first box and all others in the second.

For example, suppose you have a pile of cards with a single Telugu letter on each card. You also have 3 boxes called Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3. Start with a small number of cards, say 5 to 10 letters. Go through these cards and send all the letters you already know to Group 2, and all you did not know to Group 1. Then take a small break.

When you come back from your break, repeat the letters in Group 1 and again send all the letters you know to Group 2. The ones you still did not know remain in Group 1.

If you run out of cards in Group 1 you can add another 5 to 10 cards into the game, again putting the ones you remember well in Group 2, all other in Group 1.

So by the end of the day there should only be a small number of cards in Group 1, say 5 to 10 cards. If there are too many, simply remove some of them. You can add them again later on.

You may choose to study the cards in Group 1 several times a day, Group 2 every 2 days. When you pick up the cards from Group 2, walk trough the pile as you have done with the first group. But this time send all cards you did know to Group 3 (green arrow) and all cards you did not know back to Group 1 (red arrow).

Following this simple system automatically leads you to repeat those facts you need more repetitions for more often. The facts you remember well slowly pile up in the last box. You might continue to play with these cards in Group 3 every 4 days or so.

So the basic principle behind the system is to

  • send cards you did know to the next group (green arrow) and cards you did not know back to group 1 (red arrow).
  • repeat Group 1 frequently, Group 2 less frequently and Group 3 even less,
  • have only a small number of cards in Group 1, more cards in Group 2 and even more in Group 3,

I created a whole set of PDF files to help you preparearing these flashcards. Take this Set 1 for example. You need to print this document, single sided, then fold each page along the center line like this:

flashcards flashcards

Now stick the back sides together and cut out the cards:

flashcards flashcards


Be ready to leave it all behind

Imagine a man who wanted to go to a wedding of a dear friend. He dressed up really fine and ordered a taxi. He was really stunned as he saw that taxi: it was a brand new Ferrari. The man could hardly believe it, but it was true – this was his taxi to the wedding. So he got in and enjoyed the ride. The driver took him to the wedding very fast, but the man was so fascinated by the car that he could not stop wondering about it. Even as his friend passed by, asking him if he would not want to come along, he still sat in the car, kept talking and talking to the driver, admiring the car.

The point is: The car is a tool to get you to a certain point. Once you are there, you have to leave the car behind – otherwise you will not reach your goal. All the methods I describe here are but tools to get you going. Once you recognize the letters fairly easily, and are starting to read and write Telugu script with more and more ease, you will no longer need all that. Be ready to let it go.

For example, you might use the smiley to recognize the letter of today. It may be in just a view weeks that you see the symbol of an immediately hear "la" in your head. So please be ready to let go of the smiley, the flashcards and all these tools if you don't need them any more. Otherwise you might miss the wedding of a dear friend...


The 3 steps to learn the Telugu alphabet

All that was said so far can be applied to any alphabet of any language. There are, however, some specifics for Indian languages, and thereby also Telugu, that are related to how the characters are combined, which imply a certain order to learn the alphabet. It makes sense to first learn primary forms and then the secondary forms plus their combinations.

So, here are the 3 steps to learn Telugu script:

  • Step 1: learning the primary forms
  • Step 2: learning the consonant-vowel combinations
  • Step 3: learning the secondary form of the consonants

The first step is simply to learn all the primary forms. There are no combinations yet. This step is entirely focused on all the primary forms of the vowels and consonants used in the Telugu alphabet.

Once you are done with this step, we will continue to combine the consonants with the secondary form of the vowels. If you have read the introduction you are already aware that there are a number of consonant-vowel combinations. Some follow a simple standard pattern, while others are a little different and require more attention. This step is entirely focused on practicing these combinations.

The last step is to include the rest of the secondary forms – the consonants. There are 36 forms to learn, and some are quite similar to their original primary form. However, the possible combinations with the base symbols is pretty straight forward. There are no such exceptions like in the previous step.

So lets simply jump in and start with Step 1: learning the primary forms