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I am curious about whether "foreign language users" find a difference in readability of text between sans serif and serif.

Here, I am defining "foreign language users" as people whose primary/first language following a "non-Latin script" writing system (for example, Chinese, Arabic, Devanagari, Cyrillic, etc.).

If Latin script is not the primary mode of writing for a person, is there a preference for serif vs. sans serif (in Latin script)?

I would intuitively guess that sans serif is more preferable, but I am curious what research says about this.

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    I don't read any other language than English, but I do recognize a wide variety of writing systems. Cyrillic and Greek both have serif and sans-serif variants, and judging from what I've seen of each, the readability issues for serif vs. sans that occur with the Latin alphabet occur in an essentially identical way with both Greek and Cyrillic. There are analogous differences with most (but not all) other writing systems, but I can't say either way whether the readability is affected the same way. – Jeff Zeitlin Apr 28 '20 at 16:51
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    However, I am curious how readability for those people is affected (between serif vs sans serif) in Latin script (not in their native script). Personally, even though I can read Latin script with ease in both typographic modes, I found it much harder to parse Cyrillic characters in serif than in sans serif while first encountering it in practice. – XYZT Apr 29 '20 at 1:20
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For the foreign language users who have learned English from a source later on. We can easily assume that they must have learned English from some source/textbook/online app resource. All these English teaching resources use sans serif fonts for the simplicity of their letters.

This in turn will make a sans serif font more familiar to them, hence giving you a guarantee of better comprehension.

https://www.fonts.com/content/learning/fyti/situational-typography/typography-for-children https://www.writing-skills.com/the-fonts-that-make-you-remember-more

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It seems that readability between Sans-Serif and Serif is inconclusive. I look at airport/public transportation signage as an indicator that Sans-Serif fonts, especially when large, are clearer to read. I know this doesn't directly answer your question, but hopefully it points you in the right direction.

Here are some helpful references to Airport signage:

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In the book "100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People" Susan Weinschenk writes that "People have been debating which fonts are better, easier to read, or most appropriate for centuries. One such debate centers around the use of two types of fonts: serif versus sans serif. Some argue that sans serif typefaces are easier to read because they are plain; others contend that serif fonts are easier to read because the serifs draw the eye toward the next letter. In fact, research shows no difference in comprehension, reading speed, or preference between serif and sans serif fonts." - it's so because people identify letters through pattern recognition. People form a memory pattern of how the letter looks like - so-called geons. The font you choose is not critical as long as it is not so decorative as to make it hard to identify the letters; some fonts interfere with the brain’s ability to recognize patterns.

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    This does not address the primary question regarding people who aren't primarily using the Latin script. – XYZT Aug 22 '20 at 13:52
  • why? I would disagree. If as research claims - people see everything around them by recognizing 24 basic shapes so-called geons- research by Irving Biederman than I don't think it's a difference between nationalities or what language do you use. In the end, you see every alphabet as so-called geons so as mentioned in the research above - it shouldn't matter. – Lorelei Heckmann Aug 22 '20 at 18:19
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    Lorelei has given a great answer. Letters are shapes. It's all they are. The principles of serif or sans-serif fonts apply regardless. – Mihnea Patrascu Nov 11 '20 at 17:50
  • Weinschenk's 2011 book may be a bit outdated already. There are articles like Morey-Tatay & Perea (2011) or Dugosoy et al. (2016) who find that sans fonts may be easier to read after all. But that doesn't affect @XYZT's valid objection: the situation may be very different in the case of readers to whom Latin script is foreign. For them, the visual representations are probably not as entrenched as they are for readers who have learned the script as children. – Schmuddi Dec 20 '20 at 11:20
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There is a modern age parameter that we need consider when it comes to readbility which probably which is the key for me. RESOLUTION!

Readability of fonts has always depended on the resolution of the media in which it is displayed, which is the main reason there has been debates about Serif vs San Serif.

San Serif fonts had some concerns about readability in the initial days of the web as the resolution of the displays was very low. But now with almost every budget device having higher resolution screens, using Serif or Sans Serif has almost no impact on readability.

Unless, you are dealing with low res print media or screen where Serif fonts would perform better in terms of readability, font selection would not be an issue.

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When I learned typography in design school, we always assumed that Serif fonts are slightly more readable than Sans-Serif fonts, since they have extra details that differentiate similar letters such as lower case l and upper case I (see what I mean?).

After graduating and working on digital products for several years I can safely say that turned out to be true, and that:

  1. Serif fonts are easier to read and distinguish between letters in a normal sized font size (15px and upwards).
  2. Serif fonts connote Reading, rather than Scanning. Reading is something you do with one body of text over long periods of time, Scanning is something you do with multiple bodies of text over fractions of a second and up to several seconds.
  3. Historically, Sans-Serif fonts render better on a screen since they are more geometrical and fit better on the rectangular pixel grid (rather than more organic shapes of a Serif font). That constraint (which is still prevalent, but less so since the introduction of Retinae screens), dictated the use of Serif fonts for smaller bodies of text on a screen and thus cemented the use of Sans-Serif fonts for screen based typography.

enter image description here

For example, these two lines of text are in Sans-Serif andSerif fonts respectively. Both are in 10px font size. The first is pretty light-weight, each letter is distinct, has ample white space around it and is definitely readable, while the other is heavier, with letters such as a, s, e and g (detail heavy and low white-space letters), somewhat blurry their inner white spaces almost completely blocked.

enter image description here

Serif fonts do make a comeback in recent years: they're beautiful, more distinct than Sans-Serif fonts and modern screens can easily accommodate their higher level of detail. Don't expect them to replace Sans-Serif fonts for system text other Scannable text, but I do hope to find them in more and more digital products.

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