Could Dyslexia Be “Culturally Induced”?

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At my house, the mealtime implement used for cutting is called a ka-nife. The joint located between thigh and calf is called a ka-nee. And the medieval warriors who wore suits of armor are called ka-ni-guh-ts.

We adopted these unusual pronunciations after my 5-year-old son, Teddy, noticed something odd about the English language. While sounding out words on the page in the way we’d taught him, he realized that many words didn’t sound at all the way they looked. Yacht. Trough. Colonel. And what was that letter k doing at the start of words that sounded like they began with n?

Such irregular spellings, my husband and I explained, were the result of the English language’s long, rich history: a mix of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, among other languages, melded over centuries of use. Teddy was unimpressed. Words should sound the way they look, he insisted: hence, ka-nife.

As anyone who’s lost a spelling bee or failed a spelling test will affirm, the English language is more ornery than most. About 25% of its words employ irregular spellings, and many of these terms are among the most frequently used in the language. Cross-cultural research demonstrates that the trickiness of English affects how quickly American children learn to read and write. After just a few months of instruction, for example, children living in Italy are able to read and write any word they encounter, because their language is almost perfectly regular: each letter or combination of letters maps reliably onto a particular sound. Children in the U.S., on the other hand, must endure years of drills before they have mastered the intricacies of bough and bow, weigh and way. (American pupils can console themselves with the knowledge that kids in China have it even harder: there, lessons on reading and writing the thousands of symbols in the Chinese language extend into students’ teenage years.)

Big deal, you might think—so it takes a few years to learn written English. With practice, our peculiar spellings become second nature. But there is evidence that for some English users, the knottiness of the language leads to lasting problems with reading. About twice as many Americans as Italians fit the definition of dyslexic, even though brain-scan studies suggest that the two populations have similar proportions of people with the mental processing deficit associated with the disorder. The irregularity of English ruthlessly exposes this brain anomaly, while the consistency of the Italian language allows readers to compensate for it. Dyslexia, remarkably enough, may be partly culturally induced.

So what can be done about the quirks of our native tongue? Are we stuck with English’s ungainly spellings?

Not necessarily. The way words are spelled could be changed. Dictionary author Noah Webster did it in 1806, removing the u from words like colour and honour and changing the c in words like offence and pretence to an s. In general, however, top-down spelling reforms have met with little success. Steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie helped found the Simplified Spelling Board, and President Theodore Roosevelt directed his government to use plainer spellings in its publications. Neither effort amounted to much.

Language change is largely a bottom-up affair — and the moment is ripe for a mass movement to simplify English spelling. Digital communication by email, text and tweet has nudged our staid language into its most dynamic state of flux since the invention of the printing press. Linguists even have a name for the pared-down language we employ when using digital devices: chatspeak. It is, effectively, a newly created dialect of English, and chatspeak will surely shape in turn its more conventional progenitor.

This may already be happening, especially among the young. Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University, reports that teachers of elementary school children increasingly “tolerate IM novelties in classroom written assignments.” While some of these Internet-age innovations are frivolous or trivial — Shakespeare managed to amuse his audiences without recourse to LOL — other shifts may prove more meaningful. Beverly Plester is a psychologist at Coventry University in England who has conducted research on how young people express themselves in electronic media. “When using text language, or ‘textisms,’ children revert to a phonetic language,” she observes, spelling words the way they sound. Such streamlining is similar to the way in which the simplified coinages of commercial English have slipped into wider use — donut for doughnut, nite for night, thru for through.

As an avid reader and a longtime Anglophile, I’ll admit that I’m fond of English’s odd spellings — and that words like nite and thru make me wince. But watching my son and his kindergarten classmates labor to learn English’s many idiosyncrasies, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for them to fall by the wayside. We might have fewer cases of dyslexia and illiteracy. Students could spend their time thinking about the meanings of words instead of their treacherous spellings. And during dinner at my house, a ka-nife could be just a nife.

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9 Responses to “Could Dyslexia Be “Culturally Induced”?”

  1. So many words whose spelling is updated and whose usage is changed make me cringe. I am reluctant to accept the misuse of their for there but you have successfully erased a lot of my “cringe” with your reason. Thank you!

  2. English induces dyslexia. Children who are fluent readers in more phonetic languages like Spanish can be dyslexic In English.

    English has about twice the number of phonemes yet the same number of letters as most other languages. Add 18 vowel sounds vs. 5 for Spanish and you have a language that is hard to speak and spell. Most telling, English’s phonology makes it very difficult to listen to..and reading is a receptive language skill — as is reading.

    Slight auditory issues that might go unnoticed in other languages can cause dyslexia in English speaking children and adults. I struggled with such an issue for 44 years before a speech pathologist picked it up.

  3. Deb Maue says:

    My 2nd grade daughter has a terrible time with rote memorization. And I never realized how much rote memorization is required to be a good English speller. I would be a huge proponent of simplifying the language!

  4. susan goodman says:

    One of the good things about keeping the traditional English spellings is that in many cases, someone with linguistic knowledge can figure out the meaning of words from the etymology just by recognizing the spelling patterns. Phonetic spellings would destroy that.

    Another difficulty in changing spellings would be the standardization of pronunciation that it would impose. If we were to proclaim English a phonetic language, Southerners would have to spell “held” as “heold,” just, incidentally, as the Anglo Saxons did.

  5. Babs Walton says:

    If we understand a piece of writing, then that is enough. Allow spelling to continue to evolve naturally, like in the past. It all adds to the richness of language, and does not inhibit the expression of the writer’s thoughts.

  6. Alan M says:

    Wow! Thank you for spelling it out, quite literally. Living overseas, teaching English, fearing for my own child’s literacy in my language, seeing the rapid change in use of the printed word and the shockingly bad spelling employed everywhere. Would it be dumbing down the language if we simplified the written language for all, and let the few etymologists worry about it? I was an elementary school spelling bee champion – why not let the whole world have a shot at it?

  7. Michael says:

    I teach at an international school in Kazakhstan and I have two students in my Fifth Grade class who came into the school this year with no experience in English, their native tongue being Kazakh and Russian. Watching these students struggle with single letters (a as in all and apple) made my heart go out to them, especially coming from an alphabet where the H is an N, the P is an R, the N is backwards and makes the EE sound, the C is an S and the Z is a 3!

    I could go on forever about this, but I think my point is made for those of us used to the English alphabet.

  8. Cynthia Krug says:

    This is a lovely description of the challenge English presents to some children (5 to 20 percent, depending on your definition of “dyslexia”). Like other responders – I am attached to the rich complexity of our English orthography but see the dilemma. However – who, exactly, would transform the language? Language appears to be shaped by the people who use it; some changes catch on and others don’t. The “texting craze” has already introduced a completely new spelling structure to daily written language and “google” is now a verb defined in Dictionary.com. If our spelling structure is going to change, it will probably emerge slowly, through grassroots transformations.

    I don’t think this will happen, though. There seem to be many cultural forces that prevent it. One might be that 80% to 95% of English speaking children do not struggle terribly to learn to read – and once we are fluent with current orthography, it is “hardwired.” Obligatory word recognition makes it impossible NOT to read print when we see it (try to look at the following word without reading it: once). Conversely, it is pretty hard to read phonetically regular substitutions (wuns yue kan reed, it iz hard tu swich orthogrufeez).
    As committed as I am to helping all children learn to read (this is my profession) – there may not be enough readers with dyslexia to create a widespread movement.

  9. Olivia Brown says:

    As is typical for many dyslexics, I did not learn to read until third grade. I pretended to read, moving my lips at the appropriate time, never reading out loud….
    Later our son was born and low and behold he too is dyslexic! I witnessed the struggle and the drop in self-esteem. The tricks he had to learn, the feelings of despair for each weeks spelling test results. School was always a struggle….spelling well let’s just say, thank you for spell check!
    Holding onto the ‘old ways’ is not recognizing that with change gains can be made.
    Take a look at all that has changed in our digital world, some were/are reluctant, the change takes place with or without our approval. Change can be a challenge, however I can tell you, dyslexia is a greater one for those of us who struggle on a regular basis.

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