Why English Is Especially Hard To Learn

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Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explains why American students’ high reading scores on a recent international test are especially cheering:

“Last week, the results of the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) were published. This test compared reading ability in 4th grade children.

U.S. fourth-graders ranked 6th among 45 participating countries. Even better, US kids scored significantly better than the last time the test was administered in 2006.

There’s a small but decisive factor that is often forgotten in these discussions: differences in orthography across languages.

Lots of factors go into learning to read. The most obvious is learning to decode—learning the relationship between letters and (in most languages) sounds. Decode is an apt term. The correspondence of letters and sound is a code that must be cracked.

In some languages the correspondence is relatively straightforward, meaning that a given letter or combination of letters reliably corresponds to a given sound. Such languages are said to have a shallow orthography. Examples include Finnish, Italian, and Spanish.

In other languages, the correspondence is less consistent. English is one such language. Consider the letter sequence ‘ough.’ How should that be pronounced? It depends on whether it’s part of the word ‘cough,’ ‘through,’ ‘although,’ or ‘plough.’ In these languages, there are more multi-letter sound units, more context-dependent rules and more out and out quirks.

This highlights two points, in my mind.

First, when people trumpet the fact that Finland doesn’t begin reading instruction until age 7 we should bear in mind that the task confronting Finnish children is easier than that confronting English-speaking children. The late start might be just fine for Finnish children; it’s not obvious it would work well for English-speakers.

Of course, a shallow orthography doesn’t guarantee excellent reading performance, at least as measured by the PIRLS. Children in Greece, Italy, and Spain had mediocre scores, on average. Good instruction is obviously still important.

But good instruction is more difficult in languages with deep orthography, and that’s the second point. The conclusion from the PIRLS should not just be ‘Early elementary teachers in the US are doing a good job with reading.’ It should be ‘Early elementary teachers in the U.S. are doing a good job with reading despite teaching reading in a language that is difficult to learn.’” (Read more here.)

In this piece I wrote for Time.com, I noted that the difficulty of English may even increase the number of English-speakers who suffer from dyslexia:

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.”

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One Response to “Why English Is Especially Hard To Learn”

  1. There is of course no doubt that English has its unique challenges. However humans are designed as the ultimate learning machine and as long as we are not led up the garden path with approaches like the whole word approach and are taught in ways that call on our learning powers then there is no reason why we can’t raise ourselves to the task.
    The success rates of children who learn to spell and read via effective means are as good as in any other country.
    The issue is to focus on approaches that work and train teachers to use them.

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