I have been thinking about the apparent dissonance between the ‘iceberg theory’ of language – that language learning is innate – and the differences in the brains of people with different native languages.

Perhaps the two are not incompatible. After all the brain is amazingly plastic. Baby babble is indistinguishable until around a year old when distinctive sounds emerge. Apparently Japanese babies stop being able to articulate ‘l’ sounds when they reach 12 months. 

When children are learning to read English, there is a greater demand on decoding (because of the variety of etymological roots  which results in frequency of irregular spellings) than in other more consistent languages.

The specific phonological skills used in reading depend on the reader’s expertise, the word to be read, and the writing system, involved. A highly regular, highly frequent word like ‘carpet’ will take far less phonological processing than, say, ‘thought’. Readers of German or Italian, for example, quickly learn the far more consistent letter-sound rules and bypass almost a year of laborious decoding that English requires.

English readers (and French for example) appear to employ more of the regions of the brain devoted to identifying words in the area in which visualisation of words is thought to occur. Presumably the greater emphasis on morphemes and irregular words (such as ‘yacht’) requires more visual and orthographic representational knowledge during processing. The shorter time needed for decoding in regular languages allows more time for comprehension than in English.

When phonological skills play a more significant role in reading acquisition, as they do in less regular languages like English and French, phoneme awareness and decoding accuracy are often very undeveloped – and are good indicators of dyslexia. When these skills play a less dominant role (in transparent languages like German, and the more logographic writing systems), processing speed becomes the stronger diagnostic predictor of reading performance, and reading fluency and comprehension issues dominate the profile of dyslexia.

In these more transparent languages – Spanish, German, Finnish, Dutch, Greek and Italian – the child with dyslexia exhibits fewer problems with decoding words and more problems reading connected text fluently and with good comprehension.

So much for those international comparisons of reading levels: useful perhaps as a snapshot of where children are in the acquisition of literacy but certainly no help in determining whether the population as a whole is more or less literate or whether teachers are failing in their efforts.

I have connected posts here and here and here  and here.

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