Brilliant: The Science of Smart

Is English Making Us Dyslexic?

Why it might be time to revamp our native tongue

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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.)

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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.

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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.