Friday, March 16, 2001

Dyslexics beware: Learn English at your peril

As if we need more proof that English is a screwed-up language, gratuitously difficult to learn, here comes a new study showing that dyslexics who speak English have a harder time of it than dyslexics who speak Italian. Same disorder, same level of impairment, but much greater struggle in learning to read. And all because of the language they grapple with as kids.

The trouble comes down to sounds and spellings: English has more of the former and way, way, way more of the latter. So while Italian schoolchildren have to learn 25 sounds, represented by 33 spellings, their English-speaking counterparts have 40 sounds to distinguish, spelled a whopping 1,100 different ways. If you have an impairment that makes it difficult for you to associate vocal sounds with printed letters, your problem gets exponentially bigger as the number of different combinations increases.

So since Italian-speakers with dyslexia have significantly fewer sound-letter correspondences to cope with, they learn to read more easily. A mild case of dyslexia can easily go unrecognized among them, while the same case would be glaringly noticeable in someone struggling with English and trying to understand why "mint" and "pint" vary only by their start letter, but sound entirely different. How come "lead" sometimes sounds like "led" and sometimes sounds like "read"? How come "night" and "knight" sound the same? How come "pear" sounds like "pair" and "pare," but not like "ear," while "tear" can go either way? Are there no rules here? Did somebody purposely make this language up to put our brains on the spin cycle?

You know, I learned English like the wind when I was a kid. I had no language or reading problems at all, and I took all the language's idiosyncracies for granted. But as I see my kids fighting their way through the grammatical thickets now -- neither one is dyslexic, but both have significant language delays, and my daughter has a language-based learning disorder -- I have to admit that it ticks me off. How does anybody ever learn this stuff?

Too bad the language has been around for so many hundreds of years, or there'd be a great class-action lawsuit in this.

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