LINGUIST List 14.1438

Mon May 19 2003

Sum: Segmental awareness in Indic writing systems

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Richard Sproat, Summary: Segmental awareness in Indic writing systems

Message 1: Summary: Segmental awareness in Indic writing systems

Date: Mon, 19 May 2003 19:37:22 -0400
From: Richard Sproat <>
Subject: Summary: Segmental awareness in Indic writing systems

Some weeks ago I posted a query on whether any work had been done on
segmental awareness in Indian languages using Indic scripts
(Linguist 14.1024. 
I received responses from Prakash Padakannaya and Prathibha Karanth,
both of whom have done extensive work in this area. (Thanks also to
Doug Saddy and Loraine Obler for pointing me or my message to these

I append some of the references they sent me below. 

To briefly summarize the results of this research: there is a clear
effect of script type on children's ability to handle a variety of
tasks that require some degree of segmental awareness. These include
such tasks as phoneme reversal (being able to change /puki/ into
/piku/) or phoneme deletion (being able to change /panda/ into
/pada/). Generally, learners of alphasyllabic Indic scripts are less
able to handle these tasks than learners of alphabetic scripts. In one
study (Prakash 2000), Prakash compares Kannada-speaking children
learning standard Kannada orthography with blind Kannada-speaking
children learning an alphabetic braille and shows that the blind
children are much better at these kinds of tasks than the sighted
children (who only start to catch up in fifth grade when they start
learning English).

However, contrary some suggestions in the literature that segmental
awareness is a product of learning a purely alphabetic script, the
situation with Indic scripts seems not to be an all-or-nothing
proposition. For example, as Prakash et al. (1993) point out, Hindi
learners of Devanagari have an easier time dealing with the /d/ in
/do/ as a separate segment than the /n/ in /n&/ (& = schwa); this is
because in /Co/ (for some consonant C) the /o/ is written as a
separate diacritic, whereas for /X&/ the /&/ is the so-called
"inherent vowel" and is not written. There is also interesting
cross-scriptal variation, where a symbol with identical functions in
two scripts can correspond to different behaviors in learners of those
scripts depending upon the graphical form of the symbol. For example
the anusvara symbol is used to represent a post-vocalic nasal. In
Devanagari it is written as a small dot above the righthand end of the
orthographic syllable. In Kannada it is a circle written inline. And
literate Kannada speakers are better at treating postvocalic nasals as
separate segments than literate Hindi speakers.

- ----------------------------------------------------------------------

 Prakash Padakannaya (in Press). Phonemic and Syllabic Awareness in
 Children Acquiring Literacy in a Semi-Syllabic Script. In P.G.Patel
 and P. Pandey (Eds.) New Delhi: Sage Publications 

 Prakash, P., D.Rekha., R.Nigam, & P.Karanth; (1993).
 Phonological Awareness, Orthography and Literacy. In Robert J.Scholes
 (Ed.), Literacy: Linguistic and Cognitive Perspectives (pp.55-70).
 Hillslade, NJ: Erlbaum Associates Publishers. 

 Padakannaya Prakash, Rekha D., Jyotsna Vaid, Malatesha Joshi 2002
 (December) Simultaneous acquisition of Literacy skills in English and
 Kannada: A longitudinal study. International Association of Applied
 Linguistics (AILA), Singapore.

 Prakash Padakannaya. 2002 (July) Reading and writing in non alphabetic
 and non ideographic orthography: The case of Kannada. Symposium on
 "Learning to read and write in nonalphabetic script. International
 Applied Psychology Conference 2002 (July), SINGAPORE.

 Prakash Padakannaya. 2002 (March 14-15) Dyslexia, Phonological
 awareness, and orthography. First Conference on Clinical
 Linguistics. Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, India.

 Prakash Padakannaya, Chandana, M.V. and Suma, S. 2001 (May 31-June3)
 Orthographic awareness, phonemic awareness and developmental
 dyslexia. 2001 Conference of Society for Scientific Study of Reading
 (SSSR), Boulder, Colorado, USA.

 Prakash Padakannaya. 2000 (October 13-14) Is phonemic Awareness an
 Artefact of Alphabetic Literacy?! Poster presentation, ARMADILLO -
 11 (Association for Research in Memory , Attention, Decisoin making,
 Intelligence, Language, Learning & Organizational perception), Texas
 A&M University, College Station, USA.

 Pratibha Karanth. 2002. Reading into Reading Research through 
 Nonalphabetic Lenses: Evidence from the Indian Languages. Topics in
 Language Disorders. 2002: 22(5): 30-31. 

 Pratibha Karanth. 2003. Literacy and Language Processes --
 Orthographic and Structural Effects. In Joe Rozario and Pratibha
 Karanth, editors, Learning Disabilities in India : Willing the Mind
 to Learn, Sage Publications.
- Richard Sproat

Richard Sproat Information Systems and Analysis Research AT&T Labs -- Research, Shannon Laboratory
180 Park Avenue, Room B207, P.O.Box 971
Fax: +1-973-360-8077 Florham Park, NJ 07932-0000
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